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Food: Television Advertising

Volume 684: debated on Monday 10 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they will take as a result of the Food Standards Agency’s recommendation that all television advertising of food with high fat, sugar or salt content should be banned before the nine o’clock watershed.

My Lords, the Government await with interest the outcome of Ofcom’s consultation on how to restrict food and drink advertising on television to children. Ofcom will carefully consider all the evidence that it has received, including that from the Food Standards Agency. The Government will review the success of measures undertaken on the balance of food and drink advertising and promotion to children. If those measures have failed to produce change, we will consider the need to take action through existing powers or new legislation to implement a framework for regulating the promotion of food to children.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his now increasingly familiar Answer, but does he accept that an increasing number of children—now perhaps 17 per cent under 16—are clinically obese and no less than a third are seriously overweight? Is he also aware that each of the three restrictions so far proposed by Ofcom is regarded by the Food Standards Agency as inadequate? Therefore, will the Government undertake urgently in the interest of public health to arbitrate between those two regulators, which obviously have their different remits and responsibilities, and to give full weight to the widespread support for a complete ban on junk food advertising before the familiar 9 pm watershed?

My Lords, the Government have said that they are awaiting the outcome of the Ofcom consultation, which did not end until 30 June. We need to hear what Ofcom has to say. We are well aware of the views that have been put to Ofcom; we await the outcome of its deliberations.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency. Does the Minister accept that the agency’s nutrient profiling model is a suitable tool for Ofcom to use to classify foods for advertising?

My Lords, we accept that the nutrient profiling system developed by the FSA is based on a simple scoring system that compares food products’ energy, fat, sugar and salt levels with those of other products and that it is soundly based on a good scientific approach.

My Lords, will the Government’s response include the potential for brand sponsorship of programmes to become a loophole in restrictions on advertising to children? Will it also include radio advertising?

My Lords, we await Ofcom’s report on television promotion. We are also looking at non-broadcast promotions. As I said in my Answer, we are willing to consider legislative changes, should they be necessary, once we have seen the outcome of the Ofcom review.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that originally Ofcom’s consultation document precluded discussion of the banning of such advertising between 6 pm and 9 pm but that subsequently, under pressure from the Food Standards Agency and a range of other consumer and health organisations, it changed its mind? The reason given for the original decision was that it would cost television companies too much in lost advertising revenue. In whose interests does Ofcom act? Is it in the interests of the wider public, including their health, or in the interests of the broadcasting and advertising industry?

My Lords, I am aware that there have been twists and turns in this area. Ofcom operates under the legislation under which it was set up, which was debated extensively in the House. The Food Standards Agency also operates under the legislation under which it was set up. The Government await the outcome of the Ofcom review and will consider what it is necessary to do. We made it clear in our manifesto that we would help parents by restricting further the advertising and promotion of foods high in salt, fat and sugar. We stand by that manifesto commitment.

My Lords, will the Minister reassure the House that he will keep a close eye on the situation? We have one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, which is linked not only to diabetes but now also to depression, which has a profound impact on family functioning, not least parenting. This is one of the most important matters, but it does not always get the attention that it deserves. I should be grateful if my noble friend would keep a close eye on the situation.

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that the Government are keeping a close eye on the situation. My honourable friend Caroline Flint, the Minister for Public Health, has reiterated on a number of occasions the need to encourage the continued promotion of healthier foods and for advertising restrictions to focus on the most vulnerable children. We shall be watching this area closely, and we await eagerly the outcome of Ofcom’s consultations.

My Lords, the use of the watershed as the criterion for whether programming or advertising is suitable for children is increasingly irrelevant because of the ease with which programmes are recorded or time-shifted on the web. Therefore, will the noble Lord ask Ofcom to take that into consideration in tendering its advice?

My Lords, we have given a remit to Ofcom; we await the outcome of its consultation. I know that a number of organisations have placed great store by the 9 pm watershed in their evidence to Ofcom.