Health Inequalities: Office for Health Improvement and Disparities — [Derek Twigg in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 26th January 2022.

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Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle 2:30 pm, 26th January 2022

My hon. Friend is spot on. That is a key point that we want to tease out today: cross-departmental working.

As with many other health issues, the devil is in the detail. Only by looking into the granularity of the issues can a real understanding of the levels of inequality and disparity be established. I do not have time for more significant references to the organisations concerned, but it really was important for me to get down to the detail of the information that they provided. I will give the documents to the Minister for her perusal in due course.

Before the pandemic, growth in life expectancy had stalled for the most deprived in England. Between 2014 and 2019, people in the least deprived areas saw their life expectancy grow significantly, but there were no significant changes for people in the most deprived areas. For women in the most deprived areas of England, life expectancy fell between 2010 and 2019—a stark fact. The pandemic unambiguously exposed and exacerbated inequalities that have existed in our society for far too long, as many hon. Members will have seen first hand in their constituencies. The pandemic has widened gaps that were already too big to begin with, and once again it is the most vulnerable who have borne the brunt.

We know from the Sir Michael Marmot’s “Build Back Fairer” report that mortality rates for covid in the first wave mirrored mortality rates for other causes. In order words, the causes of health inequalities more widely were similar to the underlying drivers of covid-19 deaths among certain groups. It has been estimated that working-age adults in England’s poorest areas were almost four times more likely to die from covid than those in the wealthiest areas—another stark figure. Now, with the backlog, analysis of waiting list data shows that people living in the most deprived areas are nearly twice as likely to wait more than a year for treatment compared to those living in the least deprived areas. That cannot be right.

Before the pandemic, through the pandemic and now as we emerge, we hope, from the worst of the omicron variant—it is clear that there is a deep-rooted inequality in our society that causes huge inequality in health. The gap in life expectancy is startling. People in my constituency live on average 12 years less than people in Southport—just at the other end of the borough. Those are stark differences in healthy life expectancy—how many years a person spends in good health. Before covid, it was estimated that people in the richest communities in England could expect to live in good health for up to two decades more than the poorest. In Bootle, according to Nomis at the Office for National Statistics, 42% of people who are economically inactive are long-term sick, compared to the national average of 24%.

However, statistics get us only so far. A recent paper from the Royal College of Physicians brings to life the reality of health inequalities. One hospital clinician saw a patient who was extremely malnourished and dehydrated. The patient had been regularly missing meals so she could feed her teenage son. When she first became unwell, she did not call the GP, because she was unable to afford to pay someone to look after her son, and was frightened that he would be taken into care if she had to go to hospital for a long time. She was eventually admitted to hospital with sepsis. There are other stories in the paper of people who missed hospital appointments because they could not afford public transport, people who do not have the kitchen facilities to cook food and someone who was hospitalised because their asthma was aggravated by mould in their flat that the landlord refused to fix.

As we all know, 40 years ago, Sir Douglas Black, a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, was asked by the Department of Health and Social Security to lead an expert committee looking into health and inequality. That now famous Black report was unequivocal and said that while overall health had improved since the introduction of the welfare state, there were widespread health inequalities, the main cause of which were economic inequalities.

In his foreword to the report, the then Secretary of State said:

“the influences at work in explaining the relative health experience of different parts of our society are many and interrelated.”

That is as true today as it was then. It might seem that health inequality is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS but, as other hon. Members have said, health and social care services can only try to cure the ailments created by the environments people live in.

Research by the University of York linked austerity measures with the deaths of almost 60,000 more people than would be expected in the four years following their introduction. The money a person has will change the decisions they make about their health. It is the difference between having a healthy meal and having a meal at all, or between choosing to pay for the journey to the GP for an ongoing cough or choosing not to.

Housing affects health too. Last year, Shelter found that poor housing was harming the health of a fifth of renters. Our society benefits some people and deprives others, and those structural inequalities drive many of the health inequalities in black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups. We have to address that if we want to tackle this issue.

If we are to prevent ill health in the first place, we need to take action on issues such as how much money people have, poor housing, food quality, communities, place, employment, racism and discrimination, transport, and air pollution. That is why many organisations and coalitions, including the 200 members of the Inequalities in Health Alliance, which is convened by the Royal College of Physicians, have made calls for a cross-Government strategy to reduce health inequalities.

Tackling health inequality requires a considered and co-ordinated approach across myriad factors. Last year, the Government signalled that they recognise the need to look beyond the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS and to take action on the issues that cause ill health. When the Secretary of State announced the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities in October last year, we were promised a new cross-Government agenda that would look to track the wider determinants of health and reduce disparities. The Health Promotion Taskforce was established.

These are potentially encouraging signs, but I am concerned that we are yet to hear the detail of what the OHID will do to reduce health inequalities. Will the Health Promotion Taskforce have a remit to take action outside the Department of Health and Social Care? When will we see a strategy on reducing health inequalities, so that we know what the Government’s ambition is in this area and we can track progress? Will the Government commit to developing a cross-Government strategy to reduce health inequalities?

Will the Minister set out how the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will reduce health inequalities? Will he tell us about the work of the Health Promotion Taskforce and how often it meets? What engagement has the OHID had with Government Departments to date, since it was formally established on 1 October 2021? Importantly, will the Minister set out how the OHID will work with integrated care systems and support them to address health inequalities in their areas? I hope he can answer some of those questions.

When the Labour Government first asked Professor Marmot to review health inequalities in 2008, Gordon Brown said:

“The health inequalities we are talking about are not only unjust, condemning millions of men, women and children to avoidable ill-health. They also limit the development and the prosperity of communities, whole nations and even continents.”

He was absolutely right.

This Government were elected on a platform of levelling up, but while covid-19 caused a decrease in life expectancies for most countries between 2019 and 2020, the UK’s life expectancy has fallen below where it was in 2010. The UK was one of only two countries where that happened, the other being the United States.

In 1980, the Government responded to the Black report by saying:

“you might be right about the solution, but it’s going to cost too much.”

After two years of living with the pandemic, which, of course, has hit the most deprived the hardest, it is clear that the real cost lies in not supporting those who need that support most. Only Government can create the conditions for better health by improving the factors that lead to ill health in the first place. I hope the Minister can set out what the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities can do to achieve the aim of reducing inequality, and can confirm that the Government intend to tackle the wider determinants of health, which drive so much of the health inequality that we see.