Saving baby Sebastian


Baby Sebastian should be the face of this election. But he won't be because his problem takes too long to fix.

I speak of the widening gap between the life expectancy of the richest and poorest in our country. Living in deprived central Stockton, Sebastian can expect to survive just 67 years. A similar baby boy in London's swanky Belgravia is likely to live to over 91.

I suspect the reason governments haven't dealt with this scandal is because of what might be called "the five year rule". Ministers are reluctant to spend money on things that won't yield results in a Parliament because credit may end up going to the other lot.

Reducing health and social inequality is a long-term project and the consequences of government action will almost certainly take many years or even decades to achieve clear results.

It is a similar story with housing. Perhaps the biggest reason Britain has failed to build enough homes for its people is it takes about five years from pulling the policy lever in Whitehall to a house being completed. No cabinet minister likes spending money that his shadow might benefit from.

Politicians all rub their hands and agree that health inequality is bad, but the plain fact is that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, successive governments have failed to arrest the growing divergence between the life chances of babies born in one neighbourhood compared with another.

Britain should be ashamed. Little Sebastian is likely to die 24 years before an identical child just 250 miles south - and experts predict that figure is set to rise.

Research in The Lancet today shows that while overall life expectancy is rising, the government needs to act to avoid what the article calls a "grand divergence in health and longevity".

"Health and social policies are needed to curb widening life expectancy inequalities," Prof Majid Ezzati argues.

This challenge cannot be solved simply by tax and welfare changes that nominally narrow the gap between the richest and poorest - although that might help a bit. This requires action on almost every aspect of baby Sebastian's life.

And that is another reason why improvement is so difficult to achieve. The way government is constructed, departments are in competition for finite resources. Health, education, welfare, housing, job prospects, social capital - all of these things matter to Sebastian's life chances and, critically, need to work in harmony to make a difference.

What baby Sebastian needs is for those with power to work together for the common good - even if credit doesn't go to them. Could that happen? Sebastian is watching.