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Health Inequalities

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023

The Government are committed to our levelling-up mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy by 2030. That is why, in October, we committed an additional £50 million to 13 local authorities to tackle inequalities and why we are also setting out our plans through the major conditions strategy.

Even in areas that people consider to be affluent, such as Buckinghamshire, health inequalities can be a serious concern. Figures from Opportunity Bucks show there is an eight-year difference in life expectancy between residents of the Aylesbury North West ward and the Ridgeway East ward, both of which are in my constituency, yet the funding for those areas is essentially the same. Will my right hon. Friend explain the steps he is taking to ensure that deprived communities, wherever they are in the country, get the additional help and support—not necessarily purely financial—that they need to address their needs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of targeting health inequalities. Let me give the House a practical example. For lung cancer, patients are 20 times more likely to survive five years if we catch it early rather than late. Before the pandemic, those in the most deprived communities had the worst diagnosis. However, as a result of the targeted action we took with lung cancer check vans, they now have the best early diagnosis, which obviously has a big read-across for the five-year survival rate.

The UK ranks 29th in global life expectancy. Professor Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine notes that one reason why the overall increase in life expectancy has been so sluggish in the UK is that it has fallen for poorer groups. The Scottish Government are doing everything they can within devolved competencies to fight poverty—the Scottish child payment and so on—but Westminster controls 85% of social security. What representations has the Secretary of State made to Cabinet colleagues and the Department for Work and Pensions about the damaging effects of their policies on life expectancy?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. He can see the success of the representations I made to Cabinet colleagues from the Chancellor’s Budget statement, when he announced additional funding to tackle, in particular, health impediments to access to the labour market. He will also have seen the recent announcement of targeted action on, for example, smoking cessation, which is a particular driver of health inequalities. That includes our financial incentive scheme to pregnant mums, which obviously has a big impact on both their health and the health of their baby.

It is becoming clear that in Cornwall the only way to get dental care is to go to a private dentist. In a deprived area, of which there are many across Cornwall, that is just not an option for people on low incomes. What can the Secretary of State do to increase the accessibility of NHS dentistry?

This issue concerns Members across the House. We have already started to reform the dental contract. We have introduced the £23 minimum value for units of dental activity and created more UDA bands, reflecting the fair cost. We are seeing more patients nationally—to March, up nearly a fifth on the year. But I recognise that there is more to do, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), is undertaking that work as we speak.

Women in my constituency have a healthy life expectancy of only 56 years. Could the Minister explain why the difference between West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire—where the Prime Minister has his constituency—is 10 years? Why should women have to put up with that kind of experience? What is his explanation of how that has happened?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we should narrow the health inequalities gap, and we are committed to doing that. That is why in the women’s health strategy, which I set out in the summer, we committed to having women’s health hubs as one-stop shops to tackle some of the gender inequality. It is also why, whether on obesity, smoking or lung cancer, we are targeting our screening and public health interventions to close the gap, which he is quite right to highlight.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right: we should be narrowing the health inequalities in this country. It is just a shame that, on his watch, we are not. A baby born in Blackpool today will live eight years less than a baby born in Kensington. Under this Tory Government, health inequalities have widened in many parts of the country. They have scrapped their health disparities strategy and cut the number of health visitors by a third, and ordinary families are paying the price. Why does the Secretary of State not get a grip, adopt Labour’s plan to scrap the non-dom tax status and train 5,000 new health visitors, so that every child has a healthy start to life?

There is consensus in the House on our desire to close the health inequality gap—everyone agrees that is a key aim. The hon. Gentleman seems to have written the question before hearing my answer. I just gave a practical example of how we have transformed the early detection of lung cancer. He raised the public health grant, and I am happy to update the House that we are delivering 2.8% funding growth in the public health grant to help local authorities.

It is also about areas such as obesity and access to employment, which can have a big impact on mental health. The Chancellor announced specific funding—[Interruption.] The shadow Minister chunters away about children; I am conscious that one does not want too long an answer, but let me give the example of mental health. In the Budget we announced extra funding for a whole load of digital apps—[Interruption.] The shadow Minister keeps chuntering about children. Let me talk about the roll-out of our mental health support in schools, which is targeted at getting that early mental health intervention to school children.