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Childhood Obesity Strategy

Volume 792: debated on Monday 25 June 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health and Primary Care to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Today, the Government have published the second chapter of the childhood obesity plan. This plan is informed by the latest evidence and sets a new national ambition to halve childhood obesity and to significantly reduce the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas by 2030.

Childhood obesity is one of the biggest health problems this country faces, with almost a quarter of children overweight or obese before they start school, rising to over a third by the time they leave. This burden is being felt hardest in the most deprived areas, with children growing up in low-income households more likely to be overweight or obese than more affluent children.

Childhood obesity has profound effects that compromise children’s physical and mental health both now and in the future. We know that obese children are more likely to experience bullying, stigma and low self-esteem. They are also more likely to become obese adults and face an increased risk of developing some forms of cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart and liver disease. Obesity is placing unsustainable costs on the NHS and our UK taxpayers, currently estimated at around £6.1 billion per year. Total costs to society are higher, estimated at around £27 billion per year, with some placing this figure even higher than that.

The measures we outline today look to address the heavy promotion and advertising of food and drink products high in fat, salt and sugar on TV, online and in shops. Alongside this we want to equip parents with the information they need to make healthy informed decisions about the food they and their children are eating when out and about. We are also promoting a new national ambition for all primary schools to adopt an ‘active mile’ initiative, such as the Daily Mile, and will be launching a trailblazer programme working closely with local authorities to show what can be achieved and find solutions to barriers at a local level to address childhood obesity.

In conclusion, childhood obesity is a complex issue that has been decades in the making, and we recognise that no single action or plan will help us to solve the challenge of childhood obesity on its own. Our ambition requires a concerted effort and a united approach across businesses, local authorities, schools, health professionals and families up and down the country. I look forward to working with them all”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The last time we discussed childhood obesity in your Lordships’ House it centred on chapter 1 of the Government’s policy, which scored a C-minus at best among noble Lords. Today we have chapter 2, which we can probably score as a C. It offers 13 consultations, a review and a great deal of promotion.

My questions are as follows. First, does the Minister believe it is possible for voluntarism to deliver even in the generous time the Government have given themselves to reduce childhood obesity? For example, Alpro soya growing-up milk contains unnecessary fructose and sugar, but the packaging will tell you it is good for your child, particularly if your child is lactose intolerant, where there are fewer choices. Will that be on the noble Lord’s agenda for legislation or persuasion, and what would be the timeline? Secondly, given that the evidence is clear, why does the Statement not include a proposal and a timetable for legislation and regulation to ban the advertising of high fat and sugar content products on TV and social media? When will we see a draft Bill?

An upgrade in our grade is, I suppose, something to be welcomed. The noble Baroness is being a little unfair. The last obesity plan probably went beyond that of almost any country in the world, and this one certainly goes well beyond that. We know that we need to do more—that much is obvious from the facts—because, unfortunately, obesity continues to rise. We have taken big action through the soft drinks levy, improvements in reformulation and so on but it has not gone as far as we want. So we recognise the need to do more.

The noble Baroness referred to consultations but, if anything, you can accuse this paper of being too honest because any action requires consultation to go forward. I would not want her to be distracted by that because within it are some hard commitments. There is a commitment to voluntarism if we can make it work but, equally throughout, there is a commitment to legislate if that does not produce the right outcomes.

The noble Baroness asked about milk products. Again, if voluntary reformulation does not work, these will be considered by the Treasury as being liable for the levy on soft drinks to bring down the sugar content.

On advertising, the idea that we should have a 9 pm watershed across broadcasting is truly radical, and it is only right that we consult properly. There is a desire to do that by the end of this year, so the noble Baroness cannot accuse us of not moving quickly enough.

The Obesity Health Alliance, which counts dozens of bodies among its membership, has welcomed the plan set out today. Of course it wants us to get a move on—and we will—but it is important to note the radical change in policy to try to deal with this epidemic that we all face.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the UQ. Anything is welcome and I am at the stage where more questions are being raised than answered. A debate in this House would be useful and perhaps put some flesh on the bones. That is absolutely the wrong thing to say, but the House knows what I mean. It would give more clarity.

I wish to push the Minister a little further on the advertising issue. I appreciate that a consultation is coming up. We welcome the idea of using the watershed, but I am not clear from the Statement or from chapter 2 whether it includes all programmes before 9 pm or only programmes that are aimed at young people before 9 pm. That is an important distinction and it will be useful to know what is going to be consulted upon.

Families were mentioned in passing. I would like to know what work is to be done with families. I appreciate that there is not in this land a typical family, but we are trying to take out 500 calories a day from people’s diets and we need to point out the high calorific value not only of chips, which may seem obvious, but of pasta, rice—which everyone thinks is healthy—bread and buttered mash. There is still work to be done with families to make them understand quite what they are putting on their children’s table which seems healthy and fine.

It is always a pleasure to debate issues in this House. This topic is worthy of that debate because there is a huge interest in it in this House.

The noble Baroness is quite right to talk about advertising. It states in the paper:

“Consult, before the end of 2018, on introducing a 9pm watershed on TV advertising of HFSS”—

high in fat, sugar and salt—

“products and similar protection for children viewing adverts online”.

I take that to mean across the board as opposed to those solely aimed at children, which are already subject to world-leading restrictions.

The noble Baroness asked about families. Much of this is about helping families to do the right things. We know how difficult it can be when you are with young children in a shop to resist this, that or the other. You talk about protecting your teeth or eating well, but it is not always obvious what is good for you and what is bad for you. Again, in the paper there is reference to calorie labelling and going much further in terms of restaurants and store promotions. The noble Baroness and her party are always keen to make sure that we can get the most out of Brexit, and going further than the European Union will allow us with food labelling and simple nutrition information is just one of the many opportunities we will enjoy after 2019.

My Lords, my noble friend may be aware that I chaired a commission for the Centre for Social Justice last year, so I welcome the acknowledgement that this issue particularly affects children in the most deprived areas. Can my noble friend give more clarity about the consultation and when it will end? Although I have not read every word in it yet, can he also say whether the Government will look at the “eatwell plate”, which is carb heavy at the moment? I am not sure whether that advice is covered in the paper.

I thank my noble friend for her questions. I salute the work she has done and the leadership she has shown on this issue. As to the content of the consultations, that will depend on when they are launched but it refers in the paper to consulting before the end of 2018 on a number of issues, so that will go through the normal process, I suppose, of a three-month consultation.

I shall look at the issue of the “eatwell plate”. It is worth pointing out that, under the “Schools” heading, there is a desire to update school food standards, reduce sugar consumption, strengthen nutrition standards and the government buying standards for food and catering services. So there is a desire to look at the official guidance that goes out and to make sure that it reflects the best science and enables any institution that is looking after children, families, schools, adults and others to give the best possible nutritional food that they can.

My Lords, I welcome the proposals for further action, but I am sorry that the Government have not seen fit, if they are taking this really seriously, to make a Statement about it without the requirement for an Urgent Question to elicit a response. I have two points. I regret that there is still no mention of the point that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has been pressing so vigorously—that we need to bring together these numerous initiatives and try to present a single campaign for parents and children. I also regret that there is still no mention of the Government dealing with the major broadcasters, in particular the BBC, to see how a longer-term plan might be produced which would make a direct link with children and thus try to ensure that effective changes take place.

My second point is that last week the Minister was kind enough to reply to my Question for Written Answer about the extent to which the Government are aware of how much children between the ages of 12 and 16 weigh. I am surprised to hear that while we weigh children at the ages of four and 11, nothing is done about weighing children beyond that age. We do not know what the scale of the problem is up to the age of 16. A survey has been undertaken in which only 2,000 people were involved. There is a requirement that we move towards weighing these children. Is the Minister prepared to consider doing that?

There is a single campaign which is exemplified in the document and we need to put that across. I know that the noble Lord is working with broadcasters. I am not sure about the merits of weighing teenagers, but I will look into that and write to him.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I have a few doubts about some of the interventionist proposals in this strategy and therefore I welcome a consultation process on the detail. However, I am keen that people should be able to take responsibility for themselves by helping them to develop good habits, so I congratulate the Government, and indeed the Daily Mail, ITV, INEOS and local authorities on the Daily Mile initiative, which could be transformational.

The Minister and I are both interested in the advances in the science of sleep. We know that poor sleep is linked to obesity. Could the Minister agree to making use of this new science in his strategy?

My noble friend makes an excellent point and I am glad that she has welcomed the introduction of the Daily Mile initiative, which is an important national ambition embedded in the strategy. I know of the benefits of sleep by its absence, but nevertheless I agree absolutely with my noble friend. This second chapter sets out a lot of good progress and intent. Clearly it is not the last word because this is a developing science, although we know more and more both about the causes of obesity and its consequences. Given that, there is a good opportunity through the consultations to bring the science about the benefits of sleep to bear in this conversation, not only for younger people but for adults as well so that it is properly reflected in the final documents that come out.