My longest standing political interest is public health. From the age of 10 to 13 I watched my father decline and die from bowel cancer and respiratory failure. Politics is learned by many people from books and seminars. My childhood experiences have largely formed my values. Transforming public health and social mobility are the two things that drive me as an adult politician. As a boy I just thought it was unfair that some people died needlessly young and others were held back by poverty. Often the two go together.
So I’m delighted that the coalition government is giving new impetus to public health, which alongside mental health has been a neglected and under resourced activity for decades. We have glaring health inequalities, with a 7 year gap in life expectancy between the poorest and richest neighbourhoods. We can see that in Bristol between, say Southmead and Henleaze.
Smoking is the biggest cause of premature death. Excessive consumption of alcohol has health and crime implications. Britain has an increasingly obese population and one of the worst records in Europe on sexual health and teenage pregnancy.
The government is going to ringfence the national budget for Public Health England, so it’s not raided to deal with short term financial crises. And we’re going to give a much greater role for local councils, who were the drivers of public health gains from the 1840s to 1940s. Strong leadership will come from local Directors of Public Health. We will establish local health and wellbeing boards. This delivers the Lib Dem manifesto commitment to give more local democratic control over health provision.
As Chair of Parliament’s all party group on Smoking and Health I will be keeping a close eye on how this develops. The Health Secretary prefers the state to “nudge” rather than “nanny”. I don’t care about the label – there is much that we can do to control tobacco, reduce unsafe levels of drinking and encourage safer sex.