Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:55 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health 3:55 pm, 14th May 2019

That is an entirely sensible proposal, and I look forward to the Secretary of State’s thoughts on it. The sugar tax is supposed to be funding more physical activities for young people across the country.

At a time of rising demand, we have also seen £55 million cut from sexual health services. That has meant that half of councils have reduced the number of sites commissioning contraceptive services, with the result that 6 million women of reproductive age live in an area where one or more services have been closed. Prescriptions of long-acting reversible contraceptives—the most effective form of contraception—have decreased by 8% at the same time as abortion rates for women over 30 have been steadily increasing. We have seen an increase in sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea while, because of cuts, the number of sexual health checks has dropped by 245,000. I was particularly shocked to hear the evidence given recently at the Health and Social Care Committee by Dr Olwen Williams from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, who said:

“We are seeing neonatal syphilis for the first time in decades and neonatal deaths due to syphilis in the UK…We are seeing an increase in women who are presenting with infectious syphilis in pregnancy, and that has dire outcomes.”

That was the evidence presented to the Committee about the impact of these cuts on sexual health services in communities.

What about the cuts to health visitor numbers? Last week, we heard concerns across the House about falling vaccination rates, which fell for the fourth time in a row. Vaccinations are one of the most important public health interventions we can make, and our health visitor workforce is vital to ensuring their take-up. Yet public health cuts and wider local authority cuts have meant that we have lost 25% of our health visitors. Every 12 hours since October 2015, we have lost one health visitor, and there are no proposals to reverse those cuts in the long-term plan. School nurse numbers have gone down, and the caseloads of health visitors and school nurses are increasing. As a consequence, parents and small children are missing out. According to the Government’s own figures, 14.5% of children are not receiving a six to eight-week review on time, and 24% are not receiving a 12-month review on time. With high caseloads, there are increased risks of abuse or poor health of babies not being picked up, of maternal mental health issues not being picked up and of domestic violence and trauma not being picked up.

We need investment in the wider public health workforce and we need to expand training opportunities. The Government should honour their commitment to pay the public health workforce properly, and especially those on “Agenda for Change” terms and conditions. Last year, when the Government announced a pay increase for staff, they said they would honour that for all public health staff working for local authorities or in the voluntary sector. We are now told that the Government and the NHS are refusing to honour a pay rise this year. I hope the Secretary of State will tell us whether all public health staff employed on “Agenda for Change” terms and conditions will get a pay rise this year.

We are pleased that the Secretary of State has joined us today from the leadership campaign trail. We look forward to his response but, whenever he is asked about public health cuts, he says, “Well, prevention is better than cure.” Who would disagree with that? He never tells us that he is going to stand up to the Chancellor and demand that these cuts be reversed. He simply says that individuals’ attitudes have to change. But it is not just about individuals; it is about the services that are available in local communities. He gives the impression that he just wants people to look after themselves. For example, he said that those who present at hospital with ailments related to alcohol abuse will be targeted for a “stern talking to”—that is his answer. He needs to take it up with The Sunday Times if that was not what he said.

We know that the Secretary of State loves an app, and one of his solutions is more targeted advertising on Facebook. Whenever there is a problem in the NHS, he says that we are going to have more apps; that is the solution to everything. I am told that he and his old friend George Osborne are now part of a WhatsApp group called “Make Matt Hancock Great Again”—there are some problems that even an app cannot fix.

This is not leadership. Real leadership would be reversing the cuts to public health services and intervening to stop the health inequalities and the rolling back of life expectancy advances. Only Labour is offering that leadership on health inequalities. We will fully fund public health services. We will not cut public health services. We will adopt a health in all policies approach; this Government will not. We will invest in the health and wellbeing of every child and meet our ambition to have the healthiest children in the world. Longer, healthier, happier lives will be our mission. I commend our motion to the House.