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Health Inequalities

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2022

We are taking action on public health across the board. The £3 billion that we are investing in the drugs strategy will create an extra 50,000 places in drug treatment. We have doubled the duty on cigarettes since 2010 and brought in a minimum excise tax. We now have the lowest smoking rate on record and will go further. The £300 million that we are investing in Start for Life means new or expanded family hubs in 75 local authorities. We are taking action right across Government, from the £55 billion that we are investing in energy support to the measures that we are taking through at the moment to crack down on non-decent housing.

Levelling up is not just about jobs and infrastructure; it is about healthcare too, and dentistry is a key part of that. However, Darlington faces the potential closure of its surgery, which serves 7,000 patients, because the current system of NHS dentistry makes the business case for that surgery unviable. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure that we level up dental services so that my constituents can get the services that they need?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed this, and we are due to meet again shortly. I repeat my offer to speak both to that practice and to local partners so that we can tackle this crucial problem.

Research by the University of Manchester adds to the significant body of evidence showing that addressing disparities in healthcare is key to levelling up. Inequalities have resulted in a 30% productivity gap in the north, which can be attributed to poorer health. Will my hon. Friend outline how the Government are working to address this and to ensure that residents of the north are not at a health and care disadvantage?

I saw that important report, and we have to tackle the problem from both the health end and the economic end. Spending on health in the north grew from £36.5 billion in 2018-19 to £52.6 billion in 2020, so there is significant investment in health and preventing ill health in the north. Economic activity stops people sliding into a cycle of ill health and worklessness, and we are working jointly with the Department for Work and Pensions to roll out more disability employment advisers in jobcentres. The underlying key is to tackle and prevent ill health, hence the £3 billion drug strategy and the measures on smoking, energy and housing.

I will give the Minister a good example of health inequality. Until quite recently, we had a perfectly good consultant-led maternity service based in Caithness. Following the Scottish Government’s rubber-stamping decisions, pregnant mothers now have to make a 200-mile return journey to Inverness to give birth. That glaring inequality is despicable. I hope His Majesty’s Government will share best practice with the Scottish Government on tackling this problem.

I am always keen to work constructively with the Scottish Government. This sounds like a serious problem. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out how we are using our health and capital spend more efficiently, and unfortunately this is an example of where it is not happening in Caithness.

It is well documented that people in rural areas have worse health outcomes than people in urban areas. One driver is that the most vulnerable people lack access to the services they need. Will the Minister consider working with his colleagues in the Department for Transport to figure out how the most vulnerable people can access the healthcare they need?

We are rolling out community diagnostic centres to bring services closer to those who need them, and we are investing in 21,200 extra people working in general practice to make sure that rural services, as well as services in the rest of the country, are improved.

In 2019, the Tories promised to extend healthy life expectancy by five years, but on this they are failing. In the last year, the health disparities White Paper has disappeared, the tobacco control plan has been delayed and they have chickened out on implementing the obesity strategy because the Prime Minister is too cowardly to stand up to his Back Benchers. Health inequalities are widening as a consequence. Does the Minister plan to revive any of these strategies, or have the Conservatives completely given up on prevention?

I have already talked about some of the things we are doing to crack on with improving public health and narrowing inequalities, but I will add some more. We are driving up blood donations from shortage groups and vaccine uptake in areas with the lowest uptake. I mentioned the extra £900 million for drug treatment, taking the total to £3 billion over three years. I will not repeat all the things I mentioned but, across the board, we are working at pace to improve public health and narrow health inequalities.