Skip to main content

Health: Diet

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for improving the dietary health of the population.

My Lords, we believe it is for individuals to take responsibility for their health, including healthy eating. The Government can put in place ways to make this easier and support people. We are developing our proposals to achieve this.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and declare an interest as a former chairman of the Food Standards Agency. The Minister will be aware that dietary ill health contributes to about 100,000 deaths per year in this country and that during the past 10 years the three major initiatives to improve dietary health have been instigated by the Food Standards Agency: improved labelling, restrictions on the marketing of food to children, and the reformulation of processed food. Why does the Minister think the dietary health of the population will be improved by moving responsibility from the Food Standards Agency to the Department of Health, which has so far shown no interest in this matter? I understand health officials have calculated that it will be more costly to consolidate this responsibility in the Department of Health rather than the Food Standards Agency.

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s distinguished chairmanship of the Food Standards Agency. The Government recognise the important role that the agency plays, and a robust regulatory function will continue to be delivered through the FSA. As part of our wider drive to increase the accountability of public bodies, and reduce their number and cost, we are also looking at where some of the functions of the FSA sit best to ensure that they are delivered most efficiently. No decisions have yet been taken, but we are examining the matter carefully.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one major problem with diet is far too much liquid in the form of alcohol? Is he aware that in the other place, at afternoon tea between 4 pm and 6 pm, many groups hold an event to which many of us are invited, and frequently we are not even offered the option of tea but encouraged by the catering department to have alcohol at four o'clock in the afternoon? Does he not think that we could do something about that, closer to home?

My Lords, I have no doubt that my noble friend is correct. I am sure that she will wish to place the correct representations in the right ear, and I will assist as best I can.

My Lords, one of the principal reasons for the creation of the Food Standards Agency was to remove such decisions from political and ministerial control. This came about because of the loss of trust of the British people in guidance and statements from Ministers following things such as BSE and other terrible food infections across the country. In the light of that, is not what the Government are now considering a completely retrograde step?

My Lords, as I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, we fully recognise the important role that the FSA plays. I identify myself fully with his remarks about the reasons why the FSA was created. I speak as a former junior Minister in the department that he led in such a distinguished way, and I realise fully the force of what he said.

My Lords, given that the Government, directly and indirectly, are one of the largest employers in the country, and therefore the provider, directly or indirectly, of lunch and other meals, is there anything they can do to ensure that the meals provided and the diet available to employees, direct or indirect, of the Government are improved in line with what the noble Lord asked?

My Lords, there is, and I am grateful to my noble friend. He will know that the healthier food mark initiative is one thing that the Government can do to enable the public sector to lead by example, in schools, hospitals and care homes. The healthier food mark has been developed over the past two years as a benchmark to raise the level of nutrition and sustainability of food served in the public sector. It sets clear guidelines on healthier and more sustainable food and recognises achievement, so I hope that it will lead the way.

Will the Minister explain why the Government are scrapping the extension of free school meals when there is such a clear link between nutrition and academic performance? Would it not be better and more cost-effective in the long run to make sure that as many children as possible from low-income families get at least one nutritious meal a day?

My Lords, the school fruit and vegetable scheme is continuing. However, future responsibility for running it will no longer lie with central government; it has been devolved to primary care trusts.

They are being abolished. I declare an interest as a former unpaid trustee of the Fifteen training restaurants. Does the Minister think that it was wise of the Secretary of State to attack Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign, particularly given that he was incorrect in saying that the take-up of school meals had gone down when it had gone up? Will the Minister join the rest of the country in applauding Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve the quality and nutrition of school meals?

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Baroness saw my right honourable friend on television recently talking about this issue, but this is a good opportunity for me to put the record straight. He has not criticised Jamie Oliver’s work on school meals: on the contrary, he has applauded Mr Oliver and the many people who have worked very hard to improve the standard of school meals. The point that he made was that a very important initiative started by Jamie Oliver to make people more aware of what healthy eating is all about turned into a kind of prescriptive, top-down management process from Whitehall—and that is counterproductive.

My Lords, how will the Government ensure that the principles of openness, independence and scientific accuracy in their pronouncements and advice, developed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, when he was the chair of the FSA, will be continued by whatever successor bodies are appointed to carry on the tasks of the FSA?

My Lords, the noble Lord is assuming that the Food Standards Agency is going to disappear. I have seen those reports but do not recognise the stories at all. As I have told the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others, no decisions have been taken about the future of various functions within the Food Standards Agency, but we are clear that there has to be a role for a body setting standards objectively in the way that he has described.