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Health Inequalities

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019

The Government recognise the importance of reducing inequalities and have included a commitment to that in the NHS long-term plan. We know that public health services, such as immunisation, screening programmes, smoking cessation services and many other initiatives, can significantly improve health outcomes to combat some of the inequalities faced by ethnic minorities and those living in less affluent areas.

I thank the Minister for her response. After nine years of Tory austerity, advances in life expectancy, which steadily increased for 100 years, have now ground to a halt and have even gone backwards in some of the poorest areas. How does the Minister plan to reverse that damning trend?

Life expectancy has been increasing year on year, but it is also true that it is an international phenomenon that that rate of increase is coming to a halt. None the less, life expectancy in England is the highest it has ever been: 79.5 years for men and 83.1 years for women. We will continue to invest in our public health programmes and look at the wider issues facing society that can also contribute to good health outcomes, such as housing, work and so on. There is a lot that can be done; it is not just about NHS spending.

One of the best ways of getting early public health help across the doorstep is by investing in health visitors to give that much needed early support, especially to new parents to help to ensure that every child gets the best start in life. One of the best achievements of the Cameron Government was the creation of 4,200 additional health visitors. Does the Minister share my concern that since 2015, with the responsibility now having gone to local government, there has been a 26% reduction in the number of health visitors? That is something of a false economy.

I do share my hon. Friend’s belief that health visitors are probably the most important army in the war against health inequalities. They provide an intervention that is very family-based and not intimidating. It is based on good relationships and means we can provide intervention at the earliest possible time. He is right to highlight the massive investment we made during the Cameron Government. There has been a decline since, which we really must address if we are to get the earliest possible intervention and the best health outcomes for children.

We finally got to see the prevention Green Paper yesterday evening, and it rightly highlights the appalling inequality in healthy life expectancy and the fact that being overweight or obese is now the leading risk factor for disability and years lived with disability. Will the Secretary of State please reassure the House that he will act on the evidence? The prevention Green Paper makes it very clear:

“The Soft Drinks Industry Levy…has been hugely successful in removing the equivalent of over 45,000 tonnes of sugar from our shelves.”

The House really needs to hear reassurance that we will not roll back on those kinds of issues.

I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government are committed to following the evidence; that is very much a theme in the prevention Green Paper. The evidence will speak for itself. Clearly, she is absolutely right to highlight obesity as the biggest risk factor in impeding healthy life expectancy. That is why, across Government, we should be vigilant about tackling it.