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Childhood Obesity

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020


Asked by

My Lords, we published Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives on 27 July. The strategy demonstrates an overarching campaign to reduce obesity, takes forward actions from previous chapters of the childhood obesity plan and sets out measures to get the nation fit and healthy, protect against Covid-19 and protect the NHS.

My Lords, if the Government persist in abolishing Public Health England, who will be responsible for policies to tackle obesity? Secondly, does the Minister agree that tackling obesity, especially childhood obesity, requires more than a few policy headlines but rather a whole-government approach that includes healthcare, education, local government, transport, finance, the built environment, sports provision, advertising—especially social media—and scientific research, plus a focus on preschool children, disadvantaged groups and involving young people themselves?

My Lords, I pay tribute to those at Public Health England who brought together the obesity strategy announced in July and who will continue to work on the obesity strategy. We are consulting on where the ultimate home for that team should be. I emphasise that the obesity strategy launched in July was the most holistic and joined-up piece of policy on obesity in recent times. I emphasise that the money that has come from the sugar tax is now going to pay for sports in schools.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the need for what the IPPR—in a report from last week that I am sure the Minister is aware of—called a “whole society” approach. The current strategy focuses on a few aspects of consumption. Will the Government consider the issue of production and the fact that large multinational companies are making huge profits from unhealthy products, particularly in the beverage sector? What will the Government do to make sure that they make a larger contribution to solving the problem they have created?

My Lords, I welcome the IPPR report, but it is not true that the Government do not have a whole-society approach. Our approach to obesity involves physical education, supporting underprivileged families, addressing issues with marketing and a whole range of different issues. As for the noble Baroness’s points on profit, this Government are not against profit, but we are for healthy outcomes for young people.

My Lords, clearly prevention is better than cure and there is no panacea. However, there seems to be some evidence that, where families are brought together in family programmes to help them bring about behavioural change, there is more likelihood of them sticking to a healthier lifestyle. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether these programmes are ongoing and, if not, whether they can be started again and rolled out countrywide? It seems that, if families are brought together to help them think about behavioural change, this could be one way of tackling the obesity crisis.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, for her expertise in this matter. She is entirely right that decisions made by families together are more powerful than those made by individuals. The obesity campaign launched in July seeks to achieve exactly that by having a campaign on better health targeted at the whole population. I also emphasise the Healthy Start vouchers, a scheme to provide a nutritional safety net to hundreds of thousands of pregnant women and families with children aged under four, which is one way of bringing families together around healthy food.

School nurses play important roles in dietary education for new parents and school pupils. With the anticipated changes to Public Health England, how will the Government ensure, without structured plans, that these services are strengthened to promote healthy eating and exercise to prevent early childhood obesity?

The noble Baroness is entirely right that these nurses play an absolutely pivotal role. The reorganisation around PHE is due to start in April. We are seeking the best possible advice on where that work could be best sited. The National Institute for Health Protection is one potential home, but I reassure the Chamber that a safe and important home for those nurses is a priority for the Government.

My Lords, obesity is overwhelmingly a problem of deprived communities. Therefore, does the Minister agree that initiatives on child obesity need to be tackled by communities themselves, supported, of course, by adequate government funding. How are the Government encouraging such activity—for example, by harnessing the power of food banks, parents, schools, clubs and children themselves—to develop local solutions?

The noble Baroness has a point on the importance of targeting the right populations and there are certainly some demographics that incur higher incidences of obesity and for which the health disbenefits of obesity are higher. For these, we have special programmes to support them in schools with vouchers and medical interventions. However, obesity is a national problem that affects all parts of society. In Britain we have got it wrong and we need to address this issue as a nation.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, rightly emphasised the link between deprivation and childhood obesity. Therefore, while welcoming the announcement of the Government’s obesity strategy, I ask the Minister: what specific steps are the Government taking to address the links between deprivation and obesity; how will this be funded; and what plans do they have to introduce policies with a more explicit focus on early years to reduce childhood obesity rates?

My Lords, there are individual programmes specifically targeting those from deprived backgrounds. I emphasise the childhood obesity trailblazer programme, which has funding for several councils to pioneer forward-thinking ideas to address childhood obesity among those target populations.

The other area that I emphasise is exercise in school. Of course, obesity is linked to intake, not exercise, but exercise helps to get the disciplines right around looking after one’s mind and body. The £320 million going into school sports facilities is a massive bonus in this area.

My Lords, could my noble friend say, a little more specifically, what training and support will be available to health visitors for the very earliest intervention? Would not the one-year and two-year checks that the majority of children go along to be an ideal opportunity to inform parents about the nutritional needs of very young children so that they can make those informed choices?

Health checks in the early years of childhood are an incredibly valuable opportunity to intervene in a number of health inputs. Diet and exercise are two of those. Training is in place for health visitors to provide dietary advice but, when back at the department, I will ask whether we are working on any new initiatives at the moment and write back to my noble friend.

I have two questions for the Minister. Could he explain to the House why Professor Dame Sally Davies’ 2019 report on childhood obesity, which made 49 recommendations, seems to have been lost? Given that Public Health England plays a crucial role in addressing obesity, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, and the obesity team seems to be homeless at present, how will the Government ensure that its expertise, accountability and leadership is retained and relevant bodies are sufficiently funded?

My Lords, the report from Professor Sally Davies has not been lost; the July obesity strategy leans extremely heavily on the insight and advice of Sally Davies, who continues to have a strong presence in the department and informs all our decisions, as does the public health team at PHE. Professor John Newton had an extremely high profile during the launch of the obesity strategy in July and continues to have an important voice at all levels of the department.

In her 2019 report, the Chief Medical Officer pointed out that, when we leave the European Union, it will be open to the Government to alter VAT rates. She recommended that healthy foods should remain without VAT, as they are at the moment, but that there should be a tiered approach to unhealthy foods and drinks as far as VAT is concerned. What is the Government’s response to this recommendation?