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Children: Obesity

Volume 756: debated on Monday 20 October 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to develop a co-ordinated cross-departmental strategy to address childhood obesity in order to ensure the health and wellbeing of children.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood.

My Lords, we published our cross-government strategy, A Call to Action on Obesity in England, in 2011. It sets out our approach to tackling obesity and includes a national ambition for a sustained downward trend in the level of excess weight in children by 2020. This requires ongoing collective action across all government, businesses, healthcare professionals and individuals. We are seeing encouraging signs of progress, with obesity rates in children falling to 14% in 2012, the lowest level since 1998.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, a report by the All-Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood has confirmed that childhood obesity has become an epidemic across the country. In some areas, 40% of children are overweight. Medical and dental experts are raising concerns about obesity and health issues in children and millions are being spent by the NHS because of this. Does my noble friend agree that this epidemic has to be called a national emergency and that someone at Cabinet level should be responsible for co-ordinating strategy across all relevant government departments for the sake of our children’s long-term well-being? Will he please agree to meet the all-party group to discuss this report?

My Lords, first, I commend the all-party group for its report. Tackling obesity is one of our major priorities, as it is for Public Health England. We have a well developed and wide-ranging programme of actions to tackle obesity. We have set a national ambition for a downward trend in excess weight in children. We are delivering the programme through initiatives such as Change4Life, the National Child Measurement Programme, school sports funding and the School Food Plan, and through voluntary partnerships with industry. As regards co-ordination, Public Health England is a leader of the public health service and numerous government departments are contributing to the anti-obesity agenda. We have a Minister for Children, and we have already established the Obesity Review Group, which brings together a range of experts and delivery partners from across the system to try to co-ordinate efforts to meet our national ambitions.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that the Department of Health and NICE misled Parliament and the nation in saying that the obesity epidemic was due to lack of exercise? Will the Minister acknowledge that in fact obese people do not need to increase their activity one iota in order to lose weight? All they have to do is to eat or drink fewer calories.

My Lords, although physical activity can have a role in maintaining a healthy weight, the Government agree with my noble friend that its health benefits are nevertheless subsidiary in those who are obese to the need to eat and drink less. My noble friend may be interested to know that NICE is currently consulting on its draft public health guideline on maintaining a healthy weight and preventing obesity among children and adults. It currently expects to publish this guideline in February next year.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us are obese because we are the proud but inevitable products of heredity? Further, does he accept the splendid words of the Scottish author, Eric Linklater, who, speaking of a person of ample frame, said, “His outline spoke not of greed but of grandeur, not of gluttony but of the magnanimity of the human form”?

There is, I am sure, no more elegant way of describing the issue under consideration at the moment. The noble Lord makes a very important point about heredity. I do not think that sufficient is understood about the role of our genetic make-up in the way in which we all differ in our weight and size. However, for those who are obese, there are clear, evidence-based actions that they can take to lose weight if they have a mind to do so.

Does the Minister agree that the link between cycling and the avoidance of obesity is extremely strong? Will he speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport as his predecessor, whom I met at a conference a few years ago, said that the Department of Health would not encourage cycling because it was a transport matter?

We are straying a little towards obesity in general rather than obesity in children. However, I concur with the noble Lord that cycling has an important place in the way in which we can take exercise, which is beneficial for our general health. I will, of course, take back the noble Lord’s message.

Will the Minister say what success, if any, the Government have had in persuading manufacturers to reduce sharply the sugar content of fizzy drinks? Has consideration been given to the possibility of restricting the sale of high-calorie-content drinks through vending machines?

My Lords, our current emphasis is on overall calorie reduction, of which sugar forms an important part. The scope for reformulation to reduce sugar levels varies widely depending on the food that one considers and a reduction of sugar levels does not always mean that the overall calorie content is reduced. The issue is not black and white. An example of that is when sugar is replaced by starch or other ingredients. Nevertheless, we are discussing with the food manufacturing industry ways in which it can reformulate its food and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is finalising its review on carbohydrates, looking at sugar as a particular component of that.

My Lords, given the difficulty of ensuring effective cross-department co-ordination on childhood obesity, what is the Government’s response to a call by the Royal College of General Practitioners to set up a COBRA-style task force? Would that not be a key way of ensuring a joined-up approach that extended beyond the Department of Health?

My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, we have set up the Obesity Review Group, which contains a multiplicity of experts to co-ordinate the efforts being conducted not only in government but also in local government and on the part of business and the wider private sector. While I buy into the central point made by the noble Baroness that this needs an overarching scrutiny, we believe that we have that already.