Richard Leonard: Corbyn’s radical shift can inspire us to tackle health inequality

2nd October, 2017 1:00 pm

My overriding mission to abolish poverty will include tackling health inequalities and making that an explicit Scottish government priority. It is a moral issue: but it also holds us back as a country, weakens Scottish society and harms our economy because we need the talents of every single person in Scotland to reach their potential. Things must change – real change is required. 

This is why over the last three days I have published three sets of policies on poverty. On making the living wage a reality; on empowering local government; and now today on the problem of health inequalities.   

In Scotland, over one million people are living below the poverty line. Fuel poverty is a blight on half of our pensioners. Food banks are on the increase. An increasing number of children, up forty thousand from last year to 260,000 are living in poverty in Scotland in 2017. 

Fundamental and wholesale change, at the same time as very specific and targeted policies, is needed to uplift our communities, people, families and children who need help the most. 

Our all-consuming mission to abolish poverty will confront the real causes of poverty. And it will focus on the consequences of poverty and how to tackle them: the ways in which it can manifest itself, from the impact on health to educational attainment. The ideas we published last week about looked-after children were a foretaste of this mission for change in Scotland.

We will find not only policy solutions but campaigning strength from Scottish civil society. We will build bridges, not barriers, to those who share Labour’s vision for real change or values, regardless of how they voted in recent elections and referenda, in pursuit of this all-consuming commitment. A tough line on better wages, stronger local government, faster and more effective action, will be integral to everything we do.

Collectively its our aim to draw strength from the radical campaigning shift that Labour has taken under Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017 manifesto. I am proud that the majority of Labour’s new Scottish MPs are supporting me: the symbolism of their victory and the politics of the 2017 manifesto will be at the heart of our drive to end poverty.

And I will draw on my own work as a trade union organiser supporting people in the workplace as a guide to how we bring about improvement for Scotland’s people and a more equal Scotland.

Let us take health inequalities. The SNP Scottish government has discussed health inequalities a great deal but for all that, it has done nothing to improve this unacceptable state of affairs. Poverty and inequality, which have increased under the present Scottish government, are what cause the shocking postcode-driven life expectancy that mars our society.

Life-expectancy in Scotland is amongst the worst in Europe, whilst differentials in life-expectancy are stark. In 2015 the Scottish parliament health committee said: “A boy born in Lenzie, East Dunbartonshire, can expect to live until he is 82, yet for a boy born only eight miles away in Calton in the East End of Glasgow life expectancy may be as low as 54 years, a difference of 28 years or almost half as long again as his whole life.”

Vital though it is, the NHS by itself can’t resolve the harmful failure that this health committee statement demonstrates. Tackling health inequalities requires that we have to use all the levers of power to tackle this problem.

We must never forget that health inequalities are as a result of political and economic decision-making and the way society is currently organised. But we should also remember that how we organise society in the future can help eliminate inequalities. As First Minister I will reverse the decline of our public services: including investing in our crisis ridden mental health services, particularly for our young people.

Accepting inequality is a political choice. I will never accept inequality as a natural state of affairs.

To make tackling health inequalities a national priority I will take action, including the following measures:

  • Establish national targets for reducing health inequalities.
  • Create a cross-portfolio cabinet secretary for health equity.  
  • Introduce statutory guidance that ensures better and more effective co-ordination of activity between government, local authorities, health boards and communities that ensures tackling health inequalities is their first priority.
  • Ensure a health inequality impact assessment is undertaken on every single policy proposal put forward by every public authority; including the government.
  • Review and improve where public funds are allocated to make sure more resources go to where they are needed most, based on socio-economic circumstances of communities.
  • Charge Scotland’s special health board – National Services Scotland, Health Scotland – to provide evidence, data, evaluation and implementation support for equity measures that will help identify where allocation of resources is needed most.

With me as first minister, and with our growing movement for real change, we will use all of the powers of the Scottish parliament, legislative and fiscal, as well as its powers of influence with Scottish civic society. If you want to be part of this change, join us here.

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