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Health Inequalities

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 26th March 2002.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough 11:30 am, 26th March 2002

What his priorities are for reducing health inequalities.

Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Secretary of State, Department of Health

There are six priorities for reducing health inequalities: early years; children and young people; primary care; heart disease and cancer; disadvantaged communities, and addressing the wider determinants of ill health.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will not be surprised to hear that of those priorities, I am most concerned about heart disease. Many communities such as the one that I represent have high levels of it. Slough is in the top 10 constituencies for early male deaths from heart disease, yet it is in the healthiest county in the country. I am worried that the new health authorities will take money but not action to deal with the problems.

I am grateful for the action that has been taken so far such as statins prescribing and the new cardiology unit at Wexham Park hospital, but I want my right hon. Friend to reassure me that he will ensure that new health authorities direct resources where they are needed, especially when there are pockets of serious ill health in relatively healthy counties.

Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Secretary of State, Department of Health

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Her constituency is not unusual in being a deprived community in a sea of greater affluence. Two things need to happen. In the short term, the health authorities and the new strategic health authorities that will come into being in the next financial year in a week or so, must ensure a reasonable distribution of resources to tackle the problems in the most deprived communities. Secondly, as my hon. Friend knows, from the next financial year, allocations will go directly to primary care trusts, thus creating a much more localised system of getting the money where it is most needed.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the question of heart disease. It kills more people than cancer and is the disease that kills most people in our country. There is some progress; deaths have fallen by 5 per cent. in the last year for which we have figures. The number of operations is increasing, and waiting times for operations are falling. My hon. Friend has rightly mentioned statins; prescribing of that treatment is up by one third. In addition, the smoking cessation services are beginning to have a real impact in her constituency and elsewhere. That shows that, despite the fact that these are intractable problems, if we adopt the right approach—the right policy—and back it with the right level of resources, we can get results. We now have to keep that moving in the right direction.

Photo of David Tredinnick David Tredinnick Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of the worst inequalities in the health service is in the provision of complementary and integrated medicine? Will he confirm that I gave him notice of a question on the use of homeopathy in deprived areas, and is he also aware that he gives the impression that he really does not care about complementary and integrated health care? That is rather dangerous, given Labour's slide in the polls and the fact that one fifth of the population uses such health care.

Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Secretary of State, Department of Health

That is obviously the answer. Mr. Tredinnick is nothing if not persistent, and consistent, on these problems. I well remember him asking my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham, a question, and my right hon. Friend quite rightly referring to him as the hon. Member for Holland and Barrett. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, however. As he is aware, there is an increasing evidence base for some of the interventions that he is incessantly, persistently and consistently talking about, and it is important that general practitioners should be aware of that information so that they can make their own decisions about what is right for their patients in different parts of the country.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

The mortality rate from cancers and heart disease in my constituency is among the highest in the country; there is a shortage of GPs in Widnes; and we have been trying to get a health care resource centre for more than eight years now. Will my right hon. Friend do something about the north-west office of the NHS executive, which is shortly to be abolished, and perhaps use his good offices to get things moving? The executive has still not made a decision about what is to happen in Widnes, and it is crucial to get more GPs in to get the good facilities that we deserve. Will my right hon. Friend do something about that when he has discussions with the new strategic health authority, because we need these services quickly and the executive has not made a decision after many years of deliberation?

Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Secretary of State, Department of Health

I am aware of my hon. Friend's frustration. He has asked us to do something about the north-west regional office, and I can promise that that will happen, because it is being abolished in about a week's time. I do not know whether that is what my hon. Friend was asking for. So far as the issue of GPs in his constituency and other deprived communities is concerned, a specific initiative is under way—of which he is aware, and which I hope will be of benefit to him and his constituents—involving GPs being recruited from Spain to work in the north-west of England. In the more medium term, we also have to ensure that the incentives are right for GPs to work in the more deprived communities. We have made a start, and I personally think that we need to do more to ensure that we get the right level of primary care resources in the most disadvantaged communities.