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Health: Obesity

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 29 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Which government department holds responsibility for issues concerning obesity.

My Lords, tackling obesity is a cross-government responsibility led by the Department of Health. Childhood obesity is the joint responsibility of the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, as signalled by the new public service agreement to improve the health and well-being of children and young people. The Secretary of State for Health is developing a comprehensive cross-government strategy on obesity, facilitated by a cross-governmental ministerial group.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is there any plan to give absolute authority to the Department of Health to ensure that things like recreational physical activity are made more readily available in any new planning? If not, why not? We have just heard that obesity is apparently a greater threat to us than global warming.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Health is taking the lead. The Foresight report provided us with a catalyst and there is absolute determination that our cross-departmental work will bring forward results. The strategy will be available in the very near future and I am confident that the Secretary of State for Health will be determined in his leadership.

My Lords, I speak as a member of the All-Party Group on Obesity. Why is it that in central London you can hardly find a thinly-sliced or medium-sliced loaf of bread to buy, and any sandwich you buy in any supermarket is now made with thick bread? While the House of Lords continues to use medium-sliced—and very nice—bread in its sandwiches, even the House of Commons has moved to thick bread. Surely at a time when we want to reduce people’s consumption, there should be more pressure from the Food Standards Agency, or one of the many departments the Minister speaks about, to take us back to normal-sized bread instead of these super-sized sandwiches.

My Lords, that is an interesting and important point, but it is not really a matter for the Government. We would be accused of being a nanny state if the Government started to pronounce on these issues.

My Lords, what progress has been achieved so far by the physical education in schools initiative? What advice is given to schools to stop children being able to abandon PE after the end of year 9?

My Lords, I am pleased to report that 86 per cent of schoolchildren now do at least two hours of quality sport a week. That is one of the results of the programme. I recognise that there is a lot more to be done, and we aim to offer every child and young person the chance of five hours’ sport a week by 2011.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the restriction on advertising foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats are sufficient to achieve what the majority of people in this House and elsewhere would like to be achieved?

No, my Lords, I am not satisfied. The rules on advertising to children have got a lot better. From January onwards, adverts during television programmes of particular appeal to children under 16 will not be allowed. However, we believe that we must move forward, and we need a ban on all high-fat, salty and sugary foods before the 9 pm watershed.

My Lords, I accept that obesity is a serious problem, but is my noble friend satisfied that the current measure of obesity, the BMI, is a sufficiently flexible and precise indicator of obesity in relation to health?

My Lords, there is much discussion about measurements of obesity. We believe that the current BMI measure is the best one we have at the moment, but we are looking at that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that people have always loved to eat junk food, whether it was bread and dripping and iced buns in my day or, nowadays, the dreaded burger? Does she also agree that people who are overweight and heavy but very fit are not necessarily obese?

My Lords, I thought that would please your Lordships. To go back to my noble friend’s original point, it is terribly important that the Government encourage exercise in all forms.

Yes, my Lords. One of the problems is that we are no longer hunter-gatherers. Our lifestyle has changed; the society in which we live has changed; we must change our culture. That must mean more sport, more exercise and looking at our built environment.

My Lords, the Minister said that various factors may contribute to obesity. In light of the fact that many infants who do not rely on exercise and who do not necessarily eat chips and bread and butter are becoming grossly overweight, will she consider the contribution that the huge number of new chemicals to which we have been exposed during the past 40 years may have made to creating genetic alterations before children are born?

My Lords, that is a very interesting point which I shall take back to the department. We have to prevent young infants becoming obese. It is adults who buy their children’s food. Therefore, we have to target adults as well as young infants.

My Lords, will the strategy that is about to be concluded look at the underutilisation of resources available in gyms in the private sector? Will the Government explore the possibility of using those resources for schools, possibly in collaboration with the Youth Justice Board, as a means of getting some young people out of criminality and into exercise and a better life?

My Lords, if the strategy was not going to consider that before the noble Lord’s question, I can assure him that it will do so now.