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School Pupils

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

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When he last met the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to discuss the health of school pupils. [103200]

My right hon. Friends the Secretary for State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills last met on 12 March 2003 and discussed a range of issues about the health, social care and education of children. They propose to meet regularly to continue their discussions on these issues.

Will the Minister accept that obesity among school pupils is now running at record levels and increasing year by year? Does she accept that a major reason for that is 20 years of attacks by the educational establishment on physical education and sport in schools, with the result that today's young people are less fit than their parents and grandparents were at their age? Unless urgent action is taken to make young people fitter and healthier, they will have serious mobility, breathing and heart problems at a much earlier age, which will put an extra major pressure on the national health service.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns, which is why physical activity is a crucial factor in the NHS plan, the cancer plan and the coronary heart disease and diabetes national service frameworks. It is also why we are working closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on its £459 million programme to enhance school sport and club links. The New Opportunities Fund programme is providing £581 million to enhance school sports facilities. The issue is extremely important for the Department of Health because obesity leads to perhaps 9,000 premature deaths in this country every year.

Will my hon. Friend take more action with the Department for Education and Skills? Does she remember that my Committee, the Select Committee on Education and Skills, examined school meals only two years ago? We made some strong recommendations because it is a catastrophic situation when our children's diet and lack of exercise causes such concern. The re are action points and we have done a lot of the work, but instead of merely discussing the problem, will the Minister meet her opposite number in the DFES to produce an action programme?

I assure my hon. Friend that regular meetings are held between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health—that really is joined-up government. He will be aware of the food-in-schools programme. We are rolling out the national school fruit scheme so that by the end of the year, about 1 million children will receive a free piece of fruit in school every day. It is a high priority to extend the healthy schools programme to school meals, tuck shops and vending machines, and to ensure that fresh water is available in schools.

It could be said that many school children are the equivalent of couch potatoes, which hints at a lack of exercise and obesity. However, there is activity on the equivalent of the couch because the level of sexually transmitted diseases is rising at almost epidemic proportions among under-age children in certain areas of the country. It is said that there are not adequate resources to deal with the problem. Will the Minister comment on that?

The hon. Lady will know that this country has a sexual health strategy for the first time. That is backed up by £47 million of extra investment and £5 million has been invested this year in genito-urinary services to try to halt the rise of disease and to ensure that people with sexually transmitted infections receive swift treatment. She will also know about the major media campaign that was launched to try to persuade young people to change their behaviour and adopt safe-sex practices in future. That is an attempt to halt the rise of infections such as chlamydia, which are of great concern to many people in this country.

My hon. Friend is right to point out the extra investment in schools, and especially the money for school sports co-ordinators. Is she aware that, in reality, many people who did sport at school drop it after they reach 16 or 17? Obesity costs the country, and especially the health service, £2 billion. Will she ensure that her Department plays its part with Sport England, lottery money and the Department for Education and Skills to invest in the long-term future of our people by ensuring that we reduce people's obesity not only when they are at school, but throughout their lives?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I am delighted to tell him that the Department of Health will fund nine local exercise action pilots—LEAP projects—to encourage more forms of exercise among groups ranging from older people to young parents to schoolchildren. We realise that enabling people to access sport and physical activity throughout their whole lives is key to ensuring that we reduce levels of coronary heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes.