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Childhood Obesity

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 17 November 2022


Asked by

Addressing childhood obesity remains a priority for the Government and we remain committed to achieving our ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030. We are delivering an ambitious programme of work to create a healthier environment to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. We recognise that there is more that we need to do, and we will continue to work with the food industry to make it easier for people to make healthier choices.

My Lords, first, could the Minister clarify whether the previous Administration’s policy, either to weaken or to repeal much of the 2020 obesity strategy, still stands or whether the Government will do better than that? Secondly, does he agree that health visitors play an important part in educating and informing families and parents so that, when children are young, they are brought up in an environment where they are encouraged to have a diet that tackles obesity?

I agree that health visitors play a vital role. We all know that a good start to life with healthy eating is a good foundation for the rest of your life. We also know that a lot of the problems around adult obesity obviously start in children under the age of five. I completely agree on continuing to strive to do better in government. I will answer some more questions on the actions we are taking, from which the noble Lord will see that we are very active.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as 40 million people are obese in this country, marching inevitably to a premature death from a variety of very unpleasant diseases, it would be a good idea to encourage them to have one less meal a day? This might encourage children to follow suit and put fewer calories into their mouths, which would help prevent them developing type 2 diabetes before they are 10.

My Lords, I agree that we—both as the Government and in general—need to be clear about what our recommended calorific intake is each day. Whether you choose to change that by eating one less meal, or however else you distribute your eating across the day, it is our role to help educate people on healthy eating. I agree that it is an issue and a big cost to both the health service and the economy. Our latest estimates are that it could cost the economy as much as £58 billion a year, so it is a critical message to get across.

My Lords, would the Minister enlighten us on the position of the BOGOF—buy one, get one free—deals? Are we going to remove the disincentive to people buying extra calories in the form of an extra portion? Or will the Government encourage people not to buy the first portion?

As I think the noble Lord is aware, the position on BOGOF, so to speak, is that we have delayed those restrictions for a year. We have taken significant action in this space, most critically in supermarkets, by moving the promoted items away from tills and prominent aisle endings to remove this so-called pester power. We will very much keep this under review; when we see the impact, particularly of moving those items, we can look again at whether we will introduce more BOGOF restrictions.

My Lords, the Minister has mentioned that what children eat is very important, but is the amount of proper and physical exercise young children get not just as important? Is he concerned, as I am, that primary schools, more and more, do not have officially registered physical education teachers, resulting in children getting very little properly organised exercise? Does he think that this is important, as far as obesity in children is concerned?

I agree with the noble Baroness, particularly given her previous position, that sport and physical activity are vital. As I am sure she is aware, we have a 60-minute target for children and £320 million of PE funding to back that up—but active lifestyles and sport are critical to that.

At this moment, as both an Englishman and a Welshman, I take the opportunity to wish both teams all the best in the World Cup.

My Lords, is it not a factor that exercise, no matter how much you do, will reduce only 20% of your overweight? Some 80% is from food and drink. Will the Government spend more time looking at fat and sugar? Why will they not promote research into alternatives to sugar, notably stevia? Instead, they leave it to the private sector and the manufacturers to do the work, and they are doing no work whatever on it. In those circumstances, will the Government take action themselves?

I agree with the noble Lord that a healthy lifestyle in terms of exercise gets only you so far and that the amount we eat is critical to that. We have played a very active role on sugar reduction—of course, I say this in the context of this being Sugar Awareness Week. Obviously, the sugary drinks levy has reduced sugar in soft drinks by 44% by using artificial sweeteners, so this is something we will look to continue to research and to add to, if the evidence backs it up.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered relationship with ukactive. I ask my noble friend whether he would agree that there is, on this occasion, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, said once, a silver bullet: it is called physical activity. This is in line with the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey. In supporting physical activity, my experience was that the Department of Health needed to work with DCMS and the Department for Education to promote school sport partnerships. In my former constituency, 51 primary schools benefit from the school sport partnerships. It is a really important priority that every youngster, not just those who are really good at sport, gets the chance for that physical activity.

I thank my noble friend and totally agree with him. As we have all mentioned, physical activities are a key part of a healthy lifestyle, regarding not just obesity and healthy eating but mental health. There is a lot of evidence to show that sport and a healthy lifestyle are good for everyone. We are working with the DfE and DCMS on this, but I agree that it we will need to keep it central to our agenda.

I say to the Minister that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. A perfectly good practical policy was worked out at the end of the David Cameron period in government; it arrived on the desk of Theresa May, who scrapped it. Why not go back to that?

I am afraid the noble Lord is testing my memory as to what that was. If he will excuse me, I will find out what it was and write to him.

My Lords, obviously the situation in the UK is extremely concerning, but we should consider what is going on elsewhere in the OECD: some countries have a better record than us, and others have brought in extremely innovative initiatives. What can we learn from other countries?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Absolutely, we always need to ensure that we are trying to learn from best examples, either in this country or from around the world. The OECD talks about four major strands: information and education; increasing healthy choices; modifying costs, such as a sugar tax; and restrictions on the placement of food and promotions. Noble Lords can see that we are taking much action in all those areas. Most of all, I am pleased to see that, influenced by a trailblazing initiative started in Amsterdam, we are now funding five local authorities to follow that across Birmingham, Bradford, Nottingham and Lewisham to see what we can learn from those initiatives.

My Lords, what parents, health professionals, educators and retailers want is some consistency and clarity from the Government. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to maintain the previous Prime Minister’s plans to ditch the vast majority of their 2020 obesity strategy, against the advice of the current Chancellor, who just two months ago signed a letter from former Health Ministers on the need for an anti-obesity strategy? We need to know where we are.

I hope the noble Baroness will forgive me if I am not quite sure which former Prime Minister and Chancellor she is referring to. I could not resist that, but I take her point and will respond in writing.

My Lords, is it not the case that we have had strategy after strategy, all well intentioned—we all agree on what we want to do—but it is not working? The Government pussyfoot around this. As my noble friend Lord McColl said, we need to tell people that it is not acceptable to be obese. If you are obese, guess what, your children think that it is acceptable to be obese. Might not we have a bit more of a robust strategy on this?

I like to think that we have an active strategy in this space. Personally, I prefer carrot to stick in this area. However, as I answered in the previous question, I am prepared to learn from anything that has worked in this country or abroad. If there is evidence of where the stick works better than the carrot, I would be willing to look at that and see whether we should be copying some of it.