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Health Inequalities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:58 pm on 20th March 2019.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 4:58 pm, 20th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate Lucy Allan on securing the debate. She was absolutely right to say that, as important as our NHS is in treating and caring for us when we get ill, reducing health inequalities —in my Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, there is an 11-year life expectancy gap between rich and poor—goes beyond the NHS and the Government’s 10-year plan.

The term “health inequalities” refers to the increasing mortality and morbidity that occurs with declining socioeconomic position. This is the systematic, socially produced, differential distribution of power in relation to income, wealth, knowledge, social status and connections. There is overwhelming evidence that those factors are the key determinants of health inequalities, influenced by written and unwritten rules and laws across our society. Those things, rather than biological and behavioural differences, drive these inequalities. No law of nature decrees that the children born to poor families should die at three times the rate of children born to rich families, but that is the reality in 21st-century Britain.

Given that those health inequalities are socially produced, they are not fixed or inevitable. If the Government were committed to tackling these burning injustices—let us face it, what could be more unjust than knowing you are going to die earlier because you are poor—a starting point would be to tackle their regressive, unfair economic and social policies.

Countries that have a narrow gap between rich and poor have not only higher life expectancy rates, but better educational attainment, social mobility, trust between communities and so on. Fairer, more equal societies benefit everyone. Unfortunately, the concentration of power in tiny elites is happening more than ever in the UK.

Just four weeks ago the Office for National Statistics published data with more evidence that these inequalities are on the increase, with income inequalities increasing in 2018. The average income of the poorest fifth of the population after inflation contracted by 1.6% in the last financial year, while the average income of the richest fifth rose by 4.7%. This followed “fat cat Friday” in January when it was revealed that top executives were earning 133 times more than their average worker—up from 47 in 1998.

At the same time we are seeing increases in both infant and child mortality, which—as shown in the latest study, just 10 days ago—correlate with increasing child poverty. These increases, the first in 100 years, mean that four babies in 1,000 will not see their first birthday in the UK, compared with 2.8 in 1,000 in the EU.

Two weeks ago life expectancy estimates were revised downwards by six months by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in its latest mortality projections model. The institute now expects men aged 65 to die at 86.9 years, down from its previous estimate of 87.4 years, while women who reach 65 are likely to die at 89.2 years, down from 89.7 years. Public Health England’s investigation into flatlining life expectancy revealed—as many of us, including Sir Michael Marmot, have said for a number of years—that austerity has wrought misery and poverty, and ultimately an early death for too many of our citizens.

As analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others has shown, since 2015 the lowest income decile has lost proportionately more income than any other group as a consequence of personal taxation and social security measures. Last autumn’s Budget had only marginal impacts on the household income of the poorest, while reducing the number of higher rate taxpayers by 300,000. Last week’s spring statement followed that trend. There was nothing for the 8 million working poor, the 4 million children living in relative poverty or the two thirds in working families, and nothing for the 4 million disabled people living in poverty.

As I have said, these health inequalities are socially produced, so they are not fixed or inevitable. They can be changed, and that should give us hope.