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ONS: UK Life Expectancy

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the publication by the Office for National Statistics National life tables—life expectancy in the UK: 2017 to 2019, published on 24 September.

My Lords, life expectancy is at its highest level ever, but we have seen improvements stall and we expect to see adverse impacts from Covid on life expectancy data in the future. Covid has shone a light on the differences in health outcomes between communities; that is why the Government remain committed to levelling up health outcomes so that everyone can enjoy a long and healthy life.

My Lords, my Question has nothing to do with Covid. What are the reasons life expectancy improvements have slowed in comparison to the previous decade? The flatlining in the ONS statistics, at figure 1, is a worry because it is a trend of 10 years, and the Marmot review in February said that this had not happened since the year 1900. For women in the most deprived areas, life expectancy actually fell between 2010 and 2018, so why has there been no national health inequality strategy since 2010? Why has that disappeared off the face of our policy-making? When does the Minister expect the flatline to go back up again?

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right that this stalling of the life expectancy curve is extremely worrying, and he is right to emphasise the disappointing results in deprived communities, where, as he says, we are going backwards instead of forwards. Covid has shown how that has a huge impact on the resilience of the nation’s public health. The Government are committed to this agenda—we published a prevention Green Paper and we are committed to building a strategy out of that Green Paper, and since then we have done work on better health, on obesity and on other areas of life expectancy—but I agree with him that more can and should be done.

My Lords, it is clear that there has been a downturn in the rate of mortality improvement since 2010, and the evidence is that the impact of these negative trends has been greater among more deprived groups, with some suffering an actual decline in their expected lifespan. Does the Minister accept that a significant reason for this has been the imposition of austerity policies since 2010 under successive Conservative Governments?

Given the ONS recent findings that the lowest regional life expectancy for both male and female children at birth in 2017-19 was observed in my area of the north-east of England, when will Her Majesty’s Government commit to a full- blown strategy to eliminate the obstacles disproportionately facing children in poverty here in the north-east?

The right reverend Prelate is right to emphasise some of the disappointing figures around children, and the north-east is one area where the challenge is greatest. But I remind him that we have strategies for healthy behaviours in school, we are committing a huge amount of funding for more physical activity in schools, and we think that this will have a major impact on both the fitness and healthy outcomes of children. That kind of project will make a big impact.

My Lords, can my noble friend give any real explanation as to why the UK is so low down on the OECD figures for average annual increases in life expectancy at birth? On the ONS tables, England is 18th out of 21 countries, with Scotland and Wales faring even worse. Is there a particular reason he can think of—could it be methodology or social habits? Has he any further explanation of the comparative situation here?

My Lords, I cannot give an answer in the round and explain every element, but we have to face up as a nation to the fact that some of our habits are unhealthy. In some communities smoking rates are extremely high, and the difference between different communities is profound—1.6% in west London, compared to 25.7% in Blackpool. Our obesity, BMI and consumption of high-calorie food is just too high. This is not the sole explanation, but as a nation we have to face up to some of our behaviours.

My Lords, half the considerable difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in our country is entirely accounted for by smoking. At present, the Government are spending considerable amounts of money on advertising campaigns which tell people how to keep safe during the Covid pandemic. In the future, will the Government reinstate advertising aimed at promoting smoking cessation, to meet their own target of making Britain a smoke-free country and helping to improve the health and life expectancy of the poorest in our society?

The noble Lord makes his point extremely well: smoking rates in this country are far too high. The huge amount of Covid advertising at the moment has squeezed out a lot of our public health messages, and I reassure him that we will return to them—including the smoking campaign—when normal business resumes.

My Lords, there have been life expectancy improvements in the UK, which I welcome. My concern regards paediatric obesity, which brings associated increased risks of morbidity, disability and premature mortality in adulthood. The Government have set a national ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030. As they have taken a strong lead with the soft drinks industry levy, what proposals are being looked at to extend its mandatory approach beyond soft drinks to wider product ranges?

The noble Baroness is entirely right: 15% of children aged two to 15 are obese. That is a shocking figure, and extremely disappointing. We have already done a lot to bring in the taxes on sugary drinks, and we are ploughing the money from them into sport in schools. But she is right that the taxes on sugary drinks provide an interesting template, which could be used in other areas where industry fails to step up to its responsibility and to reduce the harm of fatty or other destructive foods.

My Lords, the Science and Technology Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, will publish a report in January on ageing, science, technology and healthy living, which noble Lords will find an interesting read. The Government have set themselves a grand challenge, with a target of increasing healthy life by five years by 2035. In light of the ONS report and the effects of the pandemic, what increased barriers do the Government think that they face to achieving that—or can it be achieved at all? If the Minister wishes to give a Written Answer, with a copy in the Library, I would be content with that.

The noble Lord makes his point extremely delicately and politely, but he is entirely right. We have a commitment for five extra healthy years by 2035, and the combination of the Marmot review, the ONS figures and Covid make that seem an extremely daunting challenge indeed. I am not sure if I have the complete answer standing at the Dispatch Box right now. I would be glad to write to him and explain how we will undertake the Green Paper on prevention, the response to which will be published next year, as an opportunity to outline the kind of strategy he calls for.

The Minister’s response to my noble friend Lord Davies of Brixton was an abrupt one, which kind of suggested that it was an accident that we are where we are with life expectancy and that the Government’s policies have no impact on that. My question actually follows very neatly from that of the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Do the Government intend to establish life expectancy and well-being as a strategic marker and measure for the whole nation’s well-being and welfare in all Acts? How will that feed into reforms for the NHS?

My Lords, I think that healthy living and life expectancy is a strategic marker. We are naturally focused on it and, in particular, the disparities between communities, which have been alluded to by a number of noble Lords. The huge gap between life expectancy in Blackpool and west London is extremely disturbing, and something that the Government are highly focused on. These are complex issues. They involve government policy—as the noble Baroness quite rightly points out—but also personal behaviours, and it will very much form part of the NHS plan going forward and the rebooting of the NHS in a post-Covid world.