Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): It is appropriate that I should follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), as he made an important point about the economic aspects of the Queen’s Speech, and that serves to remind us that health is not just a matter of hospitals, doctors, nurses and medicine—important though all that is—but it is also affected by Government policies in other areas. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman in this respect, as I am very concerned that many of this Government’s policies are, directly or indirectly, having a damaging effect on the health of many millions of people in this country.
The first of those effects is illustrated by the growth in real poverty, which has led to the mushrooming number of food banks throughout the UK. I now have two food banks operating in my constituency, along with other sources of free food for those in need, and that situation is replicated in every constituency across the land. The food provided through the food banks is healthy food that is beneficial to the diets of those who receive it. In most cases food is provided only for a limited period, however, which suggests that at other times those who depend on food banks do not get decent meals and a decent diet, and often go hungry. Evidence from the Trussell Trust suggests that about one third of the people who are dependent on food banks are children, and we all know that those who have a bad diet at the beginning of their life can face serious lifelong consequences.
I acknowledge that the reasons why people go to food banks are complex. There is a world economic crisis and increases in food prices at a worldwide level, so I do not pin all the blame on this Government’s policies. No doubt in the current global circumstances we would have seen an increase in food banks under any Government. I would, however, have liked to have heard some mention in the Queen’s Speech about policies that would serve to tackle child poverty and the scandal of so many in our society being dependent on food banks.
We might have reversed policies such as the 1% cut* in many benefits that passed through Parliament not long ago. Another broader area that has a direct impact on health is poor-quality housing and lack of housing provision. The situation has been exacerbated by the bedroom tax. There cannot be a single MP on either side of the House who has not been contacted by constituents who are suffering directly as a result of the introduction of the bedroom tax. I shall not comment on the tragic case recently reported in the media and which was mentioned earlier, but I know of plenty of cases in my constituency where people’s lives have been turned upside down by the bedroom tax. It often has a serious effect on their mental health and sometimes takes away their ability to work, which in turn affects their ability to feed themselves and their family and to meet their energy bills. So, too, does the fact that the bedroom tax leads to people losing benefits, but there was not a word in the Queen’s Speech to amend a policy that has increasingly been shown to be indefensible.
The housing problem is not just about homes being under-occupied. Many of us know from our own constituencies about the problems of poor-quality housing, overcrowded housing and lack of affordable housing. The Queen’s Speech did not give sufficient priority to addressing that. Yes, there were policies designed to support the housing market, some of which will have benefits as regards affordable housing, and I welcome that. However, the Government still seem desperately keen to promote a housing boom at the higher end of the market, because houses worth up to £600,000 will be eligible for their programme. Again, that is an example of the wrong priorities when the real priority should have been to tackle poor-quality housing, and not to force people into the terrible situation in which many find themselves because of the bedroom tax.
Another area where wider policies have a direct impact on health is employment. We all know that health and being in a job go together. In many cases, being unable to work or being in insecure employment is likely to be extremely damaging to health. I was taken by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) about workers on zero-hours contracts in the health service. That is not only bad for the health service but for the workers whose health may be directly affected by the insecurity of being in such a situation.
No matter what the official employment figures say, and they are bad enough, the reality of unemployment, low employment and under-employment is underestimated. In all our constituencies, people are working part-time when they do not want to and being forced to take large wage cuts. We have the spectre of people working on zero-hours contracts, returning to a day-labourer system where people do not know from day to day whether they will be in employment. If anyone thinks that that does not have direct effects on people’s health and well-being, they are deluding themselves. If we do not tackle these issues, there will be increasing health problems for many people in our society. That is why Labour’s job-creation programmes, which we will discuss in later debates on the Queen’s Speech, are so important. We also need international action, with a change in direction to get away from the austerity programmes that are causing so many problems and so much unhappiness not only in our country but throughout the rest of Europe.
Toby Perkins: The link between health and unemployment was addressed very well, under the previous model of the NHS, by Derbyshire primary care trust, which supported and funded programmes to get the long-term unemployed into work. This does not seem to be happening as much in the restructured NHS. Will my hon. Friend expand on the importance of getting the long-term unemployed into work and the impact that joblessness has on their health?
Mark Lazarowicz: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Measures to address long-term unemployment and child poverty, to tackle housing inequality and poor housing provision, and to provide more security in jobs and housing and in other ways are some of the biggest things that could have been done to promote health throughout our country.
I wish that Conservative Members who have spoken in the debate on the Queen’s Speech and the debates leading up to it had shown as much concern and passion about these issues as they have with the in-fighting on European issues that has taken up so much of the internal debate within their party. I accept that in the past few hours we have heard mainly constructive and thoughtful speeches on health issues by Conservative Members, but I suspect that that is simply because the ones who are doing the plotting and the in-fighting are doing it elsewhere. It is a pity that more Conservative Members have not paid attention to the issues that the people in our country want addressed—health, employment and housing. In those areas we need a significant change in direction from the Government which the Queen’s Speech did not give us.
(* NOTE: The 1% increase in many benefits represented a cut in real terms)