Education and Health

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 5:54 pm on 2nd June 2010.

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Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley 5:54 pm, 2nd June 2010

I start by saying that I intervened on the Secretary of State for Education when he mocked a school book that encouraged children to eat more nutritionally. I admired the Conservative party when it was in Opposition for wanting to reduce health inequalities in this country, but I say to Government Members today that when considering issues such as childhood obesity, if we do not encourage children to eat more nutritionally-no matter whether that is done at school, at home or anywhere else-we will never get anywhere near to reducing health inequalities. We should not mock such ideas, we should support them.

I wish to mention two health issues that the Secretary of State for Education raised, one of which was that of trusting clinicians. In the previous Parliament, I chaired the Select Committee on Health-indeed, I have been involved in public health issues in Parliament for most of my years as an MP-and I have to say that, occasionally, some parts of the national health service and some clinicians give the distinct impression that they would not have wanted any of the changes made since 1948. We therefore need to be careful about that matter.

I am not saying that we should not take clinicians along with us when dealing with the issue. The noble Lord Darzi did so in his next stage review. He engaged thousands of clinicians to ensure that improvements were made. However, there were still people on the ground opposed to such things as the seven-days-a-week, twelve-hours-a-day opening of primary health care centres so that people could see a GP. We should learn lessons from the recent past about the attitudes of some professional bodies.

The Secretary of State mentioned health targets. If any of my constituents go to their local district general hospital because they want a new knee or hip, the wait is measured in weeks-perhaps 18 weeks, or a lot less in South Yorkshire at the moment depending on where they go. Not long ago, the wait was 18 months or more and the consultant in the hospital concerned-the same surgeon who would have done the operation on the NHS-would say to patients, "If you want to have a new knee, I can do it next week at a private hospital in Sheffield if you've got £3,500 lying around that you want to get rid of, or you can wait 18 months or two years with a poor quality of life because of the pain." Targets have been set to help all our constituents with their health needs, and we should ensure that if they are removed it is not to the detriment of the massive improvements that have been made in health care over the past 10 years.

Right up until the general election, the Conservative party was considering putting in place what was effectively private insurance cover for social care. The Health Committee published a report on adult social care and particularly care for the elderly. The idea expressed by the Conservatives only a few months ago was that people in my constituency who retired could find £8,000-or £16,000 for a couple-to pay into a scheme so that they would have their care needs met in future years, which is an unbelievable concept. The Health Committee did not exactly praise the previous Government, as my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham will remember. However, in the report on adult social care, we said that there needed to be a consensus about the way forward and how the system should be paid for so that it was fairer than the current system. I am pleased that the new coalition has said that it wants to set up a commission to achieve that, but it should not wait longer to deal with the matter than it has to. Let us get the matter sorted out in this Parliament and get some fairness into the system as soon as practicable, when the commission has met and reported. Without consensus across the House, the unfairness and inequity in social care in this country will carry on for ever and a day.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has today made a recommendation on the minimum pricing of alcohol. I believe that the recommendation stands up well, and indeed, the Health Committee felt in most part that minimum pricing was the best way to deal with the alcohol problem. The recommendation has been made by an independent institution that has examined the effect that such a policy would have on alcohol consumption. It disagrees with what the alcohol industry has been saying in and around this place for many years-that minimum pricing will not stop binge drinking. I ask people, and especially Ministers, to read the NICE report. I am convinced, as were most members of the Health Committee in the previous Parliament, that the minimum pricing of a unit of alcohol is crucial if we are to take control of alcohol consumption in this country. There are other means of doing so, and people have argued that for some time.

The previous Government introduced regulations in April to stop the practice of students being invited into nightclubs where, for £10, they could drink all night. The Channel 4 News website says today:

"At Dukes nightclub in Essex, the owner Lou Manzi told Channel 4 News that they had stopped all you can drink for £15 and were now offering 15 drinks vouchers for £15, which they believed complied with the new rules."

People will always try to get round any new rules, but the market cannot get round price. It worked to reduce consumption of cigarettes, and we have a far healthier population as a result. This Government will need income at some stage, and a minimum price for a unit of alcohol is the way forward if we are to stop alcohol abuse. More than 1.3 million children suffer because of alcohol abuse, and we cannot carry on thinking that education will make any difference. We have tried that, but we have failed. We have failed the nation, especially those children, and action needs to be taken by this Government to ensure that we price alcohol sensibly to bring some common sense back to consumption.