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Childhood Obesity

Volume 824: debated on Monday 17 October 2022


Asked by

We are working with the food industry to ensure that it is easier for people to make healthier choices and increase progress on the reformulation of foods. In addition, there is a range of support to help children living with obesity and being overweight to achieve and maintain a healthier weight.

I thank the noble Lord for that very brief Answer. I wondered whether, in the current spirit of U-turns, the noble Lord could tell the House whether the Government will reverse their initial idea of reviewing the policies agreed by the previous Tory Government to ban two for the price of one offers on unhealthy food and to restrict advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt to kids during the times they watch TV. Health campaigners and medical professionals have called the possible reversal of this decision staggering and an incredible blow to the health of this country. I would be grateful for anything the noble Lord could add.

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this issue before us. I know that she is a passionate campaigner in this area, with a strong track record. I like to believe that we have had a multi-pronged strategy, because this is a complex area. Look at the four areas the OECD recommends in terms of addressing this complex issue. First, on information and education, we have been working very strongly on education programmes, labelling and the traffic lights, and with menus and restaurants. Secondly, on increasing healthy choices, again, we have worked with industry on recipes. Thirdly, on modifying cost, obviously the sugar tax has shown big reductions there. Lastly, on the restrictions on promotions and placements, again, 1 October saw us change the way items are presented to take away some of the problems of pester power. There is a big formulation of approaches. It is probably appropriate at the moment, with so much going on, that we seek to review their success. I know that the delay in the timings is all about giving ourselves that opportunity.

My Lords, could the 40 million people in this country who are obese or overweight be encouraged to become familiar with the medical fact that, if they were to make do with one less meal a day, it would help their health and the NHS and they would live to a normal age not plagued by dozens of very unpleasant diseases?

I thank and agree with my noble friend. He is correct. The cost of obesity to the NHS amounts to around £6.5 billion a year; obviously, this is in addition to not being very good for the people concerned in terms of healthy lifestyles. That is why we have a programme of action, as I outlined. This is something we feel it is important for us to get on with, not just for children but, as the noble Lord referred to, to help adults in this area as well.

My Lords, last year, the Government published a report on the promotion of food. I shall quote a few sentences from it:

“Although promotions appear to be mechanisms to help consumers save money, data shows that they increase consumer spending by encouraging people to buy more than they intended to buy in the first place … The latest data shows that we buy almost 20% more as a direct result of promotions. Consumers typically do not stockpile these extra purchases to take advantage of the lower price, instead they increase their consumption.”

It went on to say that the latest data

“shows that shoppers who buy more of their food and drink on promotion tend to purchase more HFSS”—

high-fat, sugar and salt—

“products, in greater volume, and are more likely to be overweight or living with obesity.”

Does the Minister agree with this analysis, published by his Government last year? If so, what are the Government doing about it in policy terms?

I thank the noble Lord. The figures to which he refers are a mixture of the pricing of these so-called “buy one, get one free”-type promotions and their positioning in a supermarket. In fact, the data shows that as much as a 50% increase in sales can be driven by where these promotions are placed in a supermarket. That is why the focus now is on what changes will be made on 1 October to reduce the purchase of a lot of the types of food groups we are talking about by moving them away from prominent areas. Once we see the results of those changes, we will be in a position to review some of the pricing and promotions to which the noble Lord refers.

My Lords, this morning, this month’s Chancellor reversed nearly all last month’s Chancellor’s tax changes. Meanwhile, increasing levels of childhood obesity are adding considerably to the cost to the NHS of treating conditions such as diabetes. Can the Minister confirm the commitment to the soft drinks industry levy, which has been successful in reducing the level of sugar in soft drinks and provides funds for sporting activities in schools and school breakfast clubs?

My Lords, as the House will be aware, the tax on sugar in drinks has reduced consumption of sugar by 44%, so I totally agree with the sentiment. We have been successful in this. We are looking to improve in the area of sugary food, where we have managed to reduce some of that content by as much as 13%.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the startling statistics showing the number of economically inactive people aged 50 and over, much of which is caused by ill health, with obesity thought to play a major role. Given that, why on earth do the Government need to fudge around and review? Why do they not get on with an assertive campaign to tackle obesity?

I do not believe that we are fudging around. Noble Lords will see some very firm action. If the noble Lord goes into the supermarkets today, he will see a very big difference in how you see the food. There are big changes. I totally agree on the importance of this. I was the lead NED of the DWP, so I know how many inactive people there are in the workforce and how much better it will be for them and the economy if we can get them active and into work. I completely agree with the sentiment and the action that we are taking to drive it forward.

My Lords, the National Food Strategy to tackle obesity, the new tobacco control plan and the health disparities White Paper were key to the Government’s aim to level-up health. The most recent NHS Providers report found that 95% of trust leaders said that the cost of living had either significantly or severely worsened health inequalities in the local area. Given the worsening situation, can the Minister confirm when the health disparities White Paper will be published? If not, can he point to what else the Government are doing to reduce inequalities in health?

I thank the right reverend Prelate. I agree with the sentiment of the question. We see figures whereby, as I am sure we are aware, the least deprived people will have half the levels of obesity of some of the more highly deprived ones. On education and the need to look at those inequalities, I agree. I cannot yet commit to a date when the inequalities report will be published; I do not have that information. However, as soon as I know, I will let the House know.

My Lords, this Government have done two things which cannot be criticised. One is to appoint my noble friend as a Health Minister; he is a welcome addition to this House. The second is to junk the ban on junk food advertising. There is no evidence that junk food advertising has an impact on obesity. It is an anti-growth measure that restricts our broadcasters’ ability to generate revenue. For as long as he is in his post—the next six or so days—I hope that he maintains this policy.

I thank my noble friend for his warm wishes and his wishes for my longevity in this position. I agree that on the scale of carrot and stick with these sorts of measures, we come down much more towards the carrot and the use of education to promote the right sort of food, rather than the stick, and that is what we are seeing in terms of results.

My Lords, analysis of the national child weight management programme by the Local Government Association has found that not only are the Government heading towards missing their goal of halving child obesity by 2030 but, on current trajectories, childhood obesity is increasing. Do the Government remain committed to their target and if they are, what will they do differently?

My understanding is that the figures for childhood obesity have been fairly flat for a number of years, apart from for the year of Covid, when they all went up. The year after that, they came down again. To me, that demonstrates the importance of free school meals and the action we are taking there for people to have good, calorific and sensible types of food. We have seen significant reductions in childhood obesity in the last year. To my mind, what is important in all this is the emphasis we are putting on the free school meals programme. We have the highest ever number of people on free school meals, up from 15% in 2015 to 23% today. Part of that is free school meals for all infant schoolchildren, so that we can make sure that their food is as healthy as possible.