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National Food Strategy Independent Review

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take in response to the recommendations of the National Food Strategy independent review, published on 15 July.

My Lords, we should like to thank Henry Dimbleby and his team for their work on this independent review. We are committed to carefully considering the review and its recommendations and responding with a White Paper in the next six months setting out the Government’s ambition and priorities for the food system. That will support our exceptional British food and drink producers, protecting and enhancing the nation’s health and the natural environment for generations to come.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. There was considerable dismay in many quarters last week at the Prime Minister’s public perfunctory dismissal of the National Food Strategy’s recommendations on the need for sugar and salt taxes. Can the Minister ensure that all levels of government understand that the sugar tax on soft drinks that this Government—or, I should say, Mrs May’s Government—introduced in 2018 was seen generally as a success? It did not raise prices but instead encouraged manufacturers to reformulate their products on a healthier basis. Why should the principle of that sugar tax not be extended to help ease the country’s obesity crisis and a salt tax be similarly explored, instead of being so summarily dismissed?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that the soft drinks industry levy—it is not a tax—has been a great success. The sales-weighted average sugar content per 100 millilitres in fizzy drinks reduced by 43.7% between 2015 and 2019. It is worth looking at how Henry Dimbleby has nuanced his recommendations by proposing a look at wholesale sugar and salt used by the industry to make food items that are becoming a serious problem to the health of this country.

My Lords, are the Government proud of our status as the second most obese nation in the world after the United States, with which, presumably, they have a special relationship? Surely a tax on salt and sugar will reduce obesity and the cost to the NHS and, maybe, even make people happy. Why are the Government not doing it?

The noble Lord raises an important point. The Government have set out a very clear obesity strategy, with particular emphasis on children. Henry Dimbleby’s report is stark in its warnings about the health trends that have been created in this country. They are mirrored in other countries as well, but we have a serious problem. What the ground-breaking obesity strategy sets out is important. It is not just about what we eat but about how we encourage people to eat, through using watersheds in advertising and a range of other means. We are considering this report and all its recommendations, and will publish a White Paper within six months, which may satisfy the noble Peer.

My Lords, I am encouraged to hear the Minister say that the Government want to encourage people, particularly children, to eat better. I ask specifically about the recommendations in the Dimbleby report, and I declare an interest here as one of its advisers. The holiday activity fund ensures that poor children get a decent meal in the holidays; the early start vouchers enable pregnant mums and young kids to get fresh fruit and vegetables; and the extension of free school meals enables all people in poverty to have one decent meal a day. What are the Government going to do about these recommendations or will they again wait for Marcus Rashford to run them up the publicity flagpole, then give in?

We are very grateful to the noble Baroness for her involvement in this report. She knows we have increased the Healthy Start programme; we have provided schools with fruit and vegetables; and we have had an impact particularly on low-income families, in the variety of ways we have supported them. Food and our diet have to be looked at holistically with household income and all the pressures on it. Within a month, we as Ministers will be clear about how to respond to this and will take forward six work streams, most of which will please the noble Baroness, and we will publish that White Paper within six months.

My Lords, the national food strategy is clearly important and timely. It should help us as a country combat carbon emissions and deal with the obesity crisis, so graphically underlined by the pandemic. Like others, I encourage the Minister to bear in mind the great success of the soft drinks industry with the 28% reduction of sugar, inducing change in producer behaviour. I also ask my noble friend to ensure that there is concerted action in this important area across the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, Henry Dimbleby’s report was focused on England, but he worked very closely with the devolved Administrations as well. Our food network and supply chains are interwoven, as they are with the European Union and beyond, so we absolutely will.

My Lords, will the White Paper include ensuring that people without gardens who wish to grow their own healthy food have access to land for allotments without having to pay high fees? Will local authorities be funded to provide these facilities in the interests of public health and to encourage school gardens? Does the Minister accept that children who grow vegetables eat vegetables?

Getting children used to the production of food is a vital part of helping them to enjoy it, so I am absolutely on the same side as the noble Baroness. I would like to see a great many more schemes being developed. It is probably not for the Minister to do this from here, as local schemes are best suited, but I will work with other departments to make sure that that is happening.

Does the Minister share my disappointment that the national food strategy made no mention of the importance of physical education and sport for young people in schools? We are seeing that being very reduced—not in private schools, but it is still being reduced in our state schools. Surely for a youngster starting off, getting the opportunity to learn about sport and physical education means that they will be much healthier, whatever they eat.

The noble Baroness is right that this is not my ministerial responsibility, but what we are doing in Defra to encourage people to get outside, to learn outside and to enjoy the outside is really impressive. We are working with other government departments to help her ambitions come true.

My Lords, the national food strategy proposals are evidence based and are further steps towards correcting the UK’s diet, which is the worst in Europe. The Prime Minister’s dismissal of a salt and sugar tax is a political decision. Can the Minister assure the House that, in future, scientific evidence will form the basis of decisions affecting the health of the whole country?

My Lords, scientific evidence is the basis of what my department works for and through. We will certainly apply scientific and societal evidence to inform our White Paper. I assure her that that will happen across government.

The report highlights some key questions for the UK’s trade policy. The UK cannot work to transform its own food system and support people to make food choices that are better for their health and the environment if we allow foods to be imported that are produced to lower safety, environmental or welfare standards. I ask the Minister how the Government will heed the report’s warning on the worrying precedent that the Australia deal could set on food standards for imports.

Australia is a country that shares our values and it is important that we have a free trade agreement with it. The noble Baroness will be pleased that it contains a chapter on animal welfare, which is often overlooked in criticisms. I assure her that the Government’s commitment to standards will be underpinned throughout all the trade agreements we sign.

Would the noble Lord accept and consider two points? It is not just sugar or salt but the combination of the two that often makes many foods moreish, if not addictive—Chinese takeaways and tomato ketchup, for example. Secondly, it is not just obesity that we should worry about, as another noble Lord said, but the chemical and psychological effect on mood and behaviour. Anyone with children knows the hyper-effect of sugar on children’s moods.

One of the most fascinating parts of the report was when it spoke about satiety. The junk food cycle is based on the desire to eat more than we need to feel sated. That is a real problem and a cycle that we have to break if we are to tackle obesity and other wider health issues.