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Children: Obesity

Volume 790: debated on Thursday 19 April 2018


Asked by

My Lords, the Government’s childhood obesity plan, launched in August 2016, focuses on the areas that are likely to have the biggest impact on preventing childhood obesity. All reports and data on progress in delivering our plan will be published and open to scrutiny. We will use this to determine whether sufficient progress has been made and whether alternative levers need to be considered.

My Lords, I am well aware that we had a pretty comprehensive trot around the issue earlier this week but I did not have the opportunity to raise with the Minister the issue of the Daily Mile, an initiative started some six years ago in a small Scottish primary school where children were encouraged to run for 15 minutes a day, which turns out to be a mile. Since then the initiative has proliferated and now over 3,300 schools are participating. It has been independently evaluated and proven to show a massive improvement in health, well-being and academic attainment. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have written to every single primary school encouraging them to participate. Would the Minister please consider doing the same here?

Following the debate that we had the other day, I looked up the Daily Mile online. It is now in 2,000 schools across the UK. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has described it as an excellent initiative, which indeed it looks like. It certainly seems to develop good habits of physical and mental health. Writing to schools is of course a matter for the Department for Education, but I will certainly speak to my colleagues in that department to encourage schools to take this up. In the spirit of the debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I think it would be better to end with a quote from William at Woodfield Primary School in Wigan, who said that the Daily Mile,

“helps you with your maths, English, and you get faster each time, which makes you healthier”.

What more could you want?

My Lords, I cannot match the alliteration of the Minister but I ask him if he and his colleagues in other departments would consider an addition to the sport, to the dietary and to the drive against sugar, given the evidence of the recent review that the Government undertook into full-time social youth action in which organisations such as Volunteering Matters and City Year UK demonstrate that work by young people for young people against bullying, emotional trauma and mental health problems can have a real effect.

I completely agree with the noble Lord. I believe that he chairs the National Citizen Service, which has been a massive initiative to encourage such habits in teenagers. I completely concur with him: the Government take a number of approaches to encourage youth social action, and that is something that we will continue to support.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that families need to be presented with clear information about the food they buy and how important clear labelling is? Does he agree that when the UK leaves the EU, that will give us a greater flexibility to determine what information should be presented on packaged food and how it should be displayed?

My noble friend is absolutely right: this is one of the many opportunities which this country will enjoy after we have left the European Union. We will have the flexibility to vary food labelling to ensure that we can use the very best, and latest techniques to encourage people to eat more healthily.

My Lords, there are two components to keeping fit and losing weight. One is exercise—the example we have had is excellent—and the other, of course, is food. There are three partnerships in that: there is the department of health and the Department for Education, but parents are critical. What work has been done to involve parents in this whole issue? It is really serious, because obese children will probably be obese adults, and we know where that goes.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right: parents are of course the first educators of their children and it is about them being able to set an example. I would focus on a couple of things: first, the national curriculum in schools, which is encouraging parents to get involved in understanding what good nutrition is, how to cook well and so on. The second is Public Health England’s new One You campaign, posters of which are up now, which talks about the 400, 600, 600 of calories per meal per day to encourage parents to get into good habits, because of course, if they have good habits and are well informed, their children will too.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that within the plan there may be a greater role for the major broadcasters in this country to give a stronger lead against these problems? The BBC, in particular, has major flagship programmes which are primarily about eating, putting on weight and calories, but the same applies to the other channels. Will he join me in a conversation with the BBC to try to persuade them to produce a major flagship programme that addresses the issue, particularly with regard to children?

That is rather an interesting idea and suggestion from the noble Lord. We would need to speak to colleagues in the DCMS—which I would be delighted to do. I think that broadcasters such as the BBC have traditionally played a very important and positive role in public health issues and continue to do so, and I am happy to encourage them to do so in this area, too.

My Lords, while recognising the essential nature of sufficient exercise at all ages, in the absence of my noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich, I again remind the House that the more you exercise, the more you eat.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that while exercise is very good for children and adults—it improves mental and physical health—it does not do much for obesity. It is food that does the worst. It is not just sugar, it is fat, and ice cream, crisps and chocolates are so appealing to children. Ice cream has twice the calories of sugar. Will he consider how to get that message across?

One thing I noticed at Easter was that Easter eggs seem to have got bigger. I was counting the calories on the Easter egg that my children had. There is a serious point there. It is about reformulation, it is not just about reduced sugar, salt and so on; it is also about smaller portion sizes, and that is a measure that we are tracking as well.

My Lords, it is really me. Is the Minister aware that a recent report from Canada showed that children who were fed on whole milk for the first eight years of their life were much healthier than those not, and they were not obese? Why on earth did we ever start skimming milk when human breast milk has the same amount of fat as cows’ milk? As far as I know, we have not started skimming human breast milk yet.

I am trying to imagine how that might work. The noble Lord makes an important point which he also made in a debate the other day, that our understanding of dietary needs is changing. In some ways, we are rediscovering old truths about the importance of fat and reduction of sugar. That is part of the approach that Public Health England is promoting.