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Food Advertising (Protection of Children from Targeting)

Volume 643: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent the marketing and advertising of food that does not meet certain nutritional requirements from being targeted at children.

We are all united in ensuring that children have the best possible start in life, and that includes ensuring that they have a healthy start. Sadly, for all too many young people, that is not the case—and the problem is even worse in more deprived groups. Take Scotland, where in 2015-16 the most deprived areas had a 16% rate of childhood obesity, compared with 12% in the least deprived. In fact, nearly 30% of children are at risk of obesity or of being overweight in Scotland. However, this issue affects the whole United Kingdom, with one in five children starting primary school obese or overweight. According to the Centre for Social Justice, obesity will cost our economy £50 billion by 2050.

Of course, we all know the cause of these shocking figures. Bluntly, there are far too many children in this country who are not eating enough of the food that they need and too much of the food that they do not need. Not only does this affect their day-to-day lives, but the implications for later life cannot be overestimated, not least given that obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking—a statistic that very few are aware of. There is no simple solution to this, and no silver bullet for this growing problem with childhood obesity. While I warmly welcome the Government’s recently announced consultation, it certainly cannot be left only to Acts of Parliament and regulations from Government Departments. That will not be sufficient and would not deliver the results we so desperately need. The driving force must come from individual households—parents and young people—making the right choices to enjoy healthy lifestyles.

But there are steps that would help, and it would be a failing of this House not to match fine rhetoric with decisive action. Schemes such as the Daily Mile, started in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), contribute to helping young people to get active and stay fit. Rolling this out across the country is absolutely the right thing to do. Equally, the Government’s bold step to implement a tax on sugary drinks has not only led to increased revenue to help to tackle obesity but sparked change in the industry as it seeks to reformulate recipes.

Yet we cannot ignore the pervasive influence of advertising across the wide range of media, given that these varying media channels have become such an important part of our daily lives. There are proposals to ban junk food advertising on TV before 9 pm.  Such a proposal may have its merits, but we need to be careful about the potential unintended consequences of such a blunt policy proposal and make sure that we maintain a level playing field between online and TV advertising. The original regulations, reviewed in 2010 by Ofcom, found a 37% drop in children’s exposure to junk food advertising, with particular success in the reduction for younger children, at 52%—particularly important given their greater likelihood of being influenced by adverts. So the policy is backed up by evidence.

We must recognise that advertising regulations are now out of date. They must reflect the changed ways in which we receive media and the changed viewing patterns of children and young people. Current broadcast regulations ban junk food adverts only where the programmes, and channels, are specifically for children’s entertainment. But what of family programming? Nearly 3 billion junk food adverts impacted on children through after-school television in 2015. Fifty-nine per cent. of adverts broadcast over family viewing time would be banned from children’s TV, but do we not expect children to see them during family shows such as “The Voice”, “Coronation Street” or “Hollyoaks”? This is a loophole clearly being exploited that must be closed. The high ratings of these shows mean that despite the fact that nearly 1 million children might watch “The Voice”, because they do not make up 25% of the audience, it is not deemed a children’s show. If we reduced the percentage threshold needed to mark a programme as appealing to children from 25%, it would reduce their exposure to junk food adverts at all times.

We know how sophisticated online targeting through platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and online games has become. Despite many ongoing issues with protecting children online, I was pleased to see Google launch YouTube Kids—a safe place for child-friendly videos. That is a recognition, albeit a small one, that online publishers have just as much work to do as broadcasters in protecting children’s health. There should also be, for online publishers, a very straightforward ban on junk food promotions for children and young people.

I have heard the argument that advertising does not have an impact on obesity and that therefore the Government should not intervene, but that is a red herring. A good illustration of this is the money spent on advertising in 2015. Only 1.2% of all food and non-alcoholic drink advertising was spend for advertising vegetables, while 22.2% was used for advertising cakes, biscuits, confectionery and ice cream. If producers did not see significant return for their expenditure, it simply would not be spent. Why, if advertising is such a distraction, do companies spend a quarter of a billion pounds on it and lobby so vociferously for no extension of advertising restrictions? Focus groups categorically suggest that children not only remember the adverts they see in detail but that they influence what they pester their parents for.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not calling for a ban on all junk food advertising—that would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut—but we cannot ignore the fact that advertising is contributing to childhood obesity and that existing loopholes must be closed. I do not suggest that this will end childhood obesity. It is far too complex a challenge for such an easy solution. The Government are absolutely right to bring forward a whole range of solutions to tackle this issue, and a cross-departmental approach is exactly what we need. We have a responsibility to give our children the best possible chance at the start of their life, and this Bill, which seeks to avoid such direct targeting, is part of delivering that best start.

Yesterday, after the urgent question, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), why children from the poorest areas are disproportionately among the fattest, and I suggested that it was not because they watched more adverts. He responded that it might be the case that they watched more adverts. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) that a piece of work needs to be done before the Bill proceeds, to establish the exact role of advertising in making our children so much fatter. The reality is that children have always been the target of such advertising. She will be too young to recall, but I certainly remember the Milkybar kid, whose unique selling attraction was that the Milkybars were going to be on him.

My hon. Friend suggested a much more profitable avenue for our attention. She pointed out that by the time children came to school, one in five was already too fat. We will have those children in school for the best part of 15 years, for five days a week and 40 weeks a year. It would be staggeringly unproductive if we did not use that time to sufficiently exercise them to make them thinner. I suggest that if we have not the political will to do that, advertising is not going to do the job.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Kirstene Hair, Kerry McCarthy, Conor McGinn, Fiona Bruce, Andrew Selous, Stuart C. McDonald, John Lamont, Paul Masterton, Mr Alister Jack, Jamie Stone, Mr Alistair Carmichael and Bill Grant present the Bill.

Kirstene Hair accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 237).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for hearing a point of order at this stage in our proceedings. You may be aware that it is reported in The Times today that the United States Government have sought to interfere in the contents of the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee on United Kingdom involvement in rendition. If that report is true, it is a matter of the greatest and gravest importance for the House. I can think of no precedent for a foreign power seeking to interfere in the workings of our Committees. What protection can you give to the Committees of the House to ensure that they are allowed to do their work in the way that they are mandated to by us? Have you had any indications from the Government about their intention to bring the House up to speed and make us fully informed in relation to that matter?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I certainly do not seek to cavil at what he has said, because I am familiar with the thrust of the argument and concern that he is advocating to the House. I will just say that the Committee is not in fact a Committee of the House; it is a statutory Committee, in a slightly different category to all the other Committees to which we regularly refer. Nevertheless, I have heard what he said. I have no knowledge of the matter, and I have not myself read the report to which he refers.

If memory serves me correctly, the Committee is chaired by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is a very senior and respected Member of the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is well aware of the remit and autonomy of the Committee. If he felt that his Committee was being interfered with in any way, I rather doubt that he would be backwards in coming forwards. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is himself a former senior member of the coalition Government. He will know very well, I am sure, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, and he might wish to approach him for a brief conversation, not on the detail of the report, but about his concern. If that does not satisfy him, I have a feeling that I will be hearing from him again.