"I fought the general election with a desire not just to save our NHS but to make it the best service anywhere in the world." ...
"Over the past five years of the coalition Government, however, I have seen nothing to suggest that reducing health inequalities has been anything like a priority for a Conservative Administration. I fear that if that remains the case for the next five years, the situation is only going to get worse." ...
Sharon Hodgson MP
2 Jun 2015 : Debate on the Address - Queen's Speech Debate - Health and Social Care
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I would like first to take this opportunity to thank the people of Washington and Sunderland West for re-electing me as their representative. It has been a privilege working on their behalf over the past decade; I look forward to continuing to do so over the next five years.
Today’s debate focuses on health and social care, which is one of the issues I heard a lot about on the doorstep during the election campaign. The Gracious (Queen's) Speech included sections on health that were similar in tone to policies that Opposition Members campaigned on during the election. However, as too many have learned the hard way over the past five years, we should always take Tory promises on the NHS with a rather large pinch of salt. The Gracious Speech spoke of securing the future of our NHS. That is the same future that five years of Conservative policies have put in dire jeopardy, which is why Labour in opposition must work harder than ever to push the Government to do what is necessary to help our struggling NHS services.
I would like to focus my remarks on the specific problem of continuing health inequalities experienced in many parts of the UK. Compared with the rest of the country, my region, the north-east, has ingrained health inequalities. That is clear from the persistently lower life expectancy, and we also have the highest national rate of early deaths from cancer. The situation will only get worse if the investment into the NHS is not forthcoming and properly tailored. The coalition Government oversaw a number of disastrous policies that put our NHS under increasing strain in the north-east. It will be my job and that of my north-east colleagues to make sure that this Government do not keep ignoring our needs and that something is done not only to cure the problems we currently have but, crucially, to invest in prevention to stop them from taking root in the first place.
Similarly, all across the country, other health inequalities exist that this Government must do more to address, none more so than the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. It is estimated that by 2020 half the entire population can be expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, so it is crucially important to make sure that we have a system that works for everyone. This will mean boosting greater awareness, more innovative training of doctors, investing in the drugs needed to treat the conditions, and having the staff available to help people as they go through what is likely to be the most traumatic period of their lives. This takes investment, but it also takes the will to do it. We need the Government to be truly proactive and positive in getting to grips with this issue. I can assure Ministers here today that I will continue to press them on this as, I hope, co-chair of the all-party group on breast cancer, and again I hope, if I am re-elected, as chair of the all-party group on ovarian cancer. I am sure that my colleagues will do likewise.
In my capacity as shadow Women and Equalities Minister, I have been very aware of the shocking health disparities seen among people from BAME—black, Asian and minority ethnic—backgrounds. Incidence rates of myeloma for African and African-Caribbean men and women are twice as high as for white men and women. Mouth cancer rates in Asian females are 50% higher than they are for white women. Black men have higher rates of prostate cancer than men of other ethnicities. These and many other equally alarming statistics make for worrying reading. I was proud to see in Labour’s BAME manifesto that our party made a commitment to focusing on delivering greater health equality. Over the past five years of the coalition Government, however, I have seen nothing to suggest that reducing health inequalities has been anything like a priority for a Conservative Administration. I fear that if that remains the case for the next five years, the situation is only going to get worse.
I fought the general election with a desire not just to save our NHS but to make it the best service anywhere in the world. Our policies would have made great strides towards achieving that, not only helping patients but improving the way we treat the brilliant medical, care and support staff who are the lifeblood of our NHS. Over the past five years, those staff have been overburdened and undervalued. That needs to change immediately, as does our over-reliance on agency staff, which has been all over the news today. According to a recent report from the Royal College of Nursing, spending on agency nurses in 2014-15 stands at £980 million, and the overall spend on agency staff is a staggering £3.3 billion. Surely this is not prudent or value for taxpayers’ money by any measure.
Worrying developments outlined in the Gracious Speech about workers’ rights undermine the already ridiculous assertion by the Conservative party that it is the party of working people. The Prime Minister and Chancellor like to don a high-visibility jacket now and again for a photo opportunity, but that does not fool the people of my constituency that they have their best interests at heart. If they banned exploitative zero-hour contracts, pursued tax dodgers and those who do not pay the minimum wage, tackled the blight of low pay all across the country, stopped punishing and demonising the most vulnerable, and upheld rather than sought to scrap the hard-won rights of working people across our country, then perhaps they would start to earn the right to call themselves champions of working people. Perhaps they will surprise us, but I, for one, will not be holding my breath.
I will finish by looking at another area that has been much harder for ordinary working people over the past five years—the provision of childcare. In my newly reprised role as shadow Children and Families Minister, I listened very carefully to the passage of the Gracious Speech on the Government’s commitment to increase free childcare for working parents. In principle, of course, this is a policy that Labour Members believe in. Indeed, we championed it during the election, and then the Tories copied us. Childcare for three and four-year-olds has suffered underfunding problems for some time now, with nurseries in the north-east suffering the worst. That has gone hand in hand with parents being consistently hit hard over the past few years, with childcare costs having reached simply unsustainable levels, going up a staggering 47% in the north-east.
I hope the Government understand how badly they need to do something about this and that they cannot cut precious child benefit to plug the funding gap. I will be watching out for that very closely.