David Stewart - Conference 18
David Stewart - Conference 18

Speech from Shadow Minister for Health

David Stewart MSP to Scottish Labour Conference

Dundee, Friday 9 March 2018

Chair, Conference,

David Stewart MSP – Shadow Minister for Health

On the 5th of July 1948, Sylvia Beckingham was admitted to hospital for a liver condition. A big event in her life but an even bigger event in British history. The 13-year-old was the first ever patient to be treated by the National Health Service.

The NHS, our NHS will be 70 years old in July. Our Party created the NHS and three score years and ten later, we are still defending it.

When Nye Bevan launched the NHS at the Park Hospital Manchester he faced a furious war on three fronts:
• The Tories in Westminster…
• A hard core band of consultants and…
• The then chair of the British Medical Association…

But he succeeded in the teeth of strong opposition.

What an achievement. A National Health Service.
The jewel in the crown of the post-war Labour government.

The uniting of all the hospitals and doctors’ surgeries to a state run service was ground-breaking in the western world.

Faced with an early shortage of nurses in 1948 – a familiar story today – Bevan pushed up their wages to attract recruits. A solution I would recommend to the Scottish Government!

The 1960s saw the first British heart and liver transplants. The first kidney transplant took place in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

The 1970s saw the first test tube baby and CT scans which revolutionised the way that doctors examined patients.

I am proud to belong to a Party with that 70-year-old pedigree.

But I am prouder still of its hardworking, front-line staff. The junior doctors, nurses, midwives, consultants, GPs, allied health professionals, porters and receptionists.

But despite their hard work and commitment we face challenges which have been touched on in this debate.
• Our aging population…
• Pressures on social care…
• The need for robust workforce planning, now and post-Brexit, and…
• A growing mental health crisis…

The nature of these public health challenges may look modern, but under the surface the root causes are the same old story. Poverty, social deprivation and inequality are significant contributors to poor health expectations and it is the least well off who are most at risk

Back in 1948 the NHS represented the advance of egalitarianism in our nation.

There was great hope for the new future it heralded: a Guardian news article from the time noted that the changes were, “designed to offset as far as they can the inequalities that arise from the chances of life, to ensure that a “bad start” or a stroke of bad luck, illness or accident or loss of work, does not carry the heavy, often crippling, economic penalty it has carried in the past.”

Inequality in health was a serious issue then and it sadly remains a serious issue now.

Life expectancy in the UK has stalled and in the past 50 years, the chasm between the health outcomes of the rich and poor has widened.

It is an outrage that in our 21st century society individuals’ health expectations are intrinsically tied to their postcode.

But our health inequalities are in fact a symptom; a symptom of wider social inequalities that can never be solved by the NHS alone.

Surely the key for our Movement is to dismantle the socio-economic inequalities which see the most disadvantaged die younger than those living in more affluent suburbs.

Take our modern day public health crisis – rising obesity. We know that obesity in the second biggest cause of cancer after smoking but 10 per cent of all UK children at age four to five, arrive at school already overweight.

This is a problem that is not unique to us – it is international in scope:

Over one third of US adults have pre-diabetes and Public Health England reported that six million adults do not take even a single ten-minute brisk walk per month.

A recent article in the British Medical Journal was headlined:

“Why do the couch, television and car appeal more that the park, gym and the bike?”

The Scottish Government’s new strategy focuses on making healthy food choices easier but individuals’ food choices alone cannot explain the fact that a quarter of all children living in our most deprived areas are at risk of obesity.

Conference, it is fine to talk about active travel but what if it is not safe to walk or cycle in your local neighbourhood?

It is fine to talk about healthy eating but what if you cannot buy fresh fruit and veg from your local shop due to rising food prices?

It is fine to promote a balanced lifestyle but what if working on a minimum wage, zero hour contract you need to grab a fast food dinner during your split shift?

Mental health – the topic of the motion in this debate – is also impacted by socio-economic factors. People living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to report common mental health problems compared to the least deprived.

Conference, to be serious about improving the health expectations of all of our citizens, means to be determined to eradicating poverty in Scottish communities.

Richard Leonard understands this. Scottish Labour understand this. The Trade Union Movement understands this.

That is why tackling wealth inequalities is at the heart of our health, and indeed all of our policy agenda.


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