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NHS: Future UK Trade Deals - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:51 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:51 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, I am always grateful for an opportunity to speak about the NHS, so I am particularly grateful to my noble friend. I am the first to admit that my commitment to the NHS is emotional or perhaps, as my noble friend said, nostalgic or romantic. I owe my life to it and never cease to be grateful, as is the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, for all the skill and support which saved my life when I had almost no chance of survival. Any suggestion of a threat to the NHS sees me running to its defence.

I am, of course, not blind to the fact that the private sector already plays a significant role in healthcare provision and that this was boosted by the 2012 Act. However, many who are trying to work around those reforms are discovering that it is co-operation, not competition, that our NHS needs. I shall return to that theme. Aside from emotion, I have practical reasons to resist any US-style inroads into our NHS which might follow Brexit. The US system simply does not work. It costs more, as we have heard, and the health outcomes are worse. If we care about the health of our society, why on earth would we want to go down that route instead of the European one of investing more in prevention and support services?

Is it not of sufficient concern that life expectancy in the United Kingdom is falling—a statement I never expected to make in your Lordships House? In 1920, men expected to live to 55 and women to 59. Later interventions, particularly the setting up of the NHS, meant that by 2015 that expectation had reached 79.2 years for males and 82.9 years for females. Of course, an ageing population brings its own problems but let us rejoice in that amazing achievement. However, the graph, which had been rising for decades, has flattened out and started to decline. The elderly, the poor and the newborn are worst affected. Life expectancy for those aged over 65 has dropped by more than six months and we have to ask why. Professor Dorling, head of the social geography department at Oxford says:

“Our faltering life expectancy rates show we have now got the worst trend in health anywhere in western Europe since the second world war”.

He also says that this decline can be linked to funding cuts, especially to social care. Professor Dorling and his colleague Lucinda Haim from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine argue that life expectancy started to decline in Britain as a result of the austerity measures imposed by the coalition Government in 2010. These cuts, which removed more than £30 billion from welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services, were some of the most severe made by any nation after the financial crisis.

The cuts had a cumulative effect on health because they triggered dramatic reductions in social care, meals on wheels, transport, health visitors and district nursing services. Moreover, community and voluntary services, which have always been so important in the care of the elderly and isolated, suffered similar reductions. If no one is visiting a lonely, isolated older person, no one notices that they have stopped eating or are having trouble moving about. They fall over. They are finally discovered and admitted to hospital, where they are given more serious interventions than would have been necessary if the care services had been available earlier. Then there is difficulty in discharging them because social care services are not available—even Jeremy Hunt has admitted that cuts in social services imposed by his Government went too far—or are inadequate, leading to another admission to hospital and the whole sorry cycle starts all over again, inevitably leading to shorter lives.

In addition, many of the services that promote longer and healthier lives, many provided by the charitable sector, have been curtailed. Smoking cessation classes, exercise groups and help with addiction are all now harder to access in most areas. The latest news about obesity being a major risk for certain types of cancer means that the reduction in the number of organisations that help and advise on weight loss must also be a concern.

Infant mortality is another sorry story. This reached an all-time low in 2014, since when the ONS reports that the rate has increased every year. The reasons include fewer midwives and health visitors, overstretched ambulance services and cuts to schemes such as Sure Start, which had a dramatically beneficial effect on the physical and mental health of mothers and babies. I would like the Minister’s assurance that the Government take this decline in life expectancy and the rise in infant mortality seriously and have a strategy for addressing them.

What has this to do with the NHS being included in trade talks? Surely, my grave concern about the need for more resources for health and social care means that I should welcome any possibility of increasing investment in our cash-strapped services. However, no US firm will be interested in providing the sort of social and preventive services I have referred to. There is just not enough money in them and their benefits take too long to accrue. In the US, social care budgets are low, as are taxes; most services are provided privately and the result is a soaring mortality rate. This includes spiralling rates of drug overdose, death and suicide as well as poor services for the young and the old. Is this a pattern we really want to emulate?

If we need an example of how foreign investment works or does not work in our system, we have only to look at the private care home sector. Four Seasons Health Care recently going into administration is only the latest example of how the debt-driven business models of companies in the care sector result in thousands of vulnerable people being made even more vulnerable by these failures. Some 140 homes closed last year and thousands more are at risk of failure.

No, it is not those things that drive the US trade people to want a stake in the health service. It is drug pricing that drives the trade agenda, as others have said. “Socialised” medicine and healthcare systems, as Donald Trump calls them, mean what he calls “unreasonably low prices” for drugs and not enough profit.

What we need in our NHS, which I am proud to call socialised, is not competition but co-operation, as I said, across health and social care, including housing, education and, of course, pensions. Our planning must be to promote this co-operation, not to provide a marketplace for drugs, data or any other services which can be cherry picked by those US companies waiting in the wings to make a quick buck.

While I am on my feet, I suppose I must once again ask the Green Paper question. Where is it? How much priority are the Government giving it? I have lost track of how many times I have asked the Government to be bold and honest about social care. Have they, for example, taken note of the new report out today from the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth? It says:

“After decades of reviews and failed reforms, it is not clear how another Green Paper is going to make progress on addressing the challenges in social care funding ... Government action, rather than further consultation, is required”.

I ask again about the NHS and future trade deals. Will the Government be as bold and honest as necessary and commit to investing in social and health care policies that are better for health and longer life than any American policy or company could ever deliver?