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Health Inequalities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Public Health) 6:44 pm, 4th March 2020

This has been an excellent debate and one that I hope has been enlightening to the Government Benches especially. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed; I counted 24 Back Benchers in total. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who made exceptional maiden speeches and will be powerful advocates for their constituents.

I highlight the other excellent speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), although time will not allow me to comment on them in detail.

As we have heard, “The Marmot Review 10 Years On” report confirmed what many Labour Members have been warning—that life expectancy is declining and inequalities are widening. The stalling of life expectancy is not a trend that we see worldwide. It does not have to be this way. The Nordic countries, Japan and Hong Kong all have life expectancies that are greater than ours and which continue to increase. But here in the UK, for the first time in more than 100 years, life expectancy is stalling and even declining for the poorest 10% of women. As the Marmot report says,

“if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving.”

There is no doubt that there is a link between austerity and stalling life expectancies. It is disgraceful that rates of premature deaths in poorer areas are twice as high as those in the more affluent areas. The Secretary of State has always said that prevention is one of his top three priorities, yet we have seen no evidence of that. The cuts to public health budgets have not been reversed. There has been no investment in children’s services, addiction services or social care, and no attempt has been made by successive Conservative Governments over the past 10 years to improve the standard of living for people living in cold and damp houses, working in unstable jobs or on zero-hours contracts, which have increased to more than 1 million people under their tenure.

The vulnerability of those on zero-hours contracts—sometimes with no rights to statutory sick pay—has come home to roost now that we are looking at a pandemic requiring two weeks of self-isolation, and possibly long periods off sick if the virus is contracted and takes hold. The same applies to the self-employed and those working in the gig economy. Although we welcome what the Prime Minister announced earlier today about scrapping the three-day wait for statutory sick pay, trying to live on £94.25 a week, which is about a quarter of the national minimum wage, will only exacerbate the existing inequalities, and could vastly compromise the nation’s attempts to contain the coronavirus if people choose to work, instead of self-isolating, due to the need to pay their bills and eat. The Government’s inaction to improve these inequalities in our society will not only continue to hurt the poorest and most vulnerable; in turn, the rest of society will also suffer. It is for those very reasons that Opposition Members believe in caring proactively for the most vulnerable. It really does benefit us all to do so.

Not doing something to make life fairer and more equal has real measurable affects. According to the Royal College of Physicians, children growing up in damp, mouldy homes are between one and a half and three times more likely to experience symptoms of asthma and other respiratory diseases than children living in dry homes. A study by the Nuffield Trust found that young people in the UK are more likely to die of asthma than in any one of the other 13 European countries studied. That is totally disgraceful, and the Government really must do something urgently to reverse this trend.

Holly Worboys died tragically at the age of 19 from an asthma attack in January 2016. She was using her inhaler sparingly to save on prescription costs. A prescription currently costs £9—a price that is just too high for many people who are living on squeezed or inadequate incomes. People should not be priced out of health. That is why we on the Labour Benches are committed to rolling out free prescriptions for everyone. Has the Minister considered this as a means to prevent illnesses worsening and early deaths?

The Marmot review confirms what we already knew: the poorer the area, the worse the health. That means that health inequalities also exist within poorer parts of otherwise wealthy areas, which we see across London often, but it also means that health inequalities exist between the north on the whole and the south— because, on the whole, the north is less affluent than the south. Sadly, it was ever thus and it is what drove me into politics in the first place, growing up in the north-east under Thatcher. The north is often a forgotten land, not least the north-east, where the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods have seen the largest decreases in life expectancy. This is in comparison with the largest increases in life expectancy in the least deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in London.

When it comes to healthy life expectancy, as we heard earlier, boys born in Blackpool in 2016-18 can expect to live 53.3 years in good health, compared with 71.9 years for those born in Richmond upon Thames, where healthy life expectancy is the highest. That is a gap of 18.6 years and that gap has widened by 4.7 years since 2009-11, when it was 13.9 years.

This is a deep injustice that the Government must address as a matter of urgency. So what are they going to do about it? The public health grant has been cut by £700 million since 2015, with the most deprived areas faring worst. Will the Government reverse the cuts to public health budgets? Will they today—not “soon”, not “in the near future”—publish the public health grant allocation for 2020-21, so that local authorities can begin budgeting for the financial year ahead, which starts next month?

The Marmot review should act as a huge warning sign for the Government. Health inequalities are widening and life expectancy is stalling and declining. Given everything that we have heard this afternoon, what urgent steps will the Government take to address health inequalities before they increase further?