Jonathan Ashworth speech at Women’s Health conference
Good morning, thank you for your invitation this morning.
Can I start by paying tribute to my friend and brilliant colleague Paula Sheriff for her work as part of the APPG.
It’s my commitment – as someone who aspires to be the Health and Social Care Secretary – that we implement a women’s health strategy informed by experts in the field and I want to invite you, this afternoon, to work with us on that strategy.
A key priority of such a strategy must include a focus on health inequalities.
Women live longer than men, but spend a greater proportion of their lives in poor health.
After years of austerity, it is clear that women’s heath inequalities are widening. Whether that’s on breast cancer outcomes, where one in ten cases are diagnosed late, on common mental health issues, which are more likely to affect women than men, on cuts to early years maternal health support, or restrictions in access to IVF –
Many women have rightly complained of the “gender pain gap”.
A study in the BMJ concluded that more than twice as many women as men had to make more than three visits to a primary care doctor in the UK before getting referred to a specialist for suspected bladder cancer.
NICE have had to directly advise staff to “listen to women” when women tell them about crippling pelvic and period pain and look out for the symptoms of endometriosis in a bid to speed up diagnosis.
We know that poor mental health affects more women than men, with more women than ever now presenting with common mental health problems, and rates of self-harm in women are higher than ever, especially in young women.
These health inequalities should be provoking greater urgency from policy makers and while I welcome the Department’s Women’s Health Committee, and the leadership of Lesley Regan from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, it’s my ambition that we go further in government as part of our commitment to tackle head on growing health disparities.
Of course, health inequalities arise for many complex, often interlinked, reasons – from the state of housing people that live in, the quality of the air we breathe, to income, educational achievement, disability and social isolation.
But it is absolutely the Government’s responsibility to create the conditions where people can live longer, healthier, happier lives.
It’s why an overarching target to narrow health inequalities will be a specific target of the next Labour government, running like a golden thread through our entire policy agenda.
So let me highlight some areas which I believe reinforce the case for a women’s health strategy.
Back in November we learnt of the appalling situation where 48,000 women missed out on receiving crucial information relating to cervical screening appointments and test results.
This comes at a time when cervical-screening rates in England are at their lowest for two decades. When women do decide to get tested, one in eight women find it difficult or even impossible to book an appointment.
I won’t need to remind anyone in here that a woman is diagnosed with cancer every three minutes in the UK. It’s the most common cause of death in women and yet evidence shows women from poorer backgrounds are less likely to take up offers of cancer screening.
I believe we should also be doing more on maternal health. So through our commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of every child, a Labour government will do more to support, and help, expectant mothers and mothers with new-born babies.
It’s why we are committed to expanding the Health Visitor workforce and introducing an additional mandated Heath Visitor contact. For mothers who want to breastfeed we want to offer them the right support they need and we would reinstitute the infant feeding survey in England.
Our resolve to tackle health inequalities and focus on the wider social determinants of ill health is especially urgent in the area infant mortality rates given rates in the poorest areas of England are much higher than those in the least deprived.
The loss of a baby means a lifetime of heart breaking pain. Rates of stillbirth, neonatal and infant mortality have been falling over the last century, but we know in recent years rates have decreased more slowly than other countries.
I endorse the NHS target to halve the number of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths and brain injuries by 2025. And my ambition is to go further, learning from best practice from nations like Finland, because central to our policy should be a commitment that each baby counts.
And just as I want us to do more to support mothers with their babies, I believe we need to tackle inequalities in fertility health and reproductive health too.
It’s getting harder to access fertility treatment. 1 in 6 couples have to deal with infertility, yet treatment is unfairly rationed around the country, creating yet another postcode lottery. NICE guidelines are ignored and it means that many people forced to spend thousands of pounds for private IVF treatment in the hope of having a child – the mental health toll of which can be devastating.
Ensuring reproductive health and wellbeing must also mean delivering universal standards of healthcare across a women’s lifetime, covering contraception, preconception advice, sexual health screening, and menopause care.
The stark reality is that two thirds of councils have reduced, or plan to reduce, their budgets for sexual and reproductive health services over the three year period from 2016. And since 2015, the number of sites commissioned to deliver contraception has been cut year on year.
Access to contraception services is a basic right which is increasingly being threatened by years of public health cuts, putting women at risk of unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.
The evidence recently given by the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV to the Health Select Committee was shocking, highlighting the decrease in the use of long-acting reversible contraception; rising abortion rates for the over 30s and the stark truth that 8 million women now live in areas where funding for contraception has decreased.
It was hugely disappointing and counterproductive, therefore, that the deep cuts to public health budgets were not reversed in the recent NHS Long Term Plan.
And while we’re on the subject of basic rights, let me offer one final example where I believe we have to act – Period Poverty – which is having a serious effect on the education, health and general quality of life for thousands of women and especially teenage girls in the UK.
I was shocked to find out, through the Freedom of Information act, that not one trust in England has a formal policy on providing sanitary products, for free, to inpatients in hospitals.
Provision in hospitals is scarce and patchy at best. We’ve heard anecdotally that they’re only available on certain wards, and sometimes they aren’t for sale, at all, on site. Yet research from the British Medical Association found that a number of trusts and health boards have razors and shaving foam readily available, and freely provided, to patients during their stay.
On Friday we confirmed that a Labour government would ensure that period supplies are available in every trust providing inpatient care across England, and we’d also make sure that trusts provide clear information to patients on how to access sanitary products in any literature they get before a planned stay in hospital.
I’m pleased that yesterday NHS England followed our lead and has announced it will implement this policy in the coming months.
So I want to thank the thousands of women and MPs, like Paula, who have made such a difference in this area by speaking out and demanding change.
So investment in improving women’s health will be a priority for Labour and our starting point must of course be a fully funded NHS. That is Labour’s commitment. If we were in government this year, our health service would receive an uplift of five per cent in investment paid for by taxation changes.
And just as we need a fully resourced NHS to tackle women’s health inequalities, we need to tackle staffing issues too.
I want the NHS to be the very best employer in the country where female staff are valued, supported, and paid properly.
Today, women make up over three quarters of all NHS staff. Yet female NHS staff in England earn nearly a quarter less than their male colleagues. So we must deliver equal pay, invest in training and support more women to get into senior positions.
It has been a privilege to have been invited here this morning and I hope you agree we have a shared agenda and I look forward to working closely with you all in the future.