Earlier this month, almost ignored by press and politicians, a detailed official report showed that the health gap between rich and poor is worsening.
The Scientific Reference Group of Health Inequalities study goes against all the rhetoric of how New Labour is creating a more equal, healthier society.
Behind the figures lies the reality that if you are poor your baby is far more likely to be stillborn or to die than if you are rich — and this class division of life and death is worsening.
“When Labour was in opposition it said it would tackle health inequalities,” Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, told Socialist Worker.
“It also said it would implement the recommendations of the Black Report that had graphically exposed the health inequalities in 1980 under the Tories.
“This did not happen when Labour came to power. Instead the party set up various commissions, created a new public health minister, and set out targets.
“This latest report is the first real measure of whether the targets are being met. And the terrible news is that the trend is getting worse, not better, on the two central indicators of infant mortality and life expectancy.
“This is especially surprising because under John Major’s Tory government from 1992-7 the health gap had been narrowing.
“Infant mortality is one of the most tragic and most telling indicators. It has very little ‘lag’, by which I mean that babies do not die because they have had 60 years of unhealthy lifestyles, or because they became smokers 20 years ago.
“These figures are the first big admission of failure. They are a reflection of growing inequality and the way in which the gaps between areas and groups is growing.
“This is the first Labour government that has failed to narrow the health gap. It is astonishing after eight years and making reducing health inequality a key target that we are in this position.
“When New Labour said that things can only get better, it meant issues like these. Infant mortality is very clearly about the conditions in which people live during pregnancy and immediately after the birth of their child.
“We know that the poverty of people without children has not been tackled by the regime of tax credits and these figures are a reminder of what this means.
“The report received very little publicity because it was released in August. The minister was on holiday and her deputy was unavailable.
“In fact it should have been released much earlier. In 2003 the government announced that it would produce an annual report. But there wasn’t one last year and then this year the report was delayed because of the election.
“The clear message is you cannot deal with health inequality without confronting wealth inequality.
“In a study we published earlier this year we showed that although life expectancy is rising, the situation for rich and poor is markedly different.
“If you live in parts of Glasgow, or parts of Manchester for example, then your life expectancy is pension age. You may do a hard, boring job for 45 years and then die as soon as you retire.
“In contrast the richest can expect to live to 85. So after what was probably a good job they will have two decades or more of relaxed life, seeing their grandchildren grow up and so on.
“In Britain the gap between the health of the rich and poor is widening, but in the US another study shows the situation is even worse — not only is the gap widening but the figures for infant mortality are actually worsening among the poorest, especially black people.
“This data demonstrates that the shift dates to 2001 when money was removed from welfare programmes and redirected towards military spending. This should be a warning.”
Danny Dorling is not alone in his analysis of these latest figures. Dr Alex Scott-Samuel, co-chair of the Politics of Health Group, wrote recently, “How ironic that 25 years after the Black Report slipped reluctantly into the public domain during the August parliamentary recess, after three months in the grasp of the Thatcher government, similar treatment has been accorded to a report documenting the failure of the most neo-liberal government since Thatcher.”
Class inequality is on the rise
The government pledged to reduce the health inequality gap — measured by infant mortality and life expectancy — by 10 percent between 1997 and 2010. But new figures show the gap is widening.
The report, commissioned by the department of health, found that the infant mortality rate in the poorest areas was 19 percent higher than that of average areas in 2001?3, as compared to 13 percent higher in 1997-9.
The gap in life expectancy between the bottom fifth and the population as a whole has also widened, by 2 percent for men and 5 percent for women between 1997-9 and 2001-3.
To download the full study go to www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/11/76/98/04117698.pdf [672KB]