The Health of the Nation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 22nd October 1992.

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Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon , Halifax 6:32 pm, 22nd October 1992

I absolutely disagree with that. The statistics support my argument, but I do not want to go into them.

Page 28 of the White Paper says that the Government will continue to pursue its policy to promote choice and quality in housing, having regard to health and other benefits. Those are empty words; the White Paper offers absolutely no help. If the Government want to help, the Minister and her colleagues could contact their friends in the Department of the Environment and ask why they will not allow councils to spend their capital receipts on building affordable housing to enable people to move out of squalor and into decent homes. Why did not health Ministers object to the enactment of the Housing Act 1988, the new rules of which made tenants so insecure and caused much more stress? Why do they not do something about what is happening to housing associations, which were to plan for special-needs categories such as elderly people? Housing associations now have to find the money to repair and maintain their properties, whereas previously they received grants. That repair and maintenance bill is being met by tenants and pensioners, who can ill afford it.

Report after report has highlighted the state of our crumbling schools. The White Paper talks about our schools being healthy places. Health Ministers should get in touch with the Department for Education and also ask the Prime Minister what he will do to tackle the backlog of maintenance in some of our schools.

The Government poll-tax cap the poorest councils in the country, so they can do nothing about housing.

What upsets me most about the document is the way in which it refers to nutrition and to advising people to make healthy alliances between different agencies, without ever mentioning schools meals, which have played an important role in the nutrition of children, especially children from poor families in this country for nearly 100 years.

In 1906 an Act of Parliament enabled councils to raise money on the rates to provide school meals, and the Education Act 1944 made it compulsory for every local authority to provide a school meal for any child whose parents so wished. Children's health is clearly related to the food that they eat, yet the schools meals service has been under constant attack from the Government since 1979.

The Black report, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brightside has already referred, valued schools meals so highly that it recommended that they be provided free, yet in the same year the former Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, abolished local authorities' obligation to provide meals, except for children entitled to free school meals—yet she was the one who talked about letting children grow tall. Unfortunately, she meant only those children whose parents had healthy bank balances. Since the Education Act 1980, school dinners are no longer required to meet nutritional standards. The Secretary of State should at least have included that fact in her document.

In 1988, 400,000 children lost their entitlement to free school meals following changes to the Social Security Act, and compulsory competitive tendering threatens the very existence of that valuable, indeed vital, service.

As a member of the Select Committee on Health, I tried to get the Committee to recommend that school meals should be provided for all children at an affordable price or free for people on very low incomes, and that national nutritional guidelines should be restored. That was when we drew up the report on pre-conceptual care, which preceded the maternity services report. The first of those reports emphasised the need for a healthy diet, so that healthy parents would produce healthy children. That seemed like common sense; it did not seem revolutionary, but something which we should all encourage. Alas, another golden opportunity was missed, because Conservative Members have voting habits which in our opinion harm the health of the nation time and again.

Another key area identified in the report is that of HIV infection, sexual health and drug abuse, especially involving young children. The report's treatment of that area is light weight. Why are the Government not funding the health education co-ordinators' post from March 1993? Health education co-ordinators have been praised by everyone including Her Majesty's inspectorate from the Department for Education. They do a valuable job to combat a scourge which we all deplore—young people getting involved with drugs. Yet the Government will not fund them. Clearly councils cannot afford to do so. If the Secretary of State really believes that she can attain her targets and reduce such abuse she must rethink the approach to that problem.

The White Paper identifies mental illness as a problem. In an earlier intervention, I tried to question the Secretary of State about prescriptions and health benefits. If people with a mental illness live in the community and are hard up they still have to pay for their prescriptions—many people in benefits have to do so. Often those prescriptions are not renewed, the person regresses and ends up back in hospital. It is a false economy not to ensure that such people get their medication.

The Secretary of State should be able to answer a question from a Back Bencher about whether the review on health benefits is anywhere near complete.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall make only a couple more points. The Select Committee's report on maternity services expressed horror that the DSS could not comment with authority on the adequacy of income support rates for providing a balanced diet for pregnant women because the research was not available—some members of the Committee had already known that, but some had not. Any document that does not deal with that problem has singularly failed in its duty to pregnant women. The omission is disgraceful.

We concluded, too, that there should be no discrimination in benefits for pregnant women. Why should women under 25 get less in benefits than older women? There is nothing in the document to support the recommendation in the Select Committee's excellent report.

I understand that today the Government launched their Winter Warmth telephone line, which is intended to do something about elderly people and fuel poverty. Any elderly or sick person who believes that he or she will receive help with fuel bills or insulation costs will be bitterly disappointed. The scheme, like the document before us, is a candy-floss scheme, pretty on the outside, but with little substance inside. I should like the Secretary of State to go back to the drawing board and bring back to the House a report that really attempts to slay the five giant evils identified by Beveridge. Goodness knows, there have been enough victims of Conservative health policies over the past 13 years to make that a priority.