Government Vision on Prevention - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:57 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 12:57 pm, 6th November 2018

My Lords, at last we have a Secretary of State who has been listening to my speeches over the years, or perhaps, more realistically, he has come to the same conclusion all by himself that the NHS is unsustainable with the changing demographics and higher demand unless we do something to prevent the 40% of illnesses that are preventable. I am therefore delighted to welcome the Secretary of State’s new focus on prevention.

However, he said in his speech yesterday that it is difficult to divert money into prevention unless funding is rising, because otherwise you will be taking money from treatment. Well, funding is rising. The Minister spoke about diverting part of the extra £20 billion for the NHS into prevention, but that is only part of the answer. This a whole-government problem. People do not live in hospitals or GP surgeries. They live in cities with polluted air, often in overcrowded and damp homes, in areas with too many fast-food outlets and too few fruit and vegetable shops where the local sports centre or swimming pool has closed. They are stressed about paying the bills on low wages or benefits.

Then there are lifestyle decisions. Often when people are in their own homes or the local pub, they smoke or send out for a high-fat and high-salt takeaway or drink too much alcohol. Many do not take enough exercise. They are subjected to large amounts of TV advertising for the wrong kind of food and drink, and far too many ads encourage them to gamble. None of this is good for their physical or mental health.

My point is that the organisations that can help them with this are often not the NHS or wider national government, although both can do a lot. I am speaking about local authorities, whose overall funding, particularly for public health services, has been cut since July 2015 and is projected to carry on being cut. Does the Minister think that this is in line with the Secretary of State’s vision? There is evidence that sexual health services, sports centres and weight management services have closed. Smoking, alcohol and drugs prevention and treatment services have been discontinued. Does the Minister not agree that some of the new funding should be diverted from the NHS into local authorities and ring-fenced to allow them to reinstate and widen these services? Of course, NHS professionals must be involved, but this should come under the public health responsibility of local authorities, where it correctly lies.

Councils run as many of these good services as they can but they cannot afford as many as are needed to stall the national epidemic of obesity and other preventable health problems. According to a systematic review of the available evidence, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, every £1 spent on public health saves £14 on average, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. In some cases, significantly more than that is saved. We should listen to such a meaty piece of research. Local directors of public health claim that they can spend money more efficiently than the NHS to prevent ill health. Why not fund them to do so?

Turning to two other matters, I applaud the Secretary of State’s initiatives for people with learning difficulties; I strongly wish them well. However, the Minister will understand from my background in cannabis-based medicines that I am still very concerned about the too-restrictive guidance that has been published on prescribing pharmaceutical-grade cannabis-based medicines. It seems that there is still a bureaucratic nightmare for patients who thought that the Government’s recent relaxation of regulations meant that their troubles were over. I fear we do not have time now to go into this in detail, but I welcome the intention expressed in the Statement to get it right. What further reassurance can the Minister give me that clinicians will be given the information from patients and other countries to enable them to make sensible prescribing decisions—not just for Sativex and Epidiolex? Can he assure me that it will not have to be done as a last resort when a lot of licensed drugs with nasty side-effects have already been tried unsuccessfully?