HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc150-2
8. Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

What plans he has to reduce the numbers of infant deaths in inner-city areas. [127516]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

Infant mortality rates have fallen for very many years, but there remains a gap between those born into affluent families and those born into more deprived families. We are currently developing a national plan for the NHS, which will set out a programme of change and improvement to address some of those problems. It will confirm that the Government's ambition is not only to improve the health of the population overall, but to narrow the gap between the worst off and the better off.

Ms Blears

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I have no doubt that he is aware of the research from Sussex university that shows that more babies die in Britain than anywhere else in northern Europe, that babies born into the poorest families are twice as likely to die as those born into professional families and that in inner-city areas such as mine—Salford—30 per cent. more babies are likely to die than the average for England and Wales.

Clearly poverty is a major cause of that situation—poverty that doubled under the policies of the Conservative party.

Good food and access to nutrition is one way in which we can begin to tackle that scandalous inequality. Will the Government support schemes launched by my education action zone and sure start to provide free school fruit and to ensure that we provide extra money for young mums and pregnant women to improve their diet? Access to fresh fruit, healthy food and good standards of nutrition are crucial to provide good health for future generations.

Mr. Milburn

This is a very serious issue that deserves to be considered seriously. From visits to my hon. Friend's constituency, I am aware of the good work that is being done by the local authority, the NHS and other players. On health outcomes, she is absolutely right that the gap between the richer and poorer parts of Britain remains stubbornly wide. On infant mortality rates, there was a three and a half to fourfold difference between different health authority areas in the last year for which we have figures. Although progress has been made over many decades to reduce infant mortality rates in England and across the United Kingdom, none the less it is also correct that our infant mortality rates remain above the European Union average. We must address that. To do so, we must not only achieve the proper focus on prevention and treatment, but take action across the Government to tackle some of the root causes of ill health. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a clear correlation between poverty, ill health and, sometimes, infant mortality rates.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

Will the Secretary of State explain how his decision to cut the budgets of 11 health action zones in the poorest part of the country, including Salford, will help those plans to cut infant deaths?

Mr. Milburn

I was not aware that the hon. Lady was a signed-up member of the health action zone fan club; obviously I was wrong. I know from her views about the national health service that she likes to visit NHS hospitals to see what it is like for those who do not have private health insurance. I think that that is what she had to say on the record in The Health Service Journal.

There has not been a cut in the amount of money going to health action zone areas. This year, the average increase per zone area budget is 37.5 per cent. Individual HAZs are seeing increases of between 10 per cent. and more than 70 per cent. That is not a cut, but an increase.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that inequalities within some health authorities are even greater than those between health authorities? My constituency comes within the Berkshire health authority. For 20 years, the health authority's view of ending health inequality has been to ensure that it does not spend a penny more in Slough than is spent in the rest of the county. Indeed, over the years it has spent much less in Slough, with the result that infant mortality and deaths from heart attacks and strokes are comparable with those in the inner-city area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears).

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that health authorities are given instructions to tackle the sort of inequalities to which I have referred so that the people of Slough can enjoy the same excellent standard of health that is enjoyed by the people of Wokingham down the road?

Mr. Milburn

My hon. Friend is right to say that there are inequalities between areas and within health authority areas. We have made it clear that over time we expect health authority areas will be able to move their allocations to primary care groups and trusts so that they begin to address inner health authority problems and inequalities so that there is a fairer distribution of cash between health authority areas and within them.

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