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Health Inequalities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:12 pm on 20th March 2019.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Public Health) 5:12 pm, 20th March 2019

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

This has been an excellent debate, and I start by thanking Lucy Allan for securing it and for her excellent contribution to it. Sadly, many areas across the UK face similar issues to those affecting Telford, as we have heard. As we know, our NHS was built for everyone. The original leaflet explaining the NHS to households across the country read:

“Everyone—rich or poor, man, woman or child—can use it or any part of it.”

Seventy years on, we cannot forget that ethos, which is why this debate is so important. I also thank all other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. Due to time, I will not name them all.

Health inequalities are avoidable, but they still persist so clearly, both nationally and locally, within our communities, as we have heard. It cannot be right that in England men and women from the most disadvantaged 10% of areas on average now die 9.3 and 7.3 years respectively sooner than those in the 10% least disadvantaged areas. And those living in the most deprived areas not only die much earlier than those living in the most affluent areas but they also live much longer in bad health. For example, between 2014 and 2016 women in the most deprived areas could expect to live for 51.8 healthy life years, meaning that their remaining 27 years would be spent in bad health. That is compared, for instance, to women in the least deprived areas, who could expect to live for 70.7 healthy life years, with only 15.5 years in bad health.

It has to be said that there is also a persistent north-south divide in both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, with people in the southern regions of England on average living longer and with fewer years in poor health than those living further north. For example, 2015-17 figures show that men and women in the north-east—my region—have the lowest life expectancy at birth in England, at 77.9 years and 81.6 years respectively. That is compared to the south-east, where men can expect to live for 80.6 years and women for 84 years.

However, health inequalities also exist within local authorities. For example, the longest life expectancy in the country is in the richest borough, Kensington and Chelsea; I am not surprised. Nevertheless, the most disadvantaged people in that London borough can expect to live for 14 years less than their most advantaged counterparts. Such a stark difference is completely unacceptable.

Also, children living in poverty are more likely to die before the age of one, become overweight, have tooth decay or even die in an accident. Parents living in poverty are also more likely to smoke, experience mental health difficulties, be a young parent, be a lone parent, experience domestic violence and other negative outcomes, all of which also increase adverse childhood experience risk factors that impact children’s health, too.

So, after a century of decline the number of deaths in childhood in the UK has risen for two consecutive years, with the highest mortality rates evident in the poorest communities. Life expectancy in the UK had always increased slightly, year on year, for over a century, largely due to improvements in nutrition, hygiene, housing and control of infectious diseases. However, it seems that that is not happening any more.

What are we going to do? Labour is committed to a new health inequalities target, to improve life expectancy, mortality rates and children’s health. The target would be independently assessed, and as the hon. Member for Telford called for, the Health and Social Care Secretary would be held accountable to Parliament and would produce an annual health inequalities report.

The four biggest risk factors that affect health—smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and lack of exercise—also affect the poorest in our communities. Public health services support those people. However, there have been public health cuts to the tune of £800 million between 2015 and 2021, and local authorities have been put in untenable positions, where they have to make difficult decisions.

I believe that the Government already have a moral duty to ensure that health inequalities are reduced, but unfortunately they have not taken that duty seriously enough. So I would like the Minister not only to set out her commitment to reducing health inequalities but to lay out details of how the Government will reduce them, and I urge her once again to reverse the cuts to public health budgets.