Health and Care Bill debate, 22 November 2021

The biggest contribution this government could make would be to abandon their plans for yet another decade of austerity. Poverty is the biggest single driver of ill health, and the biggest driver of poverty is Tory austerity.

Full text:

I thank the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for clarifying that I had not voluntarily added my name to his amendment.

Whenever we talk about such subjects, we hear a lot about the nanny state. As a surgeon working in A&E in general surgery, however, the difference when seatbelts, airbags and speed limits came in was night and day in how much time I spent dealing with people in operating theatres who had been involved in car crashes. Sometimes the state has to take action to protect people’s health and wellbeing.

The Bill focuses largely on reversing some of the most egregious aspects of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which I welcome, but these measures focus on improving public health. There is no question that obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity pose not just a real threat to individual health but a threat that will overwhelm national health services in future. When I looked at the original Bill, however, I was surprised that, apart from the measures around obesity, there was little in the way of public health policy to improve and promote health, and there is also little enough about care.

It is not the national health service that delivers health. I have often said that it would be more appropriate to call it the national illness service, but who would want to work somewhere called that? The NHS spends most of its time catching people when they fall. Health comes from a decent start in life, a warm dry home, enough to eat and a decent education. Those are the things that deliver health, but there is nothing like them in the Bill.

Particularly, and surprisingly, there is nothing in the Bill on reducing harm from tobacco products and alcohol, which is why I rise to speak in support of new clauses 2 to 4, which seek to strengthen the health warnings on all tobacco products; new clauses 7 to 10, which seek to allow regulation of tobacco pricing; and particularly new clause 6, because the use of sweet flavourings to entice children and young people to take up smoking is indefensible.

Barry Gardiner: I heartily commend the hon. Lady for her comments. Does she experience in her constituency, as I do in mine, that smoking cessation services are diminishing and becoming less successful? As the tobacco industry concentrates on a core group of existing addicts, it is desperate to move down the age range and encourage new addicts. That is why that element of the new clause is important. 

Dr Whitford: I agree that new clause 6 is the most important of the new clauses, because tobacco companies are driven to recruit new victims—as I would have to call them, as a doctor—and they are recruiting them from young people.

Public health is devolved, so we have not had the cuts in public health funding that we have unfortunately seen in England since 2016. Therefore, we have not had the cuts to smoking cessation and sexual health services that many local authorities experienced across England when public health moved into local government.

Smoking does not just cause respiratory problems such as chronic obstructive airway disease, but affects all the blood vessels causing peripheral vascular disease, vascular dementia, strokes, heart attacks and many forms of cancer, not just lung cancer. Stopping smoking is the best favour anyone can do themselves, but many people require the very smoking cessation services that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.5.45pm

I find it surprising that there was nothing in this Bill about tackling not just the health harms, but the social harms associated with alcohol abuse. Indeed, alcohol has not even been included in the definition of less healthy foods, despite that clearly being the case. There is no health argument for alcohol. I am not saying that people have to abstain, but the research many people cite about how having some alcohol is of health benefit over full abstention has all been discredited. That was because people who actually had alcoholic disease and were made to give up alcohol were put in the abstention group, and therefore brought their liver disease, their varices and everything else with them. More recent research shows that, unfortunately, alcohol does cause harm. It is only about 10 or 15 years since we learned about its association with breast cancer, my specialty as a surgeon, and with that it is absolutely the case that the more alcohol a woman drinks, the higher her risk of breast cancer.

Christian Wakeford : Obviously, as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol harm, I know that part of the issue with treatment—I am thinking in particular of new clause 16—is the stigma behind alcohol dependency and its still being seen as a personal choice. While we need to overcome the stigma of addiction, we first need to be having a conversation about alcohol. Does the hon. Member agree that, as part of the treatment, we need to be having this conversation on a national level?

Dr Whitford: I would say that really no one who has a health problem should be stigmatised. Having dealt over 33 years in the NHS with many people who were problem drinkers, I know that the public image of someone who abuses alcohol is quite a caricature. There will be many people across this House who drink more than is healthy for them and I have met many people as patients from the middle and upper classes who had serious alcohol problems, so we should get away from the stigma and the caricature. We will not spot everyone who needs to deal with alcohol just by looking at them.

Catherine West : I commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) in this regard. Does the hon. Lady agree with me that the whys and wherefores are all very well in this debate, but in the end the cuts to local government, which would primarily be providing services in relation to alcohol abuse, have been most disgraceful, and that is why we are seeing the huge increase in the number of people who have passed away from alcohol disease in the last couple of years following covid?

Dr Whitford: There is no question but that, after public health moved into local government—we can absolutely defend that because, as I have said, health is often delivered by things that are nothing to do with the NHS—the problem was that the budget was then cut, so the potential benefit of putting public health into local government was lost due to the cuts to services.

On alcohol not being classed as a less healthy food, with this Government I find it hard not to ask: why not, and what or who may have influenced that decision? I certainly support amendments 11 to 13 from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), which would include alcohol, particularly the medium and high-strength alcohols, under less healthy foods, so that alcohol is covered by advertising regulations. I also support his new clause 15, which would mandate much clearer labelling of alcohol units, or whatever measure, on labels. It is no good just saying “Drink aware” or “Drink Responsibly” when the consumer has not actually been given the tools on the product to make a proper choice, such as by asking, “How much is in this?” Why not agree to use a simple, straightforward approach? A lot of public health advice is in units, so why not actually use them? People would then learn to be aware and ask, “How many units have I already drunk today?” or “How many units have I already drunk this week?”

New clause 17 calls on the UK Government to follow Scotland, and now Wales, by introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol. The UK Government have the advantage in that they can do that by setting alcohol duty based on unit, instead of on classes of drink. In every Budget we hear about a penny on a pint of beer, or so much on spirits, but why not do it by unit? It is much more accurate, and it would still allow the raising of taxation to help fund alcohol services, as well as those public services most hit by alcohol abuse, such as healthcare and policing. Under devolution the Scottish Government, and now the Welsh Government, did not have that power.

Over the past year and a half of the pandemic we have, unfortunately, seen a big increase in both smoking and alcohol consumption, as people struggled to cope with the loneliness and boredom associated with lockdowns and pandemic restrictions. However, the initial valuation of minimum unit pricing in Scotland showed that alcohol sales fell, for the first time in many years, by more than 7% in Scotland, compared with a continued rise in England and Wales. It was not possible to demonstrate a reduction in overall alcohol-associated admissions to hospital, which may include car accidents, violence and so on, but there was a drop in admissions due to alcoholic liver disease, suggesting that the policy was working. More evaluation after the pandemic will be required, but an immediate impact was an almost three-quarters drop in the sales of cheap white cider. That product is cheaper than soft drinks, and predominantly used by young—indeed, often under-age—drinkers, who purchase it, or get someone else to purchase it, so that they can drink it at home. However, that sector is literally disappearing overnight.

It will be important to review and maintain the pressure of the unit price on a regular basis, because young drinkers also drink many other products—this is the same issue as young smokers; more people are being recruited, often into problem drinking and problem products. Minimum unit pricing does not affect good wine, high-end spirits, or what is sold in a pub, but it does affect what someone can buy in a small shop to then hang out with their mates in their bedroom. Some of those products are not affected by the 50p unit price, and that must be kept under review.

I was disappointed that new clause 30, which is listed for discussion tomorrow, was not included in this group. It calls on the Government to reform the out-of-date Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and to devolve it so to allow the devolved nations to take a public health approach to tackling drug addiction, in the same way as we take a public health approach to dealing with alcohol. Such an approach has already been demonstrated in many countries across the world, yet the Government keep sticking their head in the sand.

Hywel Williams: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning new clause 30, which I still hope against hope we might be able to discuss tomorrow. I am sure she will agree that problematic drug abuse is an illness and a social ill, not a crime, and our emphasis must be on harm reduction, treatment, and support for the problematic drug user.

Dr Whitford: That is the policy of the Scottish Government, and we would absolutely support the new clause if it is voted on tomorrow.

As Opposition Members have said, key to improving public health would be restoring the non-covid related public health budget in England. We cannot hide behind covid funding, because that is used up by the pandemic and does not help us with smoking, alcohol, or drug addiction. The biggest contribution the Government could make would be to abandon their plans for yet another decade of austerity. We hear the slogan all the time—levelling up—but it rings hollow after taking away £1,000 a year from the poorest families and most vulnerable households. Over the past decade, cuts to social security have caused a rise in poverty among pensioners, disabled people, and particularly children. Sir Michael Marmot was mentioned earlier, and his research was clear: poverty is the biggest single driver of ill health, and the biggest driver of poverty is Tory austerity.