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Children: Healthy Eating

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to Ofcom’s proposals to limit the advertising of unhealthy foods to children.

My Lords, the Government welcome Ofcom’s announcement on its proposals to strengthen the rules on broadcast food promotion to children. We now look to Ofcom’s new rules to help prevent children being overexposed to broadcast advertising for less healthy food which—together with the Government’s record investment in promoting school sport and the work to improve school meals and nutrition at home—will support our drive to halt the rise in childhood obesity by 2010.

My Lords, I am sure that many will wish to join me in congratulating Ofcom on having clearly recognised the need to protect under-16s from the harmful effects of TV advertising in the promotion of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt and particularly on having based its restrictions on the nutrient-proofing model suggested by the Food Standards Agency. However, since Ofcom acknowledges that these proposals will protect children from only less than half of the HFSS adverts that they see—because so many adverts appear during early evening adult programmes which children watch—should not Ofcom now consider imposing a 9 pm watershed on all such kinds of advertising?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that Ofcom took into account strong representations that the restrictions should operate until the 9 pm watershed. Of course, such constraints have consequences for the industry and its advertising revenue. Ofcom has reached this position on the balance, which it is obliged under law to seek, between the wider health needs of the public and the strength of broadcasting and the multiplicity of its production in this country.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that people who look upon this less kindly than I do might say that it is just a bit of tokenism, since children can see all these goods on the shelves when they go shopping with their parents? There is a greater problem: overall on television, there is a huge proportion of food advertising; it is far greater than in most other countries. This, rather than the narrower scene, ought to be looked at.

My Lords, Ofcom is aware that the Government asked it to look at children’s health. I recognise what the noble Baroness says about the wider extent of food advertising, but adults can to a large extent look after themselves.

We are greatly concerned about growing obesity among younger people, and certainly need to address it. This is an important step in that direction, but we would want to see its impact and success before considering anything else.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that Ofcom estimated that £22 million would be lost in advertising revenue to the independent television companies if the current suggested Ofcom guidelines were followed, but that £200 million would be lost if the 9 pm watershed ban, advocated by all responsible consumer and public health organisations, were adopted. Is it not therefore pretty unlikely that Ofcom, which is apparently more concerned with the financial health of TV companies than the future health of the nation, will voluntarily move to an effective ban? Is it not about time for the Government to consider stepping in with regulations sooner rather than later, as they did with television many years ago?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his points. The Government intend to review the position some 18 months to two years from now, and will look at progress being made in the area. My noble friend suggests that Ofcom will somehow not fulfil its duty to the nation when it has regard to the broadcasting industry, but that is its role as defined by legislation. Of course it is wary—particularly in the present climate, when there are problems with certain aspects of television, such as return from advertising—of taking decisions that would cost the industry to the extent that my noble friend accurately identified in his question.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the health of the nation is a more important objective of the Government than the health of the commercial television sector and that if new steps are needed in this sector, they will be taken? With the best will in the world, there is a chance that this will not work, and the Minister must give us a backstop and say that, if it does not work, something will be done.

My Lords, I sought to identify that backstop; namely, the Government intend to look at this situation in the not-too-distant future to see the progress that is being made. The House will recognise that the health of the nation is one of the prime objectives for the Government, and all of us in our society, to promote. Equally clearly, the strength of our television broadcasters is an important feature of the values in our society.