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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to respond to the debate. I feel that it is a major challenge and an absolute responsibility for Ministers in the Department of Health to do everything we can to tackle inequalities. Frankly, that is why all of us got involved in politics and stood for public office, because we want to do the best for everyone in our society.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Lucy Allan for her very persuasive argument in opening the debate. She has been an absolutely fantastic champion for her constituents, at a time when difficult decisions are being made about how to reconfigure health services in her area. She has not been backward in coming forward to make her case, because this is the second time that I have responded to her on it. I know that she will continue to make her case.
I will just say something about some of the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. When the NHS makes decisions on how best to deliver health services for a local community, clearly those decisions are made locally and should be locally responsive. However, it is equally the case that the public become very nervous about the potential downside of any decision. It is therefore absolutely crucial that engagement is constructive, with dialogue and transparency, so that the public can have confidence that the right decisions are being made.
My hon. Friend articulated her case with clear reference to inequalities in the area that is served by that configuration. It is important that we have a way of addressing those points, because there is a perception that the pointy-elbowed middle classes are better at fighting for themselves than everyone else is. We all have a duty to ensure that everyone can have confidence in the decisions that are made. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to give challenge, because it is only when we provide her with answers that she can give her constituents reassurance. I know that she will continue to give that challenge.
On that basis, I would give a gentle prod to some organisations within the NHS. We often find that some areas are better at consultation than others, but we are elected representatives who are here to give challenge on behalf of our constituents, and I would like to send a message that the NHS needs to be more transparent in its decision making throughout.
I thank all Members for their contributions to this debate, and I will try to address most of the points that have been raised. Turning to the legal duties on the Secretary of State, we have regard to the need to reduce health inequalities. That requires concerted effort across all our health services. That is a priority for us, and it is a particular priority for me. Clearly, other factors contribute to poor health outcomes and inequalities, which go beyond the gift of the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care, meaning that we need to take a cross-Government approach to the problem. Housing is clearly an issue; we know that poor-quality housing can be a driver of ill health and health inequality. We have heard about employment and income, and clearly education is a factor as well. We need to equip everyone with the tools to live a healthy lifestyle and look after themselves well. Equally, this issue is about access to services, and we know that there is much we can do within the NHS and the wider healthcare system.