Roys speaks on Health Committee Report

Speaking in a debate at Stormont, Roy Beggs MLA has endorsed a Report on Health inequalitiites just published by the Committee on Health, Social Services and Public Safety:

Roy said: ” I am pleased to support the motion highlighting the Committee’s review of health inequalities.

When we reviewed the Statistics and Research Agency’s figures, it was clear that there were huge variations in life expectancy. The average female life expectancy in Northern Ireland is 80·5 years, but, in the 20% most deprived areas, it moves down to 77·9 years. For a male from one of the 20% most deprived areas, it is 71·5 years. Those are quite dramatic variations in life expectancy, and, with that, there is associated illness. A range of factors are thought to contribute to that, such as an increased risk of mortality because of drugs, alcohol and smoking and an increased risk of suicide. There is also the issue of respiratory mortality and cancer mortality.

The Committee received evidence from a range of experts, many of whom pointed towards the importance of early years programmes to help improve the health of the next generation and to reduce health inequalities. Mention was made of Professor James Heckman and Sir Harry Burns, who have both recognised the importance of early years investment in education and in health. I declare an interest as a member of Horizon Sure Start, which provides support to parents in Carrickfergus and Larne.

I will concentrate on recommendation 4 in the Committee’s report, which states:

“The new public health strategy should recognize parenting as having a significant influence over long-term public health issues and should adopt a “progressive universalism” approach to supporting parenting projects.”

In the evidence from the Triple P Project, we were advised of how Kaiser Permanente, an American insurance company, had reviewed the effects of adverse childhood experiences. It highlighted that such adverse experiences result in a higher risk of developing obesity, ischaemic heart disease, depression and alcoholism. So, by improving parenting skills and reducing adverse experiences, the health of the next generation can be improved. Progressive universalism is about supporting everyone, with more support for those who need it most. The Triple P Project from Longford and Westmeath highlighted that 30% of children with social and emotional behavioural problems had parents from lower socio-economic groups. Of course, that means that 70% were from other groups, and there clearly needs to be support across the board for everyone. The group also highlighted the research by Steve Aos from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, which, again, expressed a preference for the universal approach and indicated that, essentially, you get better results and better value from your investment by taking that approach. Some parents may require only limited support and guidance from literature, whereas others will benefit from extra parenting support such as classes and regular meetings with advisers and specialists.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of how a parent can affect the health of their child is demonstrated by the issue of mothers who smoke. According to the NHS website on smoking and the unborn baby, protecting your baby from tobacco smoke is one of the best things that you can do to give your child a healthy start in life. Every cigarette you smoke in pregnancy harms your unborn baby. It contributes to an increased risk of stillbirth, and newborn children are less likely to be able to cope with any complications that arise. Smokers’ babies are more likely to be born early and to face the additional breathing, feeding and health problems that go with being premature. A child of someone who smokes is more likely to be underweight and less able to fight off infection.

There is also an increased risk of cot deaths. What is quite surprising is the variation in the numbers of mothers who still smoke in Northern Ireland. When I looked at the official figures, I discovered that, in the Old Warren ward, 55% of mothers still smoked in 2011. In the Greystone ward, 50% smoked, and 48% in the Ballee ward. In my constituency, 41% of mothers in the Clipperstown ward smoked, and 39% of mothers in Sunnylands and Blackcave still smoked.

Clearly, further early education support is needed to try to identify this problem and prevent children from suffering.

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