The government must commit to protecting public health funding if it is to avoid widening health inequalities, an influential group of MPs have warned in a report.
The Commons’ health committee warned today that councils were at the limits of the savings they can make without adversely impacting services and said cuts to public health funding are a “false economy”.
“It is the worst off who will suffer most from the failure to invest in public health services”
Not protecting funding for public health “will have negative consequences for current and future generations”, said the committee in its report – titled Public Health post-2013 – adding that further cuts would “also threaten the future sustainability of NHS services”.
It recommended the creation of a new minister in the cabinet office to embed public health across all government departments, something the committee found was already happening in local authorities.
The MPs also called for health to be included as a material consideration in planning and licensing in a bid to reduce health inequalities.
However, they said the government’s childhood obesity strategy, which was published last month, needed to be bolder.
Committee chair and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston said: “The disappointing watering down of the childhood obesity strategy, published in August, demonstrates the gap in joined-up evidence-based policy to improve health and wellbeing.
Dr Sarah Wollaston
“Government must match the rhetoric on reducing health inequality with a resolve to take on big industry interests and will need to be prepared to go further if it is serious about achieving its stated aims,” she said.
The report considered the impact on public health services since responsibility was transferred to local government in 2013, under the Health and Social Act 2012.
The committee expressed concern about “unacceptable variation” between areas and called for better systems to assess areas’ performance.
“The current system of sector-led improvement needs to be more clearly linked to comparable, comprehensible, and transparent information on local priorities and performance on public health,” said the report.
In response, the Association of Directors of Public Health said that, while most local authorities were delivering their new public health responsibilities well, there remained “a few where the arrangements for public health are less than ideal”.
“We also agree with the committee that local authorities should be held to account for the outcomes they deliver for their local population and the plans they have in place to improve those outcomes. Delivering this will require modest but additional funding for sector-led improvement,” said the association in a statement.
The Royal College of Nursing highlighted that nurses had been warning for “some time that cuts to vital preventative work are turning the clock back on public health”.
Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN director of nursing, policy and practice, said: “Without improving lifestyles and giving good health advice and support, the health service could buckle, with serious consequences for society as a whole. Childhood obesity alone could bankrupt the NHS if not tackled.
“The stark fact recognised in this report is that it is the worst off who will suffer most from the failure to invest in public health services,” she added.
“Failing to invest in the services that can break the cycle of poor health and deprivation will simply perpetuate gross inequality and damage the lives of many,” she said. “This has to be recognised and local and national governments should act now to prevent potential public health disasters in the years to come.”
Meanwhile, David Buck, senior fellow of public health and health inequalities at the King’s Fund think-tank, welcomed the call for a minister responsible for co-ordinating public health policy at the centre of government.
“With more devolution and the likely move away from central government grants to funding local government services through local business rates, a better system for ensuring that local decisions do not lead to widening inequalities in funding, services and outcomes is also urgently needed,” he said.