Speech – Health Inequalities
Monday 1st October,
SHA Fringe Meeting,
Labour Party Conference, Manchester
Health inequalities reflect the socio-economic inequalities that exist in our society. While increased funding in health services is part of the solution, focus must be given to policy areas such as housing, education, and employment.
It is a shocking indictment of society that in 2012 a child born in poverty is more likely to become an adult in poverty, eventually dying earlier, and with more life limiting illness than their more affluent peers.
Poor housing can lead to chronic illness such as asthma and bronchitis, there is an attainment gap for children in receipt of free school meals, and many aspects of health and wellbeing are shaped early in life.
Social mobility has ground to a stop in the UK, where only one out of every nine children from a low income background will reach the top 25% of earners as an adult.
The Government have preached that work is a route out of poverty; I fundamentally believe it should be, but shockingly 61% of children in poverty live in a household with working parents. I agree with the Government – “work must pay” – everyone who works should receive a living wage, enough to cover the cost of living – we need to end poverty wages and it is time to move beyond a minimum wage to a living wage.
Despite Government rhetoric they have done nothing to make work pay. All they have achieved is to push people who are looking for or who cannot work further into poverty through cuts to welfare. No one working on a low income has been made better off by the Government, they have seen cuts to tax credits, wage freezes, public service cuts, the threat of Beecroft’s “fire at will” employment reforms, with arrogant multi-millionaire Government Minister’s saying they are not working hard enough.
Without a fairer, more equal country, we cannot expect a healthier society. A good society cannot be judged on economic growth alone. Three decades of economic growth hasn’t narrowed health inequalities as we see the gap widen between the richest and the poorest in society.
It cannot be right that a person living in the poorest areas in England will on average die seven years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods. Worst still, not only will their lives be shorter, they are likely to spend their shortened lives with a chronic illness, there is a 17 year difference in disability free life expectancy between the least and most affluent people in society. If we could equal life expectancy, those currently dying prematurely would enjoy between 1.3 and 2.5 million extra years of life, of which a further 2.8 million years would be free of life limiting illness.
The scale of the challenge is immense, and with a Conservative led Coalition Government purely focused on “austerity” it would be naive to believe they could be persuaded by the human cost alone. The truth is health inequalities and limiting the life opportunities for the poorest in society has a huge impact on our economy.
It is estimated that health inequalities account for productivity losses of up to £31 – 33 billion per year, in addition to lost taxes and higher welfare payments in the region of £20-32 billion per year. The further cost to the NHS is in the region of £5.5 billion per year, and if we fail to reduce health inequality the cost of treating obesity alone will rise from £2 billion per year to £5 billion per year by 2025.
The Coalition Government health reforms have fundamentally altered the nature of the NHS. Through privately led commissioning groups we will see the reintroduction of a postcode lottery, a more fragmented and uncoordinated health service having to cope with the increased pressures of greater competition. This comes at a time when a more collective, more integrated and more focused effort is required in order to tackle health inequalities.
In order to stop today’s poor children becoming tomorrow’s poor adults the Government must refocus their attention on early year’s development, especially in deprived communities where the gaps begin to widen in health and social inequalities. We must enable every child to reach their full potential as success in education often brings many social, economic and health benefits.
It will require all political parties to re-pledge their commitment to end child poverty by 2020 as enshrined in law by the 2010 Child Poverty Act. It will require a commitment to full employment and a living wage as a means of eradicating in work poverty. We need the end of austerity that is making our communities poorer and hurting the most vulnerable in society by damaging our public services and welfare system exacerbating the social, economic and health inequalities that exist between the richest and poorest in society.