Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:05 pm on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard , South West Norfolk 1:05 pm, 10th June 1988

I shall he delighted to do that. In the West Norfolk and Wisbech health authority there is no problem. There has been some delay in the Norwich health authority but a colposcopy service is being instituted with the help of the voluntary sector. That will be instituted shortly in the Norwich health authority and that will reduce the problem. The problem is nothing like as extreme as that which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) described in her health authority.

These health districts have responded very positively to Government plans for mammography. The West Norfolk and Wisbech health authority is not the best known in the world, but since January it has been providing a mammography service for women between 50 and 64 on four evenings a week and on Saturday mornings. It is on a self-referral basis and geared to suit the hours when women are free to go along. Since January, 500 women have been examined and in some cases that has resulted in the saving of life.

The Government can be involved in ways other than the funding initiatives of which I have given examples. Sometimes they can achieve as much by pump-priming, an example of which was the £100,000 announced at the start of European Cancer Week. That will clearly help women's health causes in the broader sense. Sometimes Government can help by encouraging effort by others. An interesting example of this approach was described by the Minister in connection with the breast-feeding initiative. The Government deserve to be congratulated on bringing forward cancer screening. That has put the United Kingdom ahead of the rest of our European partners. The Government are also to be congratulated on taking the whole issue seriously and for raising the national consciousness about it.

As important as Government initiatives is the degree of professional enthusiasm for the cause at local level. There is no advantage in the Government insisting that women's health is important if those running local health services do not agree and do nothing about it. I am struck by the contrast between the achievements of the two health authorities that I have mentioned, which serve my constituency, and the problems described during the passage of the Health and Medicines Bill. Although East Anglia is a RAWP receiving region, it is still several percentage points below its full allocation.

I hope that no hon. Member will suggest that south-west Norfolk is somehow part of the palmy middle class south-eastern part of the United Kingdom, because it certainly is not. As well as the problems of sparsity of rural services that are costly to run, parts of it are submerged by water for three months of the year, which makes the delivery of services a challenge that is not commonly met elsewhere—I suggest not in inner cities.

The reason for west Norfolk's success is that for some years there has been a ready acceptance at professional level—at doctors' level—that women's health is important. A well woman clinic has been running at two centres in my constituency for years. When cancer-screening services were introduced, the professionals led the way, the Government provided the money and the political and administrative will followed.

When we tried to introduce a well woman clinic in Norwich, we met with less success. There is one there now, but there was resistance from the serried ranks of male GPs, backed up by male consultants, all of whom said plaintively, "If a woman has something to say, surely she can say it to me. I am always sympathetic." That encapsulates one of the problems with women's health. It is vital that there should be professional enthusiasm and commitment to the cause.

It is important that all professional and voluntary bodies should be involved when a cancer-screening initiative is launched. Any local initiative must reach women more effectively through GPs and dental surgeries, health centres, hospitals, schools, playgroups, voluntary organisations, women's organisations and the private sector than any national campaign, however well organised it is. Women need to know that the service is available, free and painless. An envelope dropping on to a doormat, backed up by extensive local publicity and all the relevant agencies, must be the right way forward.

I mentioned earlier the broader issue of the delivery of services, which in a rural area is vital. The Norwich health district has an excellent scheme of community care groups, which involves a range of health professionals attached to doctors' surgeries or groups of surgeries. Early incidence of forms of mental health that affect women, such as post-natal depression, is picked up by a range of health professionals.

Mention was made of carers, almost uniquely a women's group. Recently, one of our community care groups decided that more emphasis needed to be placed on the services available for carers. A meeting was arranged by the health educator. She involved the local youth and community services and provided a sitting service so that carers could attend the meeting. The Women's Royal Voluntary Service organised the transport and, as the meeting was held in a school, the local parent-teacher association provided refreshment. Information was given by the DHSS, voluntary organisations and Health Service staff. We must have such team work if we are effectively to deliver those services to women where it matters—close to their homes.

Much importance must be attached to the local promotion of cancer-screening services. If health education is to run effectively, it must involve all agencies and, where appropriate, the private sector. Large companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury concentrate on healthy lifestyles.

Health education is almost more important for women than men. Clearly, the advice that is taken on board by women is absorbed for the benefit of their families. In that regard, I am glad that the producer of a certain sunflower margarine has withdrawn the suggestion, which it extensively promoted in a former advertising campaign, that it was more important to keep one's man healthy than oneself. I note that Flora is now thought to be good for everyone, not just for men.

For the information of the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson), I live in Lambeth. I have no problem in obtaining cheap, healthy food at my local Sainsbury, Tesco or Bejam. Local competition provides a wonderful baked bean that is much cheaper than I can find in Downham Market.

The promotion of women's health is a team job. The Government have their part to play. The Government have done just that in many vital areas, but if their policies are to be translated into effective action there must be local professional conviction, local action, local promotion, local involvement of all agencies in both the private and the voluntary sector and acceptance by the individual woman that her health is her responsibility.