Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 6:32 pm, 14th May 2019

The health of the population should be the Government’s and Parliament’s highest priority. From the times of the ancient civilisations, enlightened authorities have sought to prevent disease, provide clean water and sanitation, and enable citizens to live long, healthy lives. In the UK, we have a long history of interventions to improve the health of the nation, from the great sanitation projects in the Victorian era, to the Clean Air Acts, slum clearances and inoculation programmes in the 20th century, and the public smoking ban in the 21st century. Of course, all of that was accelerated with the establishment of the national health service, yet in these first decades of our new century it is clear that something is going seriously wrong.

With all our medical and scientific advances, surely we should have ended preventable disease, enabled many more years of healthy life, and witnessed ever-lengthening life expectancies. But we know that the opposite is true, as many right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out. We face an explosion of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. We are in the depths of a mental health crisis, with ever-growing demand for ever-diminishing mental health services. Society faces the health risks from smoking, alcohol and drug misuse, and sexually transmitted diseases.

The thing that should make us really angry is the stark difference in health and life expectancy between rich and poor. These inequalities in health are a terrible scar on our society, no matter which side of the House we are on. How can we fail to be ashamed when a person’s life expectancy depends largely on their postcode and income, and what their parents did for a living? There are many incredibly positive things in my constituency, including some of the most improved schools, which have not only improves opportunity and life chances but played a role in tackling health inequality and improving wellbeing. I pay tribute to all the health professionals and community workers in the clinical commissioning group, including its chair Sam Everington and others, who have led the way on tackling the public health challenge, but the reality is that despite all their work my constituents face massive health inequalities.

With every tube stop between Westminster station and Whitechapel station, people’s life expectancy goes down by six months. That is a scandal. Tower Hamlets has the shortest life expectancy of all London boroughs, with men living on average five years less than men in Kensington and Chelsea. We have the 12th highest prevalence of diagnosed diabetes, major challenges with obesity among children, and high levels of smoking, HIV, sexually transmitted infections and drug addiction. Even though many of my constituents abstain from alcohol, Tower Hamlets unfortunately has the seventh highest number of people with alcohol dependency.

In 2017, Sir Michael Marmot warned that the historic rises in life expectancy—the result of centuries of improvements—had ground to a halt. It is almost beyond belief that centuries of progress should end on our watch. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of some of the challenges, including around suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver diseases, which are affecting middle-aged men throughout England. Given the scale of the challenge and the dangers of going backwards, what are Ministers doing about this? We would think they would be investing in the kinds of programmes that help to tackle the public health emergency, but instead we see significant funding cuts, as many Members have said. In my borough, we have lost £3 million since 2015-16—in one of the areas with the highest levels of deprivation and child poverty in the country.

We need Government investment to tackle the public health challenge. Otherwise, all the Government’s investment in the national health service will be undermined, as many have pointed out, and the Government will be missing a trick. We should in this debate be unified on the need to tackle the public health challenge in all our constituencies. Ministers talk about cross-party working, so my appeal to them is that they put that to the test and put in the investment to support local agencies, local authorities and health professionals. Let us deal with this appalling challenge by working together, because it is desperately needed.