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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 26th January 2022.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:27 pm, 26th January 2022

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate Peter Dowd on securing the debate and making an excellent opening speech. I also endorse what has been said by hon. Members on all sides—predominantly those from urban areas, because poverty is a major driver of health inequalities and discrepancies. I hope that my colleagues will understand if I now focus on some rural discrepancies, which are also significant and in some ways overlap with those on which hon. Members have focused so far.

The first area I will look at is social care. Social care is, obviously a huge issue and under massive pressure everywhere in the United Kingdom. There is an extra problem in rural communities like Cumbria. In my constituency, the average house price is 11 times the average household income; there are twice as many second homes in my patch as there are council houses. At this moment, 150 people who should be in social care are stranded in hospital beds, and one of the reasons for that is that the Government underfund social care. Not a penny of the national insurance rise that is coming will go into the pockets of hard-working care workers, so it is hard to retain and recruit them from a relatively small working-age workforce.

That has led to a number of issues. Just the other day, I was speaking to a person who needs a rota of six carers in order to function, but that person has not been able to find more than three for the last six to nine months. That is caused by a number of things, including silly visa rules, which the Government need to look at again, and the massive discrepancy between house prices and income—the availability of anywhere affordable to live for folks in the area.

Secondly, there is the issue of mental health—particularly young people’s mental health. Similar issues are present there when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff. There are wonderful staff—too few of them. When I did a survey of families in my constituency last year, we discovered that more than 50% of young people who presented with mental health conditions that needed attention waited more than three months, and 28% waited more than six months. Some 52% said their experience of that care was poor as a consequence.

If a 15-year-old broke their leg on a football field on a Sunday afternoon, they would be seen immediately, but if something invisible breaks within one of our young people, they wait six months or more. That is intolerable anywhere, but it is fuelled by the fact that we are in a rural area that is underfunded for mental health provision.

When it comes to GPs, a few years ago the Government got rid of the minimum practice income guarantee, which subsidised small surgeries. Small surgeries in rural areas are not small because they are bad, but because they cover the size of a small country but a relatively small population. Coniston, which mourns its doctor, Dr Simon Fisher, who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago, has a roll of just 900 patients, not because its practice is poor quality but because it covers a vast area. The Government took away that money.

The sticking-plaster money, called atypical practice funding, that went to some surgeries just to keep them going will fold when the clinical commissioning groups go and the new integrated care boards come in, in just a few months’ time. I ask the Minister to look carefully at that, as otherwise we may lose dozens, if not hundreds, of rural GP surgeries around the country.

On cancer provision, the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group states that it is bad practice for any patient needing radiotherapy to have to travel for more than 45 minutes for treatment. I can tell the Minister that not a single person in my constituency lives within 45 minutes of radiotherapy, and many of them must make four-hour round trips, day after day, in order to get treatment at an excellent but distant centre in Preston. If the Minister is committed to tackling discrepancies, she will finally do what Government after Government, including the one of which I was part, have failed to do—deliver the satellite radiotherapy unit at Kendal that we have long been campaigning for. That will shorten those journeys and save lives.

My final point is about accident and emergency. The nearest accident and emergency centre to most of my constituency is at Lancaster. There is a lot wrong with the hospital at Lancaster. It is an old site, at the wrong end of the one-way system, and could do with renewing. Talk of hospital improvement money going into it is welcome, but what is not welcome is the Minister’s Government’s continued insistence on looking at the option to close the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, merge it with the hospital at Preston and have a new hospital somewhere in the middle. If the answer is to make A&E for south Cumbria another 10 or 15 miles further away, that is the wrong answer. I ask the Minister to talk to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and others to take that option off the table, so that people from my communities do not have to travel dangerous distances to get the treatment they deserve.

I endorse what my colleagues from more urban areas said earlier in the debate, but I want the Minister to focus on the fact that many people in rural communities think they are overlooked by this Government, that their votes are taken for granted, and that as a result we get the situation that I have just outlined.