It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Twigg. I will keep my remarks as brief as possible. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Peter Dowd for securing this important debate, at a time when the NHS is under enormous strain and facing a clear and present threat of relentless cuts and privatisation under this Conservative Government.
As well as leaving our beloved health service on its knees and struggling to cope after two years of a crippling pandemic, this Government have presided over a period of austerity that has seen health inequality become even more prevalent and extreme.
Last week, the other place started its Committee stage of the Health and Care Bill and began discussing proposed amendments about health inequality. Speaking at that Committee sitting, peers from across the House made clear that the Bill is a huge opportunity to eliminate health inequality and for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to tackling the “disease of disparity”, to quote the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who pledged to address the issue when he took office last year. However, in the months since, there has been little evidence that the Government are taking the bold steps required to address the crisis.
The Government cannot say that they are not aware of the issue, because research published in 2019 by the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that the highest reported rates of poor health in those under the age of 55 was overwhelmingly in the poorest percentiles, with the bottom 20% of the population having worse health outcomes by a staggering 1,100%.
Three years and a pandemic later, the situation is even bleaker. In 2020, life expectancy in England fell more dramatically than at any other point since world war two, as a result of the covid pandemic. In the poorest areas, life expectancy declined nearly twice as much as it did in the wealthy ones, while ethnic minority people died from covid at much higher rates. Sadly, those with disabilities faced a significantly higher death rate.
In my constituency, the gap in mortality and reported serious illness is stark. In the most affluent areas such as Heaton Mersey, life expectancy for women is 84 years, while for men it is almost 83. However, just a short distance away in central Stockport, the average life expectancy for a man is a staggering 12 years shorter, while in Brinnington a woman’s life will, on average, end a decade sooner. For life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, it is a similar picture. On average, the limited life chances of my constituents are particularly acute. Research by the King’s Fund reveals that the north-west experienced a far higher proportion of deaths from covid-19 than the south-west, to give just one example.
Significant investment in our NHS is needed to halt the rise in health inequality. That includes hospitals, which unsurprisingly play a significant role in health outcomes for many people. That investment could be put towards the facility’s funding or its catchment area, or it could improve accessibility for the vulnerable. With the NHS already at breaking point following 12 years of Conservative Government austerity and a crippling pandemic, we cannot afford to be wasteful—a point I have made consistently since my maiden speech, when I criticised this Government’s underfunding of Stockport NHS trust by £170 million in recent years.
Ultimately, I welcome any decision that improves public health outcomes and ensures the best quality healthcare for the people of Stockport. To build a healthier, happier and more equal society we must do more than simply increase NHS funding. I therefore urge the Minister to give a genuine commitment to truly universal healthcare that is fit for purpose for everyone, enabling the NHS to continue to be the envy of the world.