Health Inequality Has Got Worse Under Labour, Says Government Report

Health inequality as measured by life expectancy and infant mortality has got worse since Labour came to power, a government report said today.

Babies born to poor families now have a 17% higher than average chance of dying, compared to a 13% higher than average chance 10 years ago.

And the life expectancy of people living in poverty has fallen further behind the average, particularly for women, than it was around the time of Tony Blair’s election.

In absolute terms health is getting better. Life expectancy for all social groups is going up, and infant mortality figures are going down.

But, according to a report published by the Department of Health called Tackling Health Inequalities, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened over the last decade.

The figures are embarrassing for the government because cutting health inequalities has been one of its priorities. In 2003 it committed itself to reducing inequalities in health outcomes by 10% by 2010, as measured by infant mortality and life expectancy at birth.

Today’s figures show that those targets are not being met.

In 2004-06 infant mortality among manual workers was 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. That was 17% higher than the national average of 4.8 deaths per 1,000 live births.

In the baseline period, 1997-99, the infant mortality rate was only 13% higher among manual workers.

On life expectancy, today’s figures show the life expectancy gap between men living in the poorest areas of England and the average male is 2% wider than it was 10 years ago.

But, for women, the gap is 11% wider than it was.

In an introduction to the report, public health minister Dawn Primarolo said: “We are under no illusions about the task.

“Health inequalities remain stubborn, persistent and difficult to challenge. Successive status reports have highlighted the nature of this challenge.”

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, chairman of the government’s scientific reference group on inequalities, said it was too early to tell whether government action taken to deal with inequalities was having an effect.

“Whatever actions were taken between 2003 and 2006 there would be little short-term impact on health inequalities,” he said in his preface to the report.

But the overall improvements in life expectancy, and reductions in infant mortality, were “very welcome”, he said.

David Sinclair, the head of policy at Help the Aged, said that the figures represented a “staggering failure” on behalf of the government.

“The starkest demonstration of the gap between rich and poor can be seen in the gulf in life expectancy between different social groups. Despite the government’s commitment that no one should be disadvantaged by where they live, the reality is that people who are poor, or who live in poor communities, die earlier.”

Sinclair said that although health inequalities were not just caused by health policies, “too often it is the failure of the NHS to adequately fulfil its obligations which is the problem”.

He explained: “All too often, poorly served communities are poorer communities – leading to a cycle of disadvantage and poor health.”