Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Mrs Edwina Currie Mrs Edwina Currie , South Derbyshire 2:20 pm, 10th June 1988

By leave of the House, I should like to respond to an excellent debate. I am conscious of the fact that some hon. Members have not had the opportunity to speak. We may need to have another debate. We heard splendid speeches, particularly from Lady Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr. Browne) and for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes). I listened with interest to the speeches of other hon. Members. Some hon. Members have sat here for four hours waiting to speak. I apologise to any men including my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, who felt left out. However, on 23 October we had a full day's debate on prevention when we concentrated on heart disease, which particularly affects men. Perhaps today, therefore, is the women's turn.

As to whether anybody is taking any notice of campaigns on health, I refer hon. Members to the food purchasing patterns, reported in the national food survey every quarter by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It shows that people are making strenuous efforts, by their purchasing patterns of food for consumption in the home, to eat much healthier food.

I am also grateful to those Lady Members who have had to leave but who were courteous enough to let me know. The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) made quite the nicest speech that I have heard her make since she returned to the House. I am grateful to her for her kind remarks about our campaign on breast feeding. I suspect that female Members of Parliament on both sides of the House are much nicer and much more courteous to each other than their male counterparts. I venture to suggest—it is a remark of total prejudice—that if, nay when, there are more female Members of Parliament, behaviour will improve dramatically.

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) asked a number of specific questions relating to Coventry. I hope that he will allow me to read what he has said and to write to him, particularly about the family practitioner committee. I am grateful to a number of hon. Members for referring to measles. We are very concerned about measles, as the disease has resulted in the death of six children this year. We have already made approaches to general practitioners. We shall have to consider whether those approaches have been successful and, if not, what else we can do.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West referred to the introduction of MMR—the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine—in the autumn. That is a major step forward and we hope that it will be of considerable benefit. It will cost the Government rather more than £40,000 or £80,000. We are budgeting for several million pounds because we shall have to pay for the vaccine. However, we expect it to result in a considerable long-term saving. About 2 per cent. of women who are susceptible to the disease catch rubella every year. Between 300 and 400 women feel obliged every year to check whether their babies have been handicapped in any way. We know of 20 cases of congenital syndrome rubella every year, each one of which could have been prevented.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) referred to a number of issues and talked about the scandal of the VDUs. Unless any hon. Member should think that I am referring to a sexually transmitted disease, I should explain that VDU stands for visual display unit. The hon. Lady and I know that, but my experience in this job suggests that not everybody understands precisely what it means. The hon. Lady and I are referring to people who may or may not be affected by working in circumstances in which they are obliged to be close to a VDU for long periods.

The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council published a report on non-ionising radiation in December 1987. During its investigations, the council considered the possibility of VDUs being a potential source of harmful radiation. It concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the present terms of prescription for industrial injuries purposes should be extended to cover any potential effects of non-ionising radiation from VDUs. The Government accepted those recommendations. As I have suggested, I suspect that at least part of the problem may arise from the fact that women get far too little exercise. Perhaps we may encourage companies and employees to take that into account. That is the scientific evidence on VDUs as it stands at the moment.

A number of Labour Members referred to the social security system. I would point out that in this country the pension scheme in particular contains several features that are very favourable to women. For example, we retire five years earlier than men. Under the United Kingdom scheme the married woman has the right to obtain a pension of her own through her husband's contributions if she wishes. There is nothing similar in most European countries.

Hon. Members have spoken of poverty. The hon. Member for Preston said that the BMA had established that a healthy diet cost more. My nutrition unit tells me that there has been no such report from the BMA, although the report from the Maternity Alliance was referred to earlier. If the hon. Lady has futher information, we should be delighted to hear it. We do not know that the BMA or anyone else has established that a healthy diet costs more. I do not believe it. It costs nothing to throw away the frying pan or to replace one kind of fat with another and it is probably cheaper simply to eat less fat.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House called for a cross-departmental committee. I am reminded of that splendid series, "The Wheeltappers' and Shunters' Club," which used to appear on television. The programme often used to start, "We've got to get a committee together on this." In fact, there is already a committee—the ministerial group on women's issues, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office and which considers some of the issues that have been raised. There is also the Women's National Commission, which is part of the Cabinet Office, which is ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science. I have no doubt that that commission will take into account a number of points that have been made.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake is in her place. I do not know whether she has been reconstructed recently but she is looking absolutely splendid these days. It must be to do with her responding vigorously to everything that previous Ministers and I have said recently. I am very glad to see my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty fighter for women since she came to the House 18 years ago. I am extremely grateful to her for her remarks, and for encouraging women in her constituency to have smear tests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake mentioned breast amputation and women's concern about that. I am glad to be able to tell her that a recent study has shown that between 1980 and 1986 in 80 centres in this country the ratio of mastectomy to conservative surgery such as lumpectomy has shifted from around 50–50 to about 20–80. In other words, about 80 per cent. of surgery does not involve full amputation. However, conservative surgery is not suitable in all cases and clearly more work remains to be done on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake and a number of other hon. Members referred to women doctors. I shall undertake to send a copy of the detailed press release sent out on Wednesday by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health about the publication of Isobel Allen's report. The release is entitled "Women Doctors—Any Room at the Top?" Incidentally, a minute that I received about smoking in DHSS offices was entitled "The Empire Strikes Back"; clearly someone in my Department has a sense of humour.

The detailed minute that has been issued shows both our concern that there should be more women doctors and our interest in what happens when they start on their career path. Action is already under way, or is being set in hand, on a number of the issues identified in Isobel Allen's excellent report. We recognise, for example, the demands for more part-time career posts and we shall discuss with representatives of the Health Services and the medical profession the possibility of increasing them. We shall also discuss with the Royal colleges and faculties, postgraduate deans and health authorities, ways of eliminating questioning by appointments boards that can be seen to be discriminatory. To assist that process we are arranging two seminars to promote consideration of Miss Allen's report by representatives of health authorities and the medical professions. I am conscious that I lay myself open to the criticism from the hon. Member for Barking that there tend to be a great number of seminars—but they work. The hon. Lady will remember that in the Labour party document on health that it published in preparation for the election, the only picture of a doctor was of a man.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester raised issues concerning his constituency, and he knows that we are concerned about them. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West, in an outstanding contribution, set out exactly how a good service for women should be run. That spills over into other forms of health care, where the needs and the interests of the consumer, male and female, really start to matter. That is the sort of service that we are trying to promote for women, children and men throughout the country.