I want to talk about an issue of particular interest to me: public health policy and the action that the Government can take to promote health and well-being. First, though, I want to wish my constituent Hilda Barwell a happy birthday and to mention National Eisteddfod, Wales's greatest language, arts and cultural event, which is coming to Blaenau Gwent this week. Hilda Barwell has been a terrific example for all good Labour members in Blaenau Gwent. When she was 16, one of her first actions as a trade unionist was to lead a strike to improve working conditions in the Berlei factory in Ebbw Vale. There was no heating in the factory and mice were running across the feet of her fellow workers-it was a bit like the Tea Room in this place. Hilda has been a terrific campaigner over the years and, even now, she runs the Blaenau Gwent centre for the disabled. She is always putting others first, so a belated happy birthday to Hilda.
As I said, the National Eisteddfod is coming to Blaenau Gwent next week. Many share my belief that arts and culture can play their part in helping community regeneration. I hope that the Eisteddfod will be an important opportunity to help to renew our valleys and towns and to build a better Blaenau Gwent. I particularly want to highlight the fact that Susan Robeson will be visiting the Eisteddfod to show a documentary about her grandfather Paul Robeson, the great singer and human rights activist. He famously visited the Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale in 1958 as a guest of Nye Bevan, the then local MP. Nye's invitation followed on from the successful campaign to let Paul Robeson finally travel abroad, which he had been banned from doing by the American authorities because of his radical views on civil rights. It is good, more than 50 years later, that we are able to celebrate the historic occasion of those great men working together
Despite its shortcomings and omissions, I am proud of Labour's record on public health, especially with regard to tackling smoking in public places. However, I am dismayed by the coalition Government's recent abdication of their responsibilities on public health. It is well documented that alcohol abuse can cause physical and mental health problems, and we have all witnessed the antisocial behaviour that alcohol can fuel. Of course, the reasons for alcohol abuse are complex, and social drinking is an established part of our national culture, but we can take action.
Only a few weeks ago, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence set out proposals to curb excessive drinking. However, its recommendations of a ban on alcohol advertising and a minimum price for a unit of alcohol have proved controversial. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Health has already ruled out minimum pricing, and instead we are told that the Government will
"report back in the autumn on the scope for targeting alcohol duty at the products most associated with binge drinking and under-age consumption."-[ Hansard, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 178.]
The Secretary of State says that he is worried that minimum pricing disproportionately affects the poor, but so do public spending cuts and increasing VAT, and that has not stopped the Government, so I doubt that that is his main reason. Indeed, we do not know whether that is true. Academics argue that the better-off spend far more on alcohol than the poor. Logic leads us to believe that young people have the least to spend on alcohol, so raising the price might mean that they consume less. Surely that would be a worthy public health outcome. The fact that Tesco has come out in favour of a minimum price is a helpful start. I would like a sensible discussion about minimum pricing, because I believe that it would gain the support of the majority of the public.
The Labour Government gained such public support over time for their ban on smoking in public places and then, with the universal support of the medical profession and health campaigners, they legislated to remove cigarettes from public display and to ban cigarette vending machines from pubs. However, the introduction of those public health initiatives has stalled. Again, the Government are reviewing the matter,
"given the challenges facing business competition and costs."-[ Hansard, 15 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 891W.]
Labour prefers to tackle the challenges of smoking-related deaths and illness, and their devastating human cost and costs to the national health service. As Action on Smoking and Health has said:
"After all the election promises about public health, surely the coalition can make a better start than by caving in to the tobacco lobby".
Of course, the coalition Government have given in not just to the tobacco industry, because the food industry's advances have also been successful. The industry lobby has stopped the introduction of the consumer-friendly traffic light warnings for food, and instead we are to have guideline daily amounts. Linked to that, the Government are to weaken the Food Standards Agency. The agency will lose its role to promote healthy eating, which was described by a Government adviser on food policy, Professor Tim Lang of City university, as a "retrograde step".
The Secretary of State for Health has also attacked initiatives to improve school meals. He says that he wants to avoid confrontation, which he claims was the hallmark of the Labour Government, but I do not believe that Labour's promotion of healthy school meals was confrontational. Jamie Oliver's promotion of good school dinners was hardly a public health blitzkrieg; rather, it raised awareness of an important public health issue.
However, we must confront stark health inequalities. In Blaenau Gwent, average male life expectancy is just over 78. Just 10 miles down the heads of the valleys road in Usk, it is 85. That cannot be right. Good employment is crucial for improved public health, but we must also address the key issues of diet, smoking and alcohol. Healthy living must be promoted by a real progressive Government. Where is the Lib Dems' voice in this vital debate? Why have they not championed the consumer rather than the producer? In public health, why have they not intervened with their political partners to give our children and young people protection from less healthy food, from tobacco manufactures trying to recruit new smokers, and from low-price alcohol and the binge drinking that it sustains? When one man's regulation can be another man's vital public health protection, their coalition, laissez-faire agenda is already going too far. When the Lib Dems meet at their conference in the recess, perhaps they will look again at their public health policy, and strengthen, not weaken, these commitments. The public health agenda is too important to all our young people for the Lib Dems to be complete poodles and accept this laissez-faire lead from their majority party partners.
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