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National Child Obesity Strategy

Volume 789: debated on Monday 26 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for publicising a detailed evaluation of stage one of the National Child Obesity Strategy; and when a publication timetable for stage two will be produced.

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

My Lords, all reports and data published on progress in delivering our childhood obesity plan will be open to scrutiny. This includes all research evidence produced by the Obesity Policy Research Unit, which will be published as projects are completed, and Public Health England’s assessment of progress on sugar reduction, which will be published in the spring. We will use this to determine whether sufficient progress has been made and whether alternative actions need to be taken.

I thank the Minister for that Answer but five year-olds are now eating their own body weight in sugar every year. Obesity is the second-largest cause of cancer and it reduces life expectancy by up to 10 years. Voluntary action cannot combat the obesity epidemic that the country faces. What is needed are mandatory reformulation targets for reductions in added sugar, fat and calories across all products, as well as common-sense policies directed at early years, which includes oral health initiatives. Can the Minister confirm that there will be a more robust mandatory element in future stages of the national obesity strategy?

The noble Baroness is right to highlight the importance of this issue; we have seen more research today highlighting not just the prevalence of obesity among younger people but the catastrophic health risks that attend that. I would say, though, that the actions in the obesity plan—including the reduction of sugar by 20% by 2020, with a 5% interim target, and the sugar levy—have led to serious action. Fifty per cent of the drinks that would otherwise have been captured have now reduced their formulation, so we have seen action. We will see in the spring the evidence of whether that has had the desired effect and if it has not, we have left all options open to take further action if required.

My Lords, health visitors play a key role in helping parents to tackle and prevent obesity. Is my noble friend the Minister confident that all health visiting teams have the resources and the support they need to do this?

My noble friend is absolutely right and as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, it is about getting into families when children are young. My noble friend will I think be reassured, as I hope the House will, to know that not only are there more health visitors than ever but, as part of that, we have a healthy child programme looking at the prevention and identification of obesity. Health visitors are trained in critical elements such as promoting breastfeeding, nutrition and physical activity to encourage healthy babies.

My Lords, have geographical variations been taken into account in the strategy? For example, London has much higher levels of child obesity than the rest of the country.

Health inequalities and their reduction are a core part of it and in talking about them I would focus, to pick one example, on breakfast clubs. We know that having a good-quality breakfast—indeed, having any breakfast as some children go without it, which causes problems, too—is important. About £26 million is being spent on extra breakfast clubs in 1,500 schools in opportunity areas and disadvantaged areas.

My Lords, does the Minister consider that there is an elephant in the room? There are thousands of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that children and young people have been exposed to since they were in the womb. Nobody seems to be looking at the effects of endocrine disruptors on appetite and obesity.

I must confess that I am not completely aware of the specific issue which the noble Countess talks about. I think I will have to write to her. It may be something that our obesity research unit can have a look at.

My Lords, the relationship between childhood obesity and poverty is well evidenced. In the light of warnings by the Children’s Society and others that 1 million children in poverty will miss out on a free school meal under the current proposals for changes to entitlement under universal credit, does the Minister agree that all children in poverty should receive a free school meal to combat child malnutrition by ensuring that they receive a healthy meal at lunchtime?

We have a free school meal policy in this country. Indeed, the previous Government introduced free school meals for all children up to the age of seven, I believe, so we have made a significant impact in this area. I talked about breakfast clubs, which will also help, particularly disadvantaged children.

My Lords, the salt reduction strategy worked particularly well because all supermarkets came together and followed it. Two years ago, Sainsbury’s chief executive asked the Government to introduce compulsory targets for sugar reduction, but we have not seen them yet. After the first year of the sugar tax in Mexico, there was a 17% reduction in purchases by poor people and a 12% reduction across the board. It works. If the supermarkets want it, why will the Government not follow?

We are making good progress in reformulation and in reducing sugar in drinks, which I have talked about, and in other foods. However, we have to look at the impact. We will look at that and if progress is not made—let us face it, obesity levels are unfortunately continuing to increase—clearly other actions will have to be taken.

My Lords, last year I chaired the Centre for Social Justice’s childhood obesity report. Until then, I had not appreciated how challenging and complicated it is, not least to keep representatives from the food industry and food campaigners in the same room. Amsterdam’s healthy weight programme has helped to reduce childhood obesity by 12% since its launch in 2012. Will my noble friend confirm that the Government are studying carefully how that reduction has been achieved?

I thank my noble friend for that and applaud the work that she has done in this area. The Amsterdam effect seems significant and is an area we are looking at as we consider further actions in future.

Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea to reintroduce domestic science into all schools so that people have a better mechanism for preparing and eating more quality foods than fast foods?

I reassure the noble Lord that the national curriculum, through PSHE, includes elements around nutrition and healthy eating. Indeed, many schools offer the kind of classes he is talking about.

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Long-Term Sustainability of the NHS, which said that the Government,

“should not cite unwillingness to behave as a ‘nanny state’ as an excuse for inaction on the major public health issues, including obesity”.

If the study that is being undertaken at the moment shows that outcomes are poor, will the Government move from their current voluntary approach to take more decisive action?

The point here is that we know that these are difficult decisions and, of course, children have decisions made on their behalf by their parents, people in schools and others, so there needs to be a combined approach of statutory action and voluntary action. We should applaud the voluntary action that many people have taken—supermarkets, food producers and others—but clearly there is a continued role for the Government and I do not think questions of nanny statism come into it.