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Healthy Start Scheme

Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

The new healthy start scheme, which was launched nationwide yesterday, promotes good nutrition for certain low-income pregnant women and all pregnant under-18-year-olds by providing vouchers to spend on a range of healthy foods. All Members of Parliament were sent details of the scheme last week.

I am most grateful to the Minister for her response. In October, I spent a week trying to live on income support and to eat a healthy diet fit for a pregnant mother. I could not afford to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, so I know that this announcement will be very welcome. For it to be really effective, it has to be available throughout the country. How many retailers have signed up to the scheme, and what is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that it is available in all communities?

My hon. Friend is right. The scheme widens the range of choice beyond the traditional milk offered under the welfare food scheme to include fruit and vegetables. Retailers large and small will be given the opportunity to back the scheme. We are working on a recruitment target of 35,000 retailers with more than 40,000 outlets, which will double the amount in England by about 30,000. The pilot in Devon and Cornwall has enabled small retailers to think about how they can get on board with the scheme—that is welcome.

Advice to pregnant women is lacking in many respects, not only on healthy eating. Thankfully, when a pregnant woman seeks an abortion she is seen and counselled by two professional doctors—

I will do my very best, Mr. Speaker.

While I entirely applaud the Minister’s sentiments, does she accept that for many of us this is a step too far? It is not the job of Government to tell people what to eat and how to conduct their lives. This is elevating the Secretary of State to the nanny of the state, and we do not want that.

Healthy start is a revamp of the welfare food scheme, which has been around for about 60 years, so the hon. Gentleman and his party had the opportunity to get rid of it or revamp it during their 18 years in power. The scheme is not only about providing the vouchers and the extension to fruit and vegetables—parents said they wanted that flexibility—but about giving midwives and health visitors the opportunity to play an important part in supporting families, particularly in the early days of babies arriving, by giving them the best advice, which they can choose whether to take, on the best possible healthy and nutritional start for their children. Importantly, the scheme is also about pregnant mums and the benefits that they derive from a good diet.

How will women in my constituency and elsewhere find out about the scheme, and how can we, as Members, encourage them to access it?

All families who are currently part of the welfare food scheme will be transferred automatically on to the healthy start scheme. For pregnant women, that should be discussed when they check in for their ante-natal care with their midwives. We are providing a pack to every health professional, health visitor and midwife throughout the country; we are doing work with Sure Start; and we are providing my right hon. and hon. Friends, and hon. Members across Parliament, with information so that you, too, can spread the word across communities—[Interruption.] I meant colleagues, not you, Mr. Speaker, although you could do so as well. We will monitor take-up because we want get the widest possible reach into as many communities as possible, particularly for those on low incomes.