[Relevant document: First Report from the Health Committee, Childhood obesity—brave and bold action, HC 465.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 106651 relating to a tax on sugary drinks.
The Petitions Committee has scheduled the debate to coincide with the publication of the report by the Select Committee on Health about childhood obesity. I did not have the advantage of seeing that report when I drafted my speech, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) will enlighten us further if she catches your eye later, Mr Hamilton. It is a great pleasure to see many members of that Committee here.
The petition was prompted by real concern about the health problems that are being caused by rising levels of obesity, particularly among children. Having looked at the matter, there is no doubt in my mind that we face a very serious situation. I am lucky to be one of a fortunate generation that saw advances in housing and sanitation, and mass vaccination programmes that eradicated or reduced the incidence of many diseases from which children used to suffer. However, we are now in danger of raising a generation who will have a lower life expectancy than that of their parents. The reason for that is down to diet, with too much fat and too much sugar—combined with too little exercise, yes, but it is mostly about diet.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
If the right hon. Gentleman is so eager to get in, I will give way.
I am eager to get in on that point, because I think it is rather facilely simplistic to suggest that any reduction in life expectancy is just down to diet. I accept that that could be one of the factors, but, in looking at this report and others like it, it is important that we take an evidence-based approach. Diet is a factor in reduced life expectancy in some parts of the country, but it is by no means the only factor.
The right hon. Gentleman will learn that diet is actually the major factor. I will go on to say a little more about that later. He is right that it is difficult to talk about the subject without seeming like a killjoy, so I will fess up right at the beginning: I enjoy a glass of wine with my meals, although I try to restrict it to weekends; I am martyr to my cravings for chocolate; and, like many of us in this House, I could do with losing a bit of weight. However, we should not let our own frailties put us off tackling what I believe to be a real health emergency.
I have seen a huge change in diet, particularly in children’s diets, over my lifetime. When I was growing up, pop was a treat that we got occasionally, and we usually got a bottle of it between several of us. Sweets were bought by our dads on payday. If we were out playing—most children did play out in those days—and we came in hungry, we got bread and butter and a drink of water. Now, thanks to a huge change in lifestyle, the wider availability of products and some heavy marketing to children, the situation has changed. Many adults and most of our children are not meeting the proper dietary requirements. We eat too much saturated fat and too much sugar—both added sugar, and sugar in fruit juices, honey and similar products.
As the father of two young children aged seven and four, I entirely endorse what the hon. Lady has to say about the prevalence of treats for today’s youngsters compared with that which our generation grew up with. Does she accept, however, that the issues here are the responsibility of parents and of the companies who produce such goods? Many of those companies have shown a level of responsibility, and the average size of confectionery such as the Mars bar has fallen as time has gone by. There is more information on all such products about the amount of fat and sugar that they contain. In many ways, we are living in an age of more responsible and more informed consumers, both young and old. That is where the responsibility lies, and that responsibility has been put into place to a large extent—
Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be kept brief, and that they should be questions.
The right hon. Gentleman flatters me by saying that we are of the same generation; I think he is quite a bit younger than me. As I will come on to say, I do not think that the public health responsibility deal has delivered, and although it is true that there are responsibilities on parents and all of us, we have to look at the environment in which people operate. In this country, I think we face a real health emergency that is equivalent to an epidemic, and sugar is one of the worst culprits. Sugar is added to processed food, and that changes our tastes over time. A small can of drink can contain up to nine teaspoons of sugar. The result of that is that we are all growing bigger, particularly our children. Thirty per cent. of our children are overweight or obese. Many adults are too, and they often live in the poorest communities.
Does the hon. Lady share my concerns about the new trend for having soft drink vending machines in schools? Schools may benefit from a slight increase in their budget, but the impact on children’s health and learning is significant.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, and I will come to what is happening in schools later in my speech.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the voluntary approach to the food and drink industry is not working? Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) has suggested, the industry is not taking responsibility for reformulating sugary drinks, some of which contain as much as 14 teaspoons of sugar—double the daily recommended amount. That is why we need a regulatory approach.
That is a reasonable approach, and I will come to that in a minute. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) mentioned the shrinking size of Mars bars, but I think that has more to do with maximising profits than with concern for people’s health.
As a result of all that I have outlined, our risk of serious diseases is increasing. We are much more at risk than we used to be of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers and type 2 diabetes, which is increasing rapidly in this country. In fact, the British Medical Association has estimated that problems with our diet lead to 70,000 premature deaths a year. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that if the Government were seeing 70,000 deaths a year from something such as a flu epidemic, they would act. This is just as serious.
Serious diseases are not the only problem. The biggest cause of childhood admissions to hospital is dental decay. If we talk to people who operate on those children, we hear horrific stories of young children having all their teeth removed because of decay.
A tax on sugary drinks has been Plaid Cymru policy for a number of years in Wales. The Labour party in Wales has responded in the media that such a policy
“is a not sensible way forward”,
and has called it “ill-thought” out, “economically illiterate gibberish”, “a disgraceful con trick” and “fantasy politics”. It has described the policy as “vacuous” and said that it has
“no chance of seeing the light of day”.
What is the hon. Lady’s message to her colleagues in Wales, especially as we are about to gain the powers to introduce a sugary drinks tax in our country?
I never take what Plaid Cymru says about the Labour party in Wales at face value; I am used to its selective quotes.
Dealing with problems caused by poor diet is costing the NHS about £6 billion a year, which is more than the cost of dealing with problems that arise from smoking and alcohol combined. That figure is predicted to rise to £10 billion or £12 billion by 2020. The Government’s response to that, as has been said, was the public health responsibility deal. They have rejected direct intervention, which they refer to as “Whitehall diktat and nannying”. I think that is a profoundly mistaken approach, for this reason. Individuals do not make decisions in a vacuum, and they are making decisions about their diet in a situation where unhealthy foods are often heavily discounted or priced very low, where hundreds of millions is spent on marketing—particularly on marketing to children—and, in some cases, where there is a lack of availability of healthy alternatives. It is true that we need to take responsibility for our own health, but the Government also have a role in ensuring that we have the skills and facilities that we need.
I am not sure which of these defenders of the Government to take first. I will take the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry).
I am probably not the best qualified person to speak about this, having judged a cake competition in my constituency on Friday night. Does the hon. Lady agree that much clearer labelling would be an alternative to a tax—I do not form a view on whether that is right—in ensuring that people are not making decisions in a vacuum? For example, if a drink contains 14 teaspoons of sugar, 14 teaspoons should be clearly marked on the side of that drink so that people know exactly what is in it.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need much clearer labelling. As I will come on to say, the proposal in the petition is one avenue for tackling the problem, but not the only one and not a silver bullet.
I will take the intervention of the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), but then I will make some progress.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. She is making a powerful case, of which I am somewhat persuaded. However, does she not feel that it would be best if the Government were given an opportunity to develop the responsibility deal and to do a lot more to change public attitudes and consumption patterns before a sugar tax, the effects of which are not yet fully known, is implemented?
The public health responsibility deal has had a fair trial over the past five years. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said of it that
“the current Public Health Responsibility Deal pledge on obesity is not a proportionate response to the scale of the problem.”
The reason for that, as the British Medical Association has pointed out, is that the deal does not set targets for individual food and drink products, or a timescale in which changes have to be made. That is why I have come to believe that there is a great deal of merit in what the petitioners are asking for, as one method among a whole lot of ways to tackle the problem.
A tax on sugary drinks would probably have to be at the level of 10% to 20% to make a change in behaviour, apparently—Public Health England suggests that range. There is evidence from Mexico and France that at that level, people’s behaviour starts to change and they start to choose sugar-free alternatives. However, that has to be part of a whole-Government effort to reduce obesity, which has to begin in schools.
Much work has been done on improving school meals, setting better nutritional standards for them and removing vending machines from schools. The problem is that those things do not apply to academies and free schools, and as more schools become academies we are putting more children at risk of poor nutrition. We should not tolerate that. It is good that food and nutritional education is compulsory at key stage 3, but we need to look at how that operates. Much more investment in equipment is needed. Schools need to be outward-facing and need to encourage local people to visit them to talk to children about food and how it is grown. The best schools do that, but often the curriculum is not appropriate for all children.
In my entire school career I did a term and a half of cookery, because it was considered that those who were academically inclined did not need to learn how to cook. The only thing I can remember being taught is how to make rock buns, something that I have not indulged in before or since. Another example is that my son specialised in Indian cooking. It was supposed to be brought home for the evening meal, but anyone who suggests that has never met a teenage boy. That was interesting, but expensive. What most of us need to know when we first set out in the world is how to eat healthily on a restricted budget. That is the sort of thing that we need to look at with our children.
In fact, all public institutions should be promoting healthy eating. Dare I suggest that we start with some of the vending machines in this place, so that I do not walk down the corridors thinking, “Get thee behind me, Satan”, every time I pass machines full of chocolate and fizzy drinks? That needs to be done in hospitals as well—there have been a number of articles about that recently.
I challenge people to walk into the foyer of many hospitals. There are machines selling chocolate and fizzy drinks, and the outlets often sell cake and biscuits quite cheaply but overcharge for a piece of fruit. If someone wanders in to buy a paper, they will be offered a big, discounted chocolate bar at the till. That makes it much harder for people to resist temptation. Of course, that is difficult to do, but the message that hospitals are giving their patients, staff and visitors is, “Don’t do as we say; do as we do.” The Government urgently need to negotiate with trusts and with NHS England to see how the issue can be remedied. It is nonsense to take an income from those sorts of outlets in one part of the hospital and then to deal with the effects of poor diet in another.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is also down to personal responsibility and choice, and that it should not be down to the state to tell people how to live their lives? Childhood obesity is more prevalent in deprived areas, so a sugary drinks tax will hit the poorest. Surely education, better labelling and personal responsibility are key.
If we were dealing with a level playing field, the hon. Lady might be right, but we are not. We are dealing with goods that are heavily marketed, especially to children. I am sure she cannot really be arguing that it is great for hospitals to profit from unhealthy food and then for the other end of the hospital to deal with the consequences of that.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will take one more intervention, then I am going to make some progress, because other Members need to speak.
On the issue of personal responsibility and consumer choice, as my hon. Friend will know, the World Health Organisation says that men should have up to nine teaspoons of sugar a day and that women should have up to six. Would it not be helpful if, in addition to the poison of sugar being taxed, all products were labelled in teaspoonfuls so that everybody knew what they were eating and could make empowered choices?
That is right. I have already said that clearer labelling has a role to play, but the Government need to understand and recognise the link between obesity and food poverty, which is not—before anyone misquotes me—to say that all poor people are obese or that all obese people are poor. The children who are most at risk are concentrated in the most deprived areas of the country. The same is true of adults. Figures provided to me by the Library show that there is a stark division. For instance, 32.7% of adults in Hartlepool are obese; in the Chilterns, it is 17.7%. In Barnsley, 35% of people are obese; in Cambridge, it is 14.7%.
The noble Lord Prior recently said in the other place that he found it puzzling that obesity is growing while people are using food banks. Let me try to explain it simply to him. If people live in an area where shops do not sell reasonably priced food, fruit and veg, and they cannot afford the bus fare into town, they are more likely to buy cheap, fatty products. If people are fuel-poor, it is difficult to cook healthy meals, as it is if they are time-poor. I have just said at a public engagement event that there are women in my constituency who are working two or three part-time jobs, trying to make ends meet. Most poor families are good at managing their budgets, but if they do not have time to cook and are worried about waste, they are more likely to buy easy things that can be cooked quickly—we need to recognise that. I would do the same in that situation, and it is why we need to invest more in preventive measures and to subsidise healthy foods, rather than unhealthy foods.
If we look at the detail of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, however, the public health grant will continue to fall. Some 25% of the grant goes on sexual health services, and 30% goes on drug and alcohol services, which are demand-led statutory services that cannot be cut. If we add the child measurement programme, child medical examinations and health protection, there is not much left over. That is why the Local Government Association has said
“councils don’t have enough…to do the preventive work needed to tackle one of the biggest challenges we face.”
The Government also need to look carefully at what has happened to their obesity strategy. The strategy was launched with great fanfare in 2011, but since then, as the National Obesity Forum has said,
“little has been heard of the strategy”.
The National Obesity Forum has asked for a “much more determined approach”. Even the Change4Life programme, which does not address obesity but helps to prevent people from becoming obese in the first place, has found its budget cut. We have heard much about the public health responsibility deal, which is currently under review. I hope the Government will seriously look at the deal, because all the indications are that, as presently constituted, it is not working.
Simon Capewell, professor of public health and policy at Liverpool University, called the public health responsibility deal a “predictable failure” and
“a successful strategy for food companies who wanted to maximise profits.”
It is right to work with the industry as one strand of our approach, but it is not right to give industry the final say on what happens because, as the Health Committee said in the last Parliament,
“those with a financial interest must not be allowed to set the agenda for health improvement.”
We need a much tougher responsibility deal.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will finish now if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me. He has made several interventions, and he can make a speech later.
Do you want a debate?
I have said to the right hon. Gentleman that I will not give way again.
The Government need to introduce a much tougher responsibility deal, with targets for improvements in individual products. A cross-Government strategy is also needed. As well as looking at schools, the health service and other public services, Ministers need to come out of their silos—after a time, all Ministers get into silos in their Departments—and look at what is happening overall. We do not want to see a repeat of what happened in the previous Parliament, when the Department of Health urged us to take more exercise while the Department for Education was cutting funding for school sports partnerships.
We need to consider that seriously, because what the petition asks for has to be part of an overall strategy to ensure that we promote healthier diets and get people more active, and not just by playing sport—sport is important, but I speak as someone who spent more time avoiding games at school than I ever spent playing them. There are other ways of getting people active. We need to encourage more walking and cycling, which is a role not just for the Department for Transport but for the Department for Communities and Local Government and for local councils, too. There is no reason why we cannot design new developments better to encourage more walking and cycling. There is no reason why we cannot ensure that new developments have children’s play facilities, communal gardens or even allotments, which are in very short supply, to encourage people to take exercise out in the open air.
We cannot continue with the current hands-off attitude. The problems are too great for that. The Government need to accept that the things they have done so far are—[Interruption.] The Minister will have a chance to speak when she winds up; she need not chunter from a sedentary position. Ministers ought to be above that sort of thing.
We need to have a full look at the situation and to encourage a proper national conversation, because the only way that such initiatives can be successful is if we take people with us.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I have said several times that I will not give way again. I will now wind up my speech. The hon. Gentleman can make a speech later.
We must take people with us. We must get people to understand the need for a healthy diet, we must get people to understand the risks that many of us are currently taking with our diets and, most of all, we must get people to understand the future risks to their children. As I have said, a sugar tax is one of the things that we need to have, but the Government need to go much further and introduce a proper, co-ordinated national strategy to ensure that, in future, our people are healthier than they are now.
Owing to the number of Members who have requested to speak, I may have to impose a time limit on Back-Bench speeches after the Chair of the Health Committee has spoken.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), Jamie Oliver and Sustain for giving us an opportunity to discuss the issue raised by the petition. I also thank all the members of the Health Committee and the Committee team, particularly Huw Yardley and Laura Daniels, for their contribution to today’s report, “Childhood obesity—brave and bold action”. Brave and bold action is what we need.
The first question is: how important is this issue? The answer is starkly set out in the first few pages of our report. There is a graph showing that a quarter of children leave primary school not just overweight but obese, and that an enormous and entirely unacceptable health inequality gap is opening up, and getting ever wider, between the most advantaged and the disadvantaged children in our society. Overall, a third of children are either obese or overweight by the time they leave school, which has enormous implications for them as individuals—it will blight their future life chances, and it exposes them to bullying when they are at school—and for the NHS.
As we heard, the estimated cost of obesity to the NHS is £5.1 billion. Obesity is one of the major contributing factors to developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes now accounts for 9% of the entire NHS budget. If we are looking to make the NHS live within its means by preventing illness, we have to do something about childhood obesity. Most of all, we need to do it for the sake of the children. We need to be clear that no single measure will be the answer. We need a package of measures, and we have considered the issues in our report.
The Committee did not focus on the role of exercise in our report, primarily because we looked into physical activity and health just before the last election and we wanted to endorse the findings of that report. The message is clear: whatever someone’s weight or age, exercise is enormously beneficial, but we must not be distracted into thinking that increasing exercise alone will be the answer to childhood obesity. We often hear that view from industry—that all we need is a bit more education and a bit more exercise—but we will be disappointed if we go down that route. Of course those things are important, but ultimately, unless we address the food environment in which we live, we will not make a meaningful difference to childhood obesity. Yes, let us put exercise and education firmly within the obesity strategy—I am sure that the Minister will do just that—but we need to go further.
We made recommendations in a number of areas, for example on promotions. We considered marketing and the pervasive advertising to which children are now exposed wherever they go. We considered the role of reformulation and of clearer labelling, endorsing the powerful point made about teaspoon labelling in particular. We considered improving information about food and education in schools, and school food standards. We also touched on the powerful role that local authorities can play and how we can support that.
However, as I said, we also considered whether we should introduce a sugary drinks tax, and that is what I will discuss in this debate, because the Government have indicated that they will not take action in that area. I would like to make the case to the Minister for why we felt that that should be an important part of an overall strategy.
In tandem! I am spoiled for choice.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is already a tax on sugary drinks, in that VAT is levied on them at 20%?
Of course, but let me be clear that the point of a sugary drinks tax is to introduce a price differential between the full-sugar product and alternatives, which would then be cheaper. We know that we can nudge people into making healthier choices with a differential. That differential would have to be 10% at a minimum; in our report, we recommend 20%. The beauty of levying such a tax on sugary drinks is that there will always be an equivalent product that is not packed full of sugar. Let me be clear that a relatively small bottle of sugary drink can contain 14 teaspoons of sugar. That is more than twice the recommended daily allowance.
To those who say that such a tax is regressive and would hit the poor, I say: look at who is already hit by the problem. The burden of childhood obesity falls on the poorest children in our community. We know from the experience in Mexico that a 10% levy on sugary drinks has led to a 6% reduction in consumption. Perhaps more importantly, it has led to a 9% reduction in consumption among the heaviest users. That is the point. The heaviest users are not being denied a product that they enjoy; they are switching to a non-sugary alternative.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that one concern that some of us have about a tax on sugary drinks is that although it seems an attractive idea as a one-off, it would set a precedent? There would then be moves to outlaw discounting, impose portion sizes and implement similar rules. [Interruption.] Many of us believe in the idea of freedom and the responsibility of the consumer, and do not like the idea of the Government imposing that sort of change.
In an ideal world, I agree, it would be nice not to have to do any of that, but I return to the point about whether the Government also have a responsibility for the health of the nation’s children. Should the Government step back? Should any of us feel that it is acceptable to condemn one in four—a quarter—of the most disadvantaged children in Britain to a lifetime of ill health? If we can do something simply to nudge people a different way, should we not consider the possibilities, and ask how different those children’s life chances could be? As I said, such a tax would not be regressive because there is always an easier, untaxed alternative. We are talking not about telling people that they cannot have a product that they enjoy but about nudging them to choose a healthier one.
There is an interesting phenomenon whereby education, for example, is sometimes taken up by the people in society who are already healthier, which can inadvertently end up widening the health inequality gap. We should target measures to help those who are suffering the most harm. As for this being regressive, look at who is suffering the most harm. Is my right hon. Friend happy with the situation as it stands?
Does not that point also suggest that the distribution of education interventions is not being focused in the right way? The Government could do significantly more to improve support, advice and education to allow that group of people who consume too much to make informed choices before going down the route of a tax.
I ask my hon. Friend to look later in our report, where we set out some of the evidence on delivering education and advice. I am afraid that it does not provide the solution that he imagines it will, but I encourage him to read the report. I wish education alone could solve the problem, but it will not, and it tends to be short-lived. The scale of the problem demands our attention.
A tax would not be regressive because there would always be an alternative. No one is thinking of introducing a sugar tax of the type that sometimes people imagine when they hear “sugar tax”, which is one that would apply to the bag of sugar that they buy off the shelf or to biscuits, cakes and sweets. We are not suggesting that, because it is difficult to reformulate those products as entirely sugar-free alternatives. We are considering only products with an easy alternative. Why did we choose sugary drinks? Look at the data in our report, particularly on teenagers’ diets. A third of their entire sugar intake comes from sugar-sweetened drinks. In other words, there is an easy win here, through which we can help to take calories out of children’s diets, but no one is suggesting that that is the entire answer.
Sugary drinks are not just about obesity; dental decay is also an important issue, and it affects self-esteem.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In our report, we highlight that the single biggest cause of admission to hospital for five to nine-year-olds is the need to have rotten teeth removed. Are any of us happy with that situation? It is absolutely woeful that we are not doing more to tackle it.
As I said, the primary purpose of the tax is not to be a pointlessly punitive measure; it is to nudge people towards healthier choices. However, if the Government went down that route, I think it would be more acceptable to the public if every penny from the levy was directed to helping the most disadvantaged children, who suffer the most harm. That would also answer the point about whether the tax is regressive. We must be able to demonstrate what can be achieved with it. At a time when public health budgets are being squeezed and we are possibly looking at a 3.9% reduction in the public health grant, we must not cut back on the very measures that could make the greatest long-term difference.
Does the hon. Lady agree that efforts to improve the education of parents tend to reach middle- class parents, not working-class ones, nor the parents of deprived children, whom we really need to reach? A tax on sugary drinks would send out a clear signal to those parents that they are doing their children harm by buying too many of these products for their children.
Yes. As I pointed out, we could end up inadvertently widening health inequalities. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that a tax would send a clear message—right in front of people, on the shelf—that certain products are cheaper because they are not as harmful. That is the clear beauty of it.
I ask Members to consider what could be achieved with such a levy. If it might raise between £300 million and even £1 billion a year, the possibilities are extraordinary in terms of what we could do to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation’s children. We should not miss that opportunity. I hope that the Government will accept all the points and concerns raised by hon. Members and reconsider their policy, giving serious consideration to how much could be achieved for the benefit of our nation’s children and their health.
I support a sugar tax. In Mexico, the average person has half a litre of Coke every day. Did the hon. Lady consider the possibility of a tax on sugar as an input into other products? After all, if I was making Hobnobs and the tax was at 10%, and 50% of a Hobnob was sugar, I would only have to make a slight change to the price, the formulation, or the number of biscuits. Would it not be better instead to have a tax on all sugar inputs, to give the right incentives to both consumers and producers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the point is that we wanted to respond to the issue about whether a sugar tax is regressive. It is much more challenging to use a direct replacement for the sugar, which would mean zero sugar for those kinds of products. That was partly why we took that view.
However, the approach that we recommend for the kind of products that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned is one of reformulation. During the last decade, there has been a successful programme of reformulating salt within our processed foods, but such a change takes time, because we have to adjust the nation’s palate gradually. Yes, we can make bigger step changes if we replace part of the sugar in one go, but there is sometimes something about the chemistry of sugar within cookery that means a sugar substitute does not do the same job. We wanted a tax where a sugar substitute did the same job as sugar, in effect.
I am confident that reformulation will be part of the Government’s response, because there is clear evidence that it works. Having said that, we know that it works better when there is some teeth to it, so I urge the Minister to go further than the responsibility deal and have something with real teeth. Things worked better when we had the Food Standards Agency and a bit of a stick in the background to make such changes happen, and industry wants a level playing field.
It is only fair that we give some credit to the industry, as my hon. Friend has done, particularly for the changes that have been made in relation to salt products. However, it seems to me somewhat insidious that, as we heard in an earlier contribution, the financial interests are being questioned, as though health professionals, who are often well funded by public funding, did not have a financial interest in this particular debate, as well as—[Interruption.]
A significant number of health charities also have a big financial interest in this debate, and it is right that that interest should be balanced against those with clear financial interests in the industry.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and I should say for the record that I have no financial interest in any of this whatsoever. However, he is right that the industry has a role to play, and there is no point just beating industry over the head, because we would like to bring it with us. I was rather encouraged to see that, during our inquiry, the British Retail Consortium was very helpful in a lot of what it said, but it told us that it would like a level playing field. A very important strand of our recommendations was around price promotions and the kind of deep discounting that goes on in relation to the most unhealthy junk food and drink. It is very difficult if only one section of industry takes action on discounting. An extraordinary point that came out in our inquiry was that 40% of all the food and drink that we have in our homes tends to come through very deep discounted routes, and discounting is absolutely key to retailers’ marketing strategy in the retail environment, so we need a level playing field as far as industry is concerned.
I can feel another point coming on here.
I declare an interest, because I have a Britvic plant in my constituency. My hon. Friend is talking about the industry. Does she accept that the industry has done a great deal to promote low-calorie variants of its products and to reduce the calorie content of the full-strength products?
I am sure that will be part of it, but as I have said, I am not here to beat industry over the head. I want to bring industry with us. I celebrate what it has done, but it needs to go further. What we heard on our Committee was that industry needs a level playing field, and that a bit of regulation helps, because then everybody goes together. For example, take the chicanes of sugar that we have at checkout aisles, and the fact that we are being flogged a kilogram of chocolate when we go to buy a newspaper. With those types of things, we need a level playing field, so that we do not have any industry going down that route.
My view is not that we should not have discount promotions; we need those discounts and promotions to happen for healthier foods. The argument is often made that we will hit people in their wallets if we take these promotions away, but what we want is for people to be able to afford healthier, quality food. I would love that type of food to be the focus of deep discounting and promotions.
We then come on to the issue of clearer labelling. Jamie Oliver, in his presentation to us, made a compelling case about labelling. Let us put the number of teaspoons of sugar on drinks. This morning, I was trying to look at drinks labels, and I found them confusing. We need clear information that says whether the product contains 12, 13, or six teaspoons of sugar. To answer the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) made about industry, it helps industry if people can clearly see that companies have made an effort to make a lower-sugar product. Let us allow that within clear labelling.
Let me come on to improved education. I would love to see more education about food in school, including proper cookery lessons, and for schools to have the resources to be able to do so much more in that regard. That is where I see one of the benefits of this levy going; it could go to support those kinds of lessons, not only in schools but in the wider community, and school sport. All those things are important. If we are to have school food standards, they should apply to all schools. Do we not care about every child in school?
The hon. Lady will know that I put forward a sugar Bill supporting sugar being denominated in spoonfuls. Does she accept that if there were two pasta sauces that were clearly labelled—one with six teaspoonfuls and one with three—there would clearly be an incentive for consumers to pick the lower-sugar one and that manufacturers would compete to get sugar content down, rather than up, in order to get people to buy their products?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have seen that where companies want products to be marketed as “healthier”, there is an incentive for them to reformulate, although we need honesty about that; sometimes, products can be marketed as “healthy” because they are low-fat, when they are packed full of sugar. We need to be clear about that.
Also, look at advertising: some products are allowed to be marketed to children, including breakfast cereals whose contents are 22.5% sugar; that was the rather shocking evidence that we heard. We need clearer guidance as to what constitutes a “healthy” product.
On that point about advertising, we felt that there was a clear case to have the watershed of 9 pm apply, so that we do not see junk food being marketed to children when they are watching very popular programmes. We were also very concerned about the pervasive nature of advergames on the internet: children think they are playing a game but, in fact, the games are the product of marketing companies, and the children are being sold particular items.
We are absolutely clear that all these things are very important and, as I said at the beginning, there is no one single piece of the jigsaw that will complete the picture. Indeed, the more pieces of the jigsaw that are put in place, the more effective a strategy there will be around childhood obesity.
I return to the point I made at the start: this issue matters and we cannot continue as we are. Also, although we did not go into this in great depth in our report, I urge the Minister to consider what interventions can be put in place for those children who are already affected by obesity. We were very supportive of the child measurement programme, but we were told by local authorities that funds are tight. As for extending the programme to bring in children from earlier years and pick them up before they get to primary school and run into difficulties, authorities do not have the resources to both put in place another year of monitoring and do what we need to in order to help those children who are already affected by obesity. Resources matter. I again urge the Minister, when she discusses this issue with colleagues, to consider what we can achieve, because we should not take the view that that nothing can be done about childhood obesity. We can do extraordinary good for the health of our children, and I really hope that when the Government bring forward their obesity strategy, they will be bold and brave, and recognise the urgency of this health emergency.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the two marvellous opening speeches. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) has now gone after intervening so often—I think he intervened seven times—and then complaining that there was no debate. Now he has deserted us to spend more time with his prejudices.
This is a debate of great importance. I will not go into detail about what generation I was part of, but there were certainly no sugary drinks when I was a child. There was a lot of water—we had that in abundance—but, being a child of the war, I had the benefit of a system of rationing whereby the amount of food was carefully controlled. We were probably the healthiest generation there has ever been, because we were quite rightly denied the damaging drinks that children often have now.
I want to make just one point, which is about who comes first in the Government’s thinking. Where does public opinion come? Where does the health of children come? We all know the misery that is felt by overweight children, and how they suffer mockery at school. It is extremely damaging for them. There is no question but that we have to do all we can to avoid obesity as far as possible. We can do something about it, but a number of decisions taken by the Government have been extremely worrying, and one of them is this—turning down the idea of a sugar tax.
Recently we had a debate in the House on a sensible Bill, which was supported by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), a Scottish National party Member. She is a breast cancer surgeon, and she made a splendid, well-informed speech in support of the Off-patent Drugs Bill, which would have been greatly beneficial to people in need of drugs, as it would have made them cheaper, and also to the health service. Members of all parties spoke in the debate, but the only voice for the party of Government was the Minister’s, and we know that the pharmaceutical industry—big pharma—has the Government in a throat hold. It is big pharma that decides what happens.
I believe it is the same with “big sugar”—that the Government are excessively influenced by the commercial interests of the sugar industry. They are also influenced by other industries—the alcohol industry is very powerful. We recall that at the time of the 2010 election there was an impassioned plea by the future Prime Minister. He said he knew what the next scandal in Britain was going to be: it was going to be a lobbying scandal. He knew about lobbying, of course, because he was a lobbyist himself. He knew about the influence of lobbyists—the odd word here, the invitation to a reception there, getting someone on side by inviting them to a seminar in the Alps, or in Bermuda. That is the way they work. Are the Government listening to the financial concerns of the greedy lobbyists, or to the pleas for a more rational, healthy policy?
Would the hon. Gentleman like to reflect on the comment made earlier, about the record of his party in government in Wales? If the sugar tax is such a priority, why has there not been more progress in Wales?
We have had a—[Interruption.] Exactly, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for saying so. I respect my hon. Friend. We had a little exchange in Welsh about who made the remark in question. I find the story most unlikely, and I would like to check on it.
The Conservative Government have abused their position repeatedly to attack the achievements of the health service in Wales. In one week, the Daily Mail had the Welsh health service as its No. 1 story for four days running. There is no way, by news standards or by the value of the stories, that that was justified. I am proud of the achievements of the health service in Wales, and I am glad that today is the day when the presumed organ consent system begins. Wales is leading Britain on that matter, and there is much other pioneering work being done by the Labour party and the Labour Government in Wales.
Unfortunately, the Tory Government like to use the Welsh health service as a stick with which to beat the Labour party. That is irresponsible and dangerous, because one of the most important things is that people should have faith in their own health service. It is an important part of therapy and confidence: when people go into hospital, they are of course nervous and concerned, and when they read these lying stories about political—
Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject of the debate is a tax on sugar and sugary drinks?
Yes, Sir. Thank you, Mr Chairman. I was unfortunately—inadvertently—diverted from the point involved, but I shall return to it.
Is my hon. Friend aware that last night on Welsh television the Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services, Mark Drakeford, said that there should be much greater control over the advertising of sugary drinks to children until after 9 pm? The Minister would, I am sure, welcome the devolved power that is implicitly being called for to be able to tax sugar in Wales and do the other things we are talking about.
I did see the programme; it was the Welsh segment of the “Politics Show”. That is why I find the account-giving of the view in Wales to be not plausible—Mark Drakeford is a splendid Health Minister.
Last year, a Daily Mail investigation revealed that the food industry lobby had been given unprecedented access to the Government. The Prime Minister hosted Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Nando’s and Tesco. They were all welcomed to No. 10 Downing Street, and given big hugs no doubt—they are great pals. Those are the ones the Government are listening to, not the needs and the health of young children.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, but I am taking rather a long time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he recognise that all the companies he just mentioned are major employers in this country and that it is perfectly right for Ministers, the Prime Minister and other Members of Parliament to meet with those companies so that they can put forward their views?
I am sure that there was a great outcry from the municipal and general torturers union in the South American countries when those countries were taken over by democratic states and the crafts of back-breaking and the pulling-out of fingernails were no longer in demand and people lost their jobs. But there was a benefit involved, and we cannot give this excuse about people being in employment.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way again; I am taking up other people’s time.
We cannot use the excuse of jobs at all costs. Of course jobs are important, but keeping them is not justified when we see the result of such action on the health of the nation.
It is fascinating to look at Government bodies because we recently found that the World Health Organisation is in trouble because so many members of its committees are in the pay of pharmaceutical companies—you might declare me out of order, Mr Hamilton, but I hope I am not going too far off topic. The flu pandemic that never was in 2009 was because the organisation sold a huge amount of pharmaceutical products—a billion in this country—while in Poland, where antivirals cost 7 zloty, they had no antivirals and they had half the number of flu deaths that we had.
I will give way, but for the last time.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am reflecting on his comments about the Government and his proposition that they are in bed with big business in the sugar industry. Would he say, then, that the previous Labour Government did not introduce a sugar tax in 13 years for the very same reason?
The hon. Gentleman has not been here long. I have been here for 28 years, and I think he will find that the previous Labour Government would not say that they enjoyed my entire approval for the entire time. I can assure him that I am critical of all Governments. They all have their imperfections, but none quite as many as the present one.
If we look at the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, five of its eight members receive funding from large confectionary companies. I am sure they are not influenced in any way by that, but it is interesting that Professor Ian Macdonald receives money from Unilever—the world’s biggest ice cream maker—Coca-Cola and Mars. Also, Professor Sanders, a Government scientist working on diet, sugar and heart disease, was given £4.5 million towards his research by Tate and Lyle. I am sure that does not affect his scientific judgment and impartiality in any way, but I question whether such behaviour is wise, because unkind people might conclude that the one who pays the piper calls the tune. We see these revelations and then find that the working group recommends that people slash their daily sugar intake, but not by a large amount.
In conclusion, we are in a dangerous position in Parliament because many of us, I think, felt upset when the Off-patent Drugs Bill did not progress. There is a universal view coming both from the public—we see the numbers of concerned people who signed the petition—and from every party that spoke in the House during that debate. We are here today thanks to the Petitions Committee, but who is speaking against the sugar business? Big sugar has its hand on the throat of the Government and it is big sugar that determines policy.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am hopeful that it will not be necessary to impose a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but that will be the case only if Members exercise restraint and endeavour to keep their speeches to around 10 minutes.
I rise to outline why changing our habits when it comes to sugar in our diet is so vital. It is not just the fact that high sugar intake is likely to result in obesity; what is important is the likely impact of obesity on our health. Those who are obese have a higher risk of heart attack or stroke, of cancer, of suffering from tooth decay and of developing type 2 diabetes. The long-term consequences of those diseases are what we need to worry about. For example, too many people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when it is too late—when their condition has already caused damage to their kidneys, their heart, their eyes and their blood circulation, which can lead to amputation. Those things have a life-changing and life-limiting impact on a diabetic patient. A secondary consideration is the huge cost to the NHS and social services. It is estimated that type 2 diabetes costs the NHS some £9 billion a year, which is 9% of its budget, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) mentioned. More devastating is the effect on the sufferer’s everyday life, and that is what leads me to believe that we need to do whatever is in our power to lower the incidence of obesity.
Those are the reasons why I was delighted when the Health Committee decided to hold its first inquiry of the Session on the subject of childhood obesity, and why I agreed to reform the all-party group on adult and childhood obesity, with its first meeting planned for the new year. During the Select Committee’s inquiry, we heard some compelling evidence calling for brave and bold action on obesity. I am sure that the majority of Members here today will have read the report. A sugary drinks tax is just one of the measures that we highlighted.
A few months ago I was against a sugary drinks tax, because I am against extra taxation, but the compelling evidence that we heard changed my mind. As a nation we are facing a massive obesity problem, and we need to be bold and brave in what we do as a result. I was originally against the tax also because I believe in choice, but consumers will still have choice. They will be able to choose between buying a sugary drink and paying the levy, and buying a drink with artificial sweeteners and not paying the levy.
The evidence that we heard dealt with both reasons why I was against a tax. According to the report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, “Carbohydrates and Health”, which was published in July, soft drinks as a single source represent 30% of added sugar intake for 11 to 18-year-olds. That is a huge amount. For four to 10-year-olds, soft drinks make up 16% of added sugar intake. Such data cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. A sugary drinks tax would surely serve to change habits, reduce sugar intake and therefore play a part in reducing obesity. That would have a huge long-term impact on health.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I do not wish to be accused of being in the pay of “Big Sugar”, which sounds vaguely like a ’70s wrestler, but does she agree that public awareness and better labelling of products are more important than anything to do with a sugar tax? Through them we can help to reduce sugar intake and change attitudes.
I think the wrestler that my hon. Friend is referring to is called “Sugar Daddy”, not “Big Sugar”. The Health Committee’s report said that it is not one measure that will make a difference but a whole range of measures, and education is one of those measures. I agree with him on that, for sure.
Some manufacturers are already reformulating their sugary drinks and their food items. I hope that the measures laid out in the Health Committee’s report and other recent reports will speed up the process for every food manufacturer. We want to have that nudge effect. As our report clearly states, the tax should not be for ever. It is a speedy response to a growing problem, and it can work as other measures kick in. When the time is right, the tax can then be dropped. It is vital that the money raised through such a tax is ring-fenced to tackle the obesity crisis in children.
Is there evidence that if price is increased, consumption will reduce? Was that part of the evidence that the Select Committee took?
I recommend that my hon. Friend reads the report. The evidence from other countries is that the implementation of a sugary drinks tax has reduced consumption considerably. It is important that we ring-fence the money from such a tax for education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) said, education is extremely important. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, who chairs the Health Committee, also made that point. The money should not go into the general Treasury pot of money.
Just because we are focusing on sugary drinks in this debate, that does not mean that they are all we need to consider. In fact, if a sugary drinks tax was the only measure implemented, it would not be effective in tackling obesity and its long-term consequences, because sugar is not the only cause of obesity. Fats and other carbo- hydrates also play their part, as do lifestyles.
We have already talked about exercise. I recommend the Sky Ride project to everyone. It is about getting more people on bikes and caters for anyone, from the men in Lycra who want to cycle 100 miles a day to families. If we can get children on their bikes, getting more exercise, we can start to tackle the obesity problem in a fun way, which is a good way of doing it.
My hon. Friend mentions cycling, and I concur; it is fantastic exercise, and its health benefits mean that regular cyclists live many years longer. Does she agree that one area we can improve is competitive sport in schools? Having more of that would bring about better health outcomes and better health among our young people.
I completely agree. I always enjoyed my competitive sports at school. I was a sprinter, and I played netball and rounders.
Not wrestling, no.
The issue is partly about exercise, but it is also about food. There is more reliance on ready meals, takeaway meals and meals consumed in restaurants than ever there was in the past 30 years. However delicious the food is, as consumers we do not have control over what goes into it. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) talked about her domestic science lessons. I had a term and a half of those lessons, and I still use my pastry recipe to make my mince pies at Christmas. I know they have sugar in them, but at least I know what is going into them. The recipe book that I created in my domestic science lessons is well thumbed indeed.
We need to tackle every cause of obesity: price promotions; the deep discounting we have heard about; reformulations; the locations of takeaways, which seem to crop up near schools; marketing and advertising; and celebrity endorsements. We need to have clear and understandable labelling. I commend the idea of having the number of spoons of sugar on packaging. It is straightforward, simple and anyone can understand it. We also need more information from takeaway outlets and restaurants as to what we are eating. The list goes on and on.
Obesity is a problem that is not going away. As politicians, we can no longer ignore it. As the Health Committee’s report states, we need to take brave and bold action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and four outstanding speeches. I could easily say I agree with everything I have heard and sit down, but this would not be Parliament if we said so few words, so I will add a couple of words.
Normally, I think Home Affairs Committee reports are stunning. However, the report that the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) has published today is an absolutely stunning report, which I hope will be a turning point in how the public and the Government look at the issue. I congratulate her and the members of her Committee on the work that they have done.
I also want to congratulate Jamie Oliver on the work that he has done and this amazing petition, which has managed to attract 151,782 signatures. This debate is an example of how Parliament can reflect the needs and wishes of the public. It was opened eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), with whom I spend many hours in the Tea Room, where we discuss food and other things of that kind. She spoke well, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn).
I want to speak about various issues. I declare my interest as a type 2 diabetic. Mr Hamilton, you are also a type 2 diabetic, but you are better at taking the advice of the hon. Member for Erewash than I have been. She encourages people to cycle, and you went on a cycle ride from Leeds to Paris in support of diabetes; I walk to the tube. It is very bad. I keep saying to my wife that I want to buy an electric bicycle, and she keeps saying that I will never use it, but I use you as an example, Mr Hamilton —a paragon of what we should all follow.
Sky Ride is open to anybody of any age. I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to find his local Sky Ride starting point, buy a bike and go and enjoy it.
I will, but for me it will not be Sky Ride; it will probably be Skyfall. However, I will look up what the hon. Lady has suggested.
On the point made by hon. Members about Mexico, I met the Mexican ambassador and his amazing dog, Pepe, on Thursday last week at the Mexican embassy. The ambassador is also a diabetes campaigner, and he told me that the example of Mexico is a good one. The chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes, gave us the figures: consumption is down in Mexico, and the price differential provides an important nudge. The ambassador told me that Mexico is the biggest consumer of Coca-Cola in the world. That is why Mexico introduced the sugar tax, which is working, and it is important that our Government consider that tax.
However, we need to move further. I gave up sugar when my local GP diagnosed me with type 2 diabetes on an awareness day. He said, “Come along and be tested.” I was tested and he rang me the next day and said, “The good news is you’re on the front page of the Leicester Mercury, but the bad news is you’ve got type 2 diabetes.” I did not really know what it was, but I gave up sugar, which is a killer, immediately.
Whenever we talk about the sugar industry, it gets very worked up. I think we should go further and have a no sugar day. The last time I questioned the Prime Minister on the subject, about the time of World Diabetes Day last year, I suggested that the consumption of sugar should be stopped in No. 10 just for one day. Imagine if the Administration Committee, or the commissioners of this House, decided that just for one day, perhaps World Diabetes Day, there would be no sugar available in the Tea Room. When you got to the counter—I know you would resist it, Mr Hamilton—there would be no Club biscuits, no Jaffa Cakes, no Victoria sponge; just fruit and other types of food we can consume without increasing our sugar intake. There are a lot of examples of that happening. We need to take a proper course of action, apart from simply putting up taxes.
I commend the companies that have tried to do something about the issue. I went to a Waitrose store in Wolverhampton to look at what the manager had done. I am sorry, I did not tell my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) about that—I was driving past and I had no time to text. The manager had taken all the no-sugar products and put them in a kiosk in the middle of the store. Rather than being shoved on the last possible shelf, they were in one kiosk with the words “no sugar”, so all the no-sugar stock was in one place. It is so much better when companies encourage their consumers to be responsible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North mentioned the responsibility deal, but I think it has failed. Voluntary codes do not work. The Government were right to introduce the deal under the previous Secretary of State for Health, but unfortunately it has not made much difference. We should get the companies in—perhaps invite them to No. 10—and get them round the table with the Health Secretary and tell them that they need to do much more to control the amount of sugar in their products.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West on introducing his ten-minute rule Bill on labelling. On the point made by various hon. and right hon. Members—and Mr Jamie Oliver—if we simply put the number of teaspoons of sugar on the front of a product, that will be sufficient to allow consumers to make a proper choice. Rather that than having tiny lettering on the back of a product, which we do not always see. I would also like to see more products with the words “suitable for diabetics” on them. To give Marks & Spencer—and corporate Britain—credit, it has no-sugar chocolate. It tastes pretty awful compared with real chocolate, but at least it is there, and when you are desperate, you can reach for the drawer that says “no sugar”.
I want to ask those who produce sugary drinks to be a little less touchy and more touchy-feely. I was recently asked whether I supported the arrival of the Coca-Cola van in Leicester. I said I was against it because it would encourage young people to drink more Coca-Cola, which has seven teaspoons of sugar in each can, and there was a huge outcry. When I went to a football match two weeks ago at the King Power stadium—before Jamie Vardy scored his 11th goal—a man came up to me and said, “You are like the Grinch. You have ruined our Christmas, because you do not want the Coca-Cola van to come.” I thought Christmas was about the birth of Christ and the message of Christianity, but I now realise it is about not depriving people of their beloved Coca-Cola van, which they can go and worship on 17 December in Leicester.
We then discovered, thanks to the Mirror and the Daily Mail, that the Coca-Cola van is visiting some of the most obese cities in the country. It actually visits Coca-Cola’s best consumers. I had a very nice letter from Coca-Cola inviting me to come and meet the chairman in Atlanta, Georgia—I think I will go to the local headquarters in Reading—and I said, “All you have to do is put on the van the words ‘no-sugar Coca-Cola’, ‘Diet Coca-Cola’ or ‘Coca-Cola Lite’, and you can help change the habits of consumers.” That needs to be done, and I have an open invitation to Mr Oliver to come to Leicester on 17 December, not in an anti-Coca-Cola van, but in a van from which he can give out his good food and perhaps water instead of Coca-Cola. Perhaps he can follow the van around the country making sure we have good products given to young people.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), the Minister with responsibility for diabetes, must feel a little alone given all the speeches that we have heard so far. I think she is committed to doing a great deal of work on diabetes. I had the pleasure of being with her in Asda on World Diabetes Day—not shopping, but raising awareness of diabetes in her constituency—along with Silver Star, a charity that I founded a few years ago. However, I think the Government as a whole are reluctant to take on the big companies. I hope that they will be bold in order to save lives and help the health of our nation, and that they will take an initiative that will encourage Health Ministers and Governments all over the world to do the same.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hamilton. I, too, speak as a member of the Petitions Committee, which granted this debate, and I am delighted to do so. I congratulate the Health Committee on its report. I must confess to not having read it all since I got my hands on it today, but I have certainly read the part about the sugar tax, which I found very helpful and good.
I speak as a Conservative who is a passionate believer in keeping taxes as low as possible; I am reluctant to support the introduction of any new taxes. I also speak as a 17 and a half stone—on a good day—hulk of Cornish indulgence. Those present can tell from my physique that I enjoy the good things in life, including the food we eat and the liquids we drink. I am passionately opposed to the nanny state and to the Government interfering in people’s lives any more than they absolutely need to, particularly in an area that often worries me: the Government undermining or usurping the role of parents in their children’s lives.
Given that I have said those three things, Members might be surprised to learn that I support the introduction of a sugar tax. Shortly after I was elected in May, I was approached indirectly by Jamie Oliver. I am privileged to have his restaurant, Fifteen Cornwall, in my constituency. The restaurant does incredible work by providing not only excellent food but apprenticeships for some of the most disadvantaged young people in Cornwall. It also engages with the wider community to promote good, healthy food throughout Cornwall.
Fifteen Cornwall approached me to ask whether I would support the campaign to introduce a sugar tax. I have to say that my initial reaction was less than enthusiastic, for the reasons I have outlined. It was not my natural inclination to say, “Yes, that’s a really great idea and I’m 100% behind it,” but having been approached, I went away and looked at the issue carefully. As I have looked at the evidence and examined the issue more deeply, I have shifted my position, despite my initial and natural inclination not to support such a tax. The reason is quite simple: it is clear to me that we have an immediate and growing childhood obesity crisis in our country.
As has already been said, a third of children leave primary school overweight, and a quarter of the most disadvantaged children leave primary school obese. One of the most shocking statistics I have read is that the most frequent reason for children—particularly five-year-olds—having to go to hospital is for tooth extraction because of decay. It is shocking that we accept that in modern Britain. As I have looked into the issue more and more, I have reached the position where I find the evidence compelling: something needs to be done.
It has already been said that a sugar tax on its own is not going to be the silver bullet that solves all our problems, but I am persuaded that it needs to be part of the solution. I do not believe the Government can any longer sit back and say, “This is a matter of personal choice,” or, “This is just down to parents,” because that is clearly not working. Something needs to be done to send the clear message to the country, and indeed the industry, that the current situation is not acceptable and that action must be taken.
Looking back over my lifetime, it is clear that the sugary fizzy drinks market has grown out of all proportion. I remember when I was a seven or eight-year-old and we used to have a weekly delivery of pop to our house. My brothers and sisters and I would look forward to the day when my mother would pick two or three bottles of pop from the delivery van for us to have in the house as a treat. We knew that once we had drunk those two or three bottles—there were five children in our house, so do not think I drank it all—that was it for the week. Once we had finished our fizzy drinks for the week, they were gone until the van came back the next week. A good thing was that the van used to take away the empty bottles to recycle them—that is another issue altogether with fizzy drinks, but we will not go there today.
Those drinks were very much a treat. Although we looked forward to them, we knew that their availability was limited and controlled. Sadly, those days are gone and fizzy and sugary drinks are now so readily available and so heavily marketed, particularly at children, that a problem has arisen that we have to address. It is a crazy world we live in when a can of pop is cheaper than a bottle of water in most shops. Again, as has already been said, a third of an average child’s sugar intake is now derived from sugary drinks. We have to take notice of that.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Addressing this issue has to be a team effort. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has left the Chamber, because I felt that the tone of his speech was somewhat unfortunate, and I am not sure that he did the cause much good. I very much believe that there needs to be a team effort. Having spoken to Members, I have discovered that there is an awful lot of cross-party agreement on sugary drinks. We all need to work together to make a compelling case to the Government that they take action.
It is clear that parents have ultimate responsibility for what they allow their children to partake of, but we need to help them and educate society as a whole about the dangers of continuing to consume, and allowing children to continue to consume, sugary drinks at the current level, because it is literally killing our country. We need to enable, educate and help parents more. Some suggestions have been made about labelling, which I believe has an important part to play. People should be able to make an educated decision about what they allow their children to have, rather than having to deal with the current situation, where labelling is incredibly vague.
We have reached the point where the Government have a role to play. They need to send the clear message that the current state of play is not acceptable or right, take some leadership and demonstrate that this issue must be addressed. Of course, we have to work with producers and retailers, and I take on board some of the comments made by other Members. Perhaps the industry does want to resist the imposition of a sugar tax. My view is simple: if it steps up to the plate and starts to take action now, perhaps we will not need to introduce a tax, but in the absence of that—it does not seem to be forthcoming at the moment—the Government should seriously consider taking action and introducing one.
We often talk about investing to save; I see a sugar tax as taxing to save. If we introduced one and used the income from it wisely, we would save the health of our children while also saving the NHS an awful lot of money over the years to come. We have heard that the costs to the taxpayer of the related health issues are measured in many billions of pounds. By introducing a sugary drinks tax and spending the money carefully, we can save money for the taxpayer in the long run.
Quite simply, I am persuaded that a sugary drinks tax would be the right step, and the Government should take the idea very seriously. I came to that position reluctantly, but it is the position I have come to. I ask the Minister and the Government to listen to the voices of many Members from throughout the House and the clear message from the public, who are now waking up to this issue and saying, “Something needs to be done.” They should look seriously at whether this tax can be introduced to send the clear message that the current state of play is not acceptable.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on St Andrew’s day. Earlier today, I had a plate of cullen skink soup, followed by haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down with a tin of Irn Bru. [Interruption.] It was very enjoyable, and it was a delight to come in and smell it. By way of a disclaimer, I should inform hon. Members that my constituency is the birthplace of the wonderful Irn Bru, Scotland’s second national drink—I suspect hon. Members have an idea what the first is. To digress a wee bit, I am a supporter of a campaign, led by my constituents Paul Gilligan and David Reid and The Falkirk Herald, to reinstate an Irn Bru advertising mural outside the Howgate centre, as we now consider it a piece of social and civic art, such is the popularity of our drink.
I agree an awful lot with the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Warrington North. I am a founder member of Central Rio FC, a football club in my area, and I had the privilege and pleasure of being its first coach. It has grown, and now about 400 to 500 children participate locally. It is a wonderful example of how our community works together. One of the first things that rang alarms in my head is that some of the children who came along would not drink water. Their parents said that they would drink only sugary drinks—Irn Bru, Coca Cola or whatever. We had to overcome that huge problem, so, again, I am delighted that we are having this debate.
On the point about sugary drinks and sports, does the hon. Gentleman think that a lot of confusion is created by the fact that sports drinks, which are supposedly good for people, are so loaded with sugar that they probably do as much harm as good, when balanced with the exercise that people are doing?
I could not agree more. That is one of the biggest problems. People drink lots of sugar, which gets them high quickly, but they then come down and go into a never-ending cycle of having to drink it again. It is an extremely worrying state of affairs for everybody, so I totally agree with the hon. Lady.
I believe that raising tax on sugary drinks would be an effective means of reducing childhood obesity. I thank all the MPs here, and I hope they all agree that Jamie Oliver should be applauded for setting up this petition and making use of his profile and that of the charity Sustain. I, for one, echo his concerns about the health and welfare of our future generations, and I share his belief that
“we can shift the dial on the epidemic of childhood obesity.”
I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in his place, for his diligent work in pursuing better public health awareness for the people of this country.
It is commonly known that sugar-sweetened drinks are associated with a higher risk of weight gain than similarly calorific solid food. Evidence indicates that there is a link between the habitual excess consumption of sugar, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain. A large study of European adults showed that there is a 22% increase in diabetes incidence associated with the habitual consumption of one daily serving of sugar-sweetened drinks. Sugar-sweetened drinks contribute a significant amount of sugar to children’s diets. A reduction in their consumption would, in my view, significantly lower the intake of sugar and therefore reduce obesity and the associated detrimental effects on personal health.
According to statistics released in 2014, 64% of adults in the UK are overweight or obese, which cannot be good for anybody. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) will talk about that fact later. International comparisons indicate that the UK has above-average levels of overweight and obese adults. The cost of our obese population is not just felt in the increased risk of a range of serious diseases, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and some cancers; there is also an economic cost. It is estimated that obesity costs the NHS up to £600 million in Scotland alone, and the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the cost to the UK is equivalent to 3% of gross domestic product. The Scottish Government await the outcome of the Cochrane review on that issue.
Worryingly, for the majority of adults, obesity starts in childhood. Evidence shows that being obese in childhood increases the risk of becoming an obese adult. If we do not encourage adults and children to reduce their sugar intake, the economic costs and the cost to the NHS will continue to be a significant burden. Perhaps that is where a bit of libertarian paternalism is needed. As was said earlier, it is possible and legitimate to nudge people.
Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that, sadly, a massive proportion of those who are obese are the poorest in our society? No Government of any party can ignore that fact. The poorest do not have a free choice when they buy sugary items.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Once again, it is the poorest who do not know how to make such choices. I hope to come on to that point later.
Although I welcome the proposal to increase tax on sugary drinks and agree with the rationale behind it, I am slightly cautious about it, simply because the body of evidence on this subject does not robustly demonstrate the effect it would have in isolation on rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. I feel strongly that a raft of measures should be developed to reduce sugar intake and obesity. Taxation of this kind is an important tool in shifting the population’s dietary patterns. Educational messages alone simply will not achieve the reduction that we need, so fiscal and reformulation measures need to be introduced. We MPs can help to nudge that decision. We should improve the decision-making process to allow the choosers whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned to make better choices for their own welfare.
In conjunction with a sugar tax, we require legislation on the reformulation of foods to reduce overall calorie intake. If that is not possible, the industry should be compelled to reduce portion sizes—although not of Mars bars. We also need to introduce marketing restrictions on unhealthy foods to restrict the marketing of foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat to children. Restrictions should be applied most stringently to TV and online advertising, as evidence suggests that under-16s are strongly affected by advertising through those mediums.
We must improve our confused labelling system. We should continue to support a consistent front-of-pack labelling system and should extend caloric labelling, such as the traffic-light system, to all food and drink. Arguably, it is most crucial for the Government to invest more heavily in active travel by dedicating a national budget to walking and cycling; I am absolutely with the hon. Member for Warrington North on that.
The obesity epidemic is not going away. If anything, it will get worse for successive generations unless the Government take action. Implementing and evaluating a sugar tax as part of a childhood obesity strategy would be one step towards improving the health of our nation. I urge the Government to take heed of the petition and implement such a tax.
Finally, I holidayed in Cornwall this year, so I appreciate what the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) said about weight—such is the quality of the food in Cornwall.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing this debate. I strongly identify with her comments about being brought up in the north and the change we have seen in children’s diets. When I was growing up in Oldham, fizzy drinks were a rarity for our family—the pop van did not come to our house. If we were thirsty, my mother’s response was always, “There’s plenty of corporation pop,” corporation pop being the stuff that comes out of the taps. That was normal in my family, and many people of a certain age will be able to relate to that, but our children’s diets have really changed. While I am talking about my mum, it is her 85th birthday tomorrow. She is a living testament to the benefits of a strict diet and lots of corporation pop, and I want to pay tribute to her.
I thank the Select Committee on Health for its report on childhood obesity. I was briefly a member of the Health Committee and enjoyed my time on it; I wish that I could have stayed there. I am looking forward to reading the report properly, and I applaud the Committee for its brave and bold moves.
I respect the opinions of several health bodies that support a sugar tax. I am far more persuaded by the views of the British Medical Association, Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation than those of the Food and Drink Federation. There has been some debate as to whether health research has been influenced by such bodies. I am unaware that any money has changed hands, but I am sure that, ethically, health researchers must declare it if they have worked in partnership with charities.
The BMA totally approves of the Government imposing a tax on sugary drinks, specifically to reduce the amount of drinks that people consume. It produced a report called “Food for thought: promoting healthy diets among children and young people”, which justifies the tax, noting that
“the strongest evidence of effectiveness of taxation approaches is for sugar-sweetened beverages; that these products are typically high in calories and low in essential vitamins and minerals (often referred to as ‘empty calories’); that the intake of added sugars by many children and adults in the UK far exceeds recommended levels; and that a high intake of added sugars is a risk factor for a range of health conditions.”
That neatly sums up the argument for considering a sugary drinks tax. As the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) pointed out, most manufacturers will produce a low-sugar alternative to their high-sugar drinks, which shows that they are aware of the problem. Most hon. Members have had access to the same data, so I will not repeat the things that everyone else has said.
The British Heart Foundation fully recognises that we cannot reduce obesity simply through a sugar tax—a point that many Members made—and says:
“a sugar tax alone will not solve the problem of obesity. It needs to be combined with other measures”.
I support that. The measures that it suggests include
“a reduction in the amount of sugar added to the foods”
that we buy. That sugar is often hidden. As other hon. Members have suggested, we need to look at convenience foods, because they contain an awful lot of hidden sugar. Someone’s first thought when choosing a savoury dish might not be that it is laced with sugar, but they often are, so we need to be careful when buying convenience and microwaveable food. The BHF also wants to restrict
“the marketing of unhealthy food and drink products to children and young people both online and on TV.”
Tracy Parker, a BHF heart health dietician, says:
“Cutting down on sugary drinks and replacing them with sugar-free options is a simple swap”.
That is why I am supporting the e-petition. It is a simple thing that we can do. We would end up not collecting any tax at all if everyone switched to a low-sugar alternative, and I believe that that, rather than penalising poor families through their food bills, is the tax’s intention.
We have already heard the statistic that poor diets cause 70,000 premature deaths each year, but it is worth bearing that in mind when discussing our nation’s health. Reference has been made to the sugary drinks tax introduced in Mexico, which has been shown to have cut consumption. Following the introduction of the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, purchases were reduced by 6% in 2014. We need to be aware of the evidence showing that a tax will actually reduce the purchases of sugary drinks.
Diabetes UK also supports a sugar tax for the avoidance of type 2 diabetes, while stating that it needs to be part of a larger package of interventions, including marketing restrictions on unhealthy food, restricting advertising to children, supporting clear labelling and, interestingly, investing more heavily in active travel by dedicating a budget to walking and cycling nationally. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is no longer present, but I am unsure whether that proposal includes electric bikes. I imagine that the intention is that people put in a little more physical effort—but hey, we have to start somewhere.
Today’s e-petition was initiated by Jamie Oliver, and many people have paid tribute to his activities in raising awareness of the campaign, which has really caught people’s attention. Many Members mentioned the teaspoons-of-sugar labelling system, which has drawn particular attention and which everyone can understand. When someone picks up a bottle and reads, “This half-litre bottle of Coke contains 13 teaspoons of sugar,” they can relate more to that than to grams per millilitre. Jamie Oliver has recommended that that labelling system be taken up, and we should really consider it as a simple way of getting people to visualise what they are about to drink or give their children.
Many hon. Members mentioned tooth decay. Unfortunately, tooth decay caused by sugar is the most common reason why children aged five to nine are admitted to hospital. We really need to do something about that. If we do not encourage good dental hygiene in our children’s younger years, we are just storing up a load of problems for their teenage and adult years.
I want to wind up by saying that I recently saw a film called “That Sugar Film”, which explores the problem of hidden sugars in our food. Among other things, the film highlighted a drink that I had previously never heard of called Mountain Dew, a half-litre bottle of which contains an astounding 17 teaspoons of sugar. The film referred to a condition in America known as “Mountain Dew teeth” and showed a young man of about 20 whose teeth were completely rotten as a result of his Mountain Dew habit. Sadly, now that I am aware of the drink and its lurid green bottle, I have actually seen it for sale in my local supermarkets. We really should be imposing some kind of tax on these high-sugar drinks to hopefully make them far less desirable and affordable. We need a clear, effective, easy-to-understand labelling system, and the teaspoons-of-sugar measurement is the right way to go. As many Members have said, there is no silver bullet for reducing childhood obesity, but the sugar tax would be a start, and I heartily recommend it.
I am a late contributor to a long debate, so some of what I say will have been touched on, but I hope it is not all déjà vu.
Apparently today is the first day of Sugar Awareness Week, after “black Friday” and “cyber weekend”, or whatever—it is all good to know. According to Mick Armstrong, chair of the British Dental Association:
“Britain is addicted to sugar, and inaction can no longer be justified, either morally or financially.”
The debate, which to some extent reflects Britain’s love affair with sugar, is not the result of an intellectual curiosity, as subjects discussed in this Chamber often are, but arises from a petition. We have heard the figures —150,000 people have signed it—and we see it reflected in the number of people in the Public Gallery today.
One in four children leave primary school clinically obese—the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said it is one in three—so we have to do something about the ticking health time bomb. The cost to the NHS runs into billions—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) mentioned £6 billion. Some people argue that the state should not interfere in such things, but it would not be the first time, because it is something that Governments of both complexions have done before, and as a result we have seen a reduction in the number of adult smokers in this country.
The clamour for action on sugary drinks and the arguments in favour of the funds raised going to tackle public health problems have received not inconsiderable public attention, at a time when health budgets are being squeezed. There is also the weight of expert opinion, not only the much mentioned one-time “naked chef” Jamie Oliver, but the Health Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Totnes, who spoke movingly and powerfully earlier—she was a doctor first and an MP second—the British Medical Association, the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK and the British Dental Association. Hitherto, however, all appeals have fallen on deaf ears in the Government. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health conducted a poll that revealed that 53% of the public support a tax measure.
Public Health England, in its sugar reduction action plan, states that the recommended proportion of added sugar in people’s diets should be 5%, but at the moment it is more like 12% for adults in this country. Added sugar accounts for 14.7% of calorie intake for children and 15.6% for teenagers. I am a mum myself and understand pester power and the attraction of sugary drinks. For under-threes, 27% of added sugar intake comes from soft drinks; for 11 to 18-year-olds, the category that I am a mum of, that figure rises to 40%. Furthermore, it is the 11 to 18-year-olds with the least amount of money who are attracted by cheaper alternatives to drinks such as water. Why is it that in any sweet shop water is more expensive than fizzy drinks?
Sugary drinks give a short fix of energy and have no nutritional value, while at the other end of the process the NHS is treating people for preventable illness. We have heard how most children in this country who go under general anaesthetic are doing so for tooth decay. Many hon. Members have also mentioned the figures for type 2 diabetes; 22,000 people in my constituency live with it, and it is responsible for a death every seven seconds in the G20 member states, which is a higher rate than HIV and malaria combined. At a meeting of the all-party group on diabetes, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in his place, we heard an impassioned speech from “St Jamie”, as one of my constituents called him at the weekend. I believe that in Jamie Oliver’s own restaurants there is a 10p levy on fizzy drinks.
On the one hand we have campaign groups and medical professionals, but on the other hand there is the argument about the nanny state. Many hon. Members have said that the solution is severalfold. The food and drink industries need to act more responsibly—they are the main lobbyists against the sugar tax—instead of arguing that any tax would be passed on to consumers and end up being a tax on the poor. They have also warned of sinister factory inspections and claimed that the tax would be unworkable, but they are acting in their own interests and not with the NHS health bill at heart. In Mexico, as we have discussed, a reduction in sales took place when a tax was introduced. I am almost reminded of that television programme set in the 1950s or ’60s, “Mad Men”, which is about the advertising industry. The advertisers in it say, “It’s not bad for you”, when they know it is.
There are good commercial operators. In my constituency is the UK headquarters of the French dairy company, Danone, which has its “Eat Like a Champ” programme, which 35 children will go through this year. It is unbranded, so no one knows it is a Danone programme, but it introduces healthy eating, diet and so on throughout the London boroughs. The programme has been developed with the British Nutrition Foundation. Such initiatives should be encouraged. The programme is also supported by Diversity—the pop group, not the concept—as its ambassadors. Danone is doing that as part of its corporate social responsibility. The hon. Member for Britvic—the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey)—has gone now, but—
Says the hon. Member for Danone.
Yes, sorry. I am a secret lemonade drinker—no, I’m not.
I want to be brief, but we are discussing something important. Voluntary agreements do not seem to be moving fast enough. As everyone has said, we need a range of different approaches, and hiking up sugary drink prices by pennies is part of that. As for the industry’s worry that the cost would have to be passed on to consumers, the industry itself could absorb or partly absorb the cost.
Eleven to 18-year-olds will choose drinks based on price, because they are short on cash, although other factors could come into play—peer pressure, habit, availability and so on. We need to think smartly about things such as advertising bans, which have been mentioned, encouraging physical activity, curbing “buy one, get one free” types of promotions, discounting fruit and veg, and considering portion sizes. In New York the authorities have banned the largest size of soda cups.
I want to ask the Minister what happened to the ban on fried chicken shops at school gates, because I still seem to have them in my constituency. Such a ban was talked about, and it would be good if its implementation could be accelerated. Also, what about minimum unit prices for alcohol? If sugary drink prices go up but alcohol prices are low, there could be some awful, cataclysmic thing going on as a result, possibly—
Hopefully not at primary schools.
No, but alcopops and such things have always been popular with young people, because they look harmless, but some of them have a high alcohol content. We have a golden opportunity, because the Government are working on a childhood obesity strategy, and we must not waste that opportunity We must think long-term and heed the BDA chief’s words:
“Public health policy must be guided by evidence, not by personal prejudice or commercial interests.”
So happy Sugar Awareness Week, one and all. I will be interested to hear the summing-up speeches.
We have just over an hour, but I remind Members that we do not have to fill the entire time. I would, however, like enough time to be left for Helen Jones to reply to the debate. I call Philippa Whiteford.
Thank you, Mr McCabe. I am actually Dr Whitford; Eilidh Whiteford—my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford)—is the other one, whom I always get mixed up with.
Like the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), I am clearly not skinny. I was not overweight as a child; it was the usual comfort eating later on, middle age, lack of exercise and all the rest of it. I know what it is like to move through a world where everything shouts “eat me” all the time. We live in a totally obesogenic environment. The idea that it is easy to resist things is simply not true. Everything is geared towards making people eat unhealthily. We spend a little more than £600 million on obesity prevention, but £256 billion is spent on advertising unhealthy foods. It is David and Goliath. It is difficult for people to make the right choices.
Obviously the debate is about the sugar tax, but as Members have said, the issue goes much wider than that. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who is the chair of the Health Committee, talked about the sheer scale of the problem. One third of children leaving school are obese or overweight and a quarter are obese—that is the reason for the differing figures mentioned earlier. It is predicted that 70% of the population will be overweight or obese by the mid-2030s. That is an astronomical number. Our health service will not cope with all the directly obesity-related problems such as type 2 diabetes, cancers and heart disease. We have heard figures about the cost of that from other members of the Health Committee, but it is estimated that the societal costs are £27 billion. We all know someone who was overweight or obese as a child, and we know about the bullying, exclusion and self-contempt that occurs and the impact that that has on schooling, and therefore on jobs, which leads to another generation of deprivation. People say that a tax might be regressive, but it would be no more so than duty on cigarettes or alcohol. It is important to see it in that light.
We have discussed evidence from Mexico, which we heard in the Committee, but other countries such as Norway, Hungary and Finland have taken the same approach. Although not all the evidence has been peer-reviewed, published and assessed, all the details of the national experiments point in the same direction. Cochrane reviews coming up in the next year to 18 months will be able to put that information in a solid position based on experiments and data. At that point it will not be possible to ignore the issue, but we need to be thinking now about our options and what we will do.
Although this is a debate about sugar tax, the Health Committee made nine recommendations. Sugar tax is the one that the media are interested in, because it catches the light, but it is part of a whole package and a sugar tax is not even in our top three recommendations. The first is about promotions, because 40% of food bought in our shops is on promotion, and that is heavily weighted towards unhealthy foods. We need to look to rebalance that. One Member who has scuttled off said that we would come up with other rules such as getting rid of discounting, or we would suggest portion control—darn tootin’ we will!
We need to realise what we are fighting, because we are talking about something deeply shocking and very dangerous. The argument is that people who are less well off save money if they can buy one for £1 or two for £1.50. However, the evidence we heard is that, if that means they buy two packets of biscuits, one will not be put in the cupboard for next week; both will get eaten this week, and the same mum or dad will be back the following week to shop for another packet of biscuits. Therefore they have not only eaten far more unhealthy food and sugar but spent more money. Promotions of unhealthy foods in multi-buys are not helping anyone.
We also see a change in portion sizes. Packets are getting bigger, and there is the bottomless cup at McDonald’s or wherever. There is the end of the aisle, the pester power and the stuff at the till. Every mum and dad out shopping at the supermarket with their wain—that is Scottish for child—will know what it is like: they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, then their child hangs out of the trolley and grabs something. They may put it in their mouth, which means the mum or dad is obliged to pay for it. Some supermarkets have been good at taking that opportunity away, but not all of them. My local supermarket still has sweets right at the till.
Promotions have a big impact and should be tackled. So should marketing, because of the sheer scale of the budgets for and against obesity. It is not just about asking for advertising to be put after 9 o’clock; it is particularly about what is emerging on the internet in social media and advergames, as the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned. Things keep wriggling around, so we need a strategy broad enough to cover that.
Reformulation is almost the holy grail. We have seen its success with salt, but it took a long time. We have taken about 40% of the salt out of the British diet, and by and large people have not noticed. However, we do not have 10 years to do that. Reformulation is also much harder to do with sugar, because it has an impact on the structure and texture of food, but we need to get on with it. The reason why we are spending so much time talking about sugary drinks is because, as the hon. Lady said, they are one product where reformulation is easy: we can replace sugar with sweeteners.
We also need to reformulate to drive down sweeteners. We need to reset our sweet tooth—we have all seen someone washing down a big slab of sticky cake with a diet soft drink—because the craving remains. Even those who choose diet soft drinks will find that their craving for sugar remains, so when they cook they will add more sugar and they will eat more cake and biscuits. Sweeteners can really help us to speed up the removal of sugar, but we still need them to be on a downward journey. That must be done with industry, which has done a lot. Many soft drink manufacturers provide a choice, so if a sugar tax is introduced, hopefully that should nudge people across to less sugary drinks, as the hon. Member for Totnes said. It would be ideal if there was no tax collected at all, because that would suggest that the policy was working. At the moment, however, the traditional product is still absolutely packed with sugar.
The hon. Lady is speaking with her customary authority on the subject. Does she agree that the industry has the potential to go a lot further so that we can make more progress before a sugar tax, which has attracted all the attention, is instituted? It is a matter of providing choices, and a lot of consumer power could be harnessed to help us make that progress.
As the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned, the people who make such choices tend to be those who are more oriented towards a healthy diet anyway. It is about trying to teach people in the mire of deprivation, and often in the mire of despair, who smoke more, use more alcohol and take more sugar. They are the very people who are hit by all our measures to try to bring about health improvement.
All the industries are making efforts, but they are afraid of being out there on their own and seeing their competitors mopping up their business. That is why we need regulation. In our inquiry, that came out from the retailers in particular, who said they wanted a level playing field. Whether it is through a sugar tax or regulation, they want to feel that everyone has to move forward.
We also need leadership. The Food Standards Agency was important in leading on salt reformulation, so we need to work out who will be the leader on this, because we need a focused project to get not just sugar but fat and calorific intake out of our diet. As has been mentioned, there are also hidden sugars, particularly in tomato products such as baked beans, tomato sauces and bolognese sauces in which it is easy to hide sugar. When we start to look at that, we see that it is quite scary.
That is where labelling and education comes in. The traffic light system has been helpful for a broad range of foods. When we are looking for a sandwich in a rush, we can spot the green and amber on the label as opposed to the red and red. However, that will not help with sugary drinks, which get a red light and two green lights because they do not contain salt and fat. Therefore, someone who picks that up might think, “Two greens— that must be quite good.” That is why the labelling of teaspoons of sugar is important. The industry could be applauded as it took every single teaspoon of sugar out of a drink.
We have heard talk about the nanny state and people having the freedom to do what they like, but as a doctor for 33 years I heard that about seatbelts and crash helmets. People want to feel the wind in their hair, but they do not look so good if they have come off their bike. We talk about the challenge of cigarettes and alcohol, and sugar is the same. All Governments have a responsibility to look at the report and all the measures it suggests, and to bring them in as a full package, because we need to tackle this, and we need to start now.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for the excellent way in which she opened the debate. In fact, we have had some excellent speeches. There was a bit of discord in some of the interventions and speeches, but broadly we have settled on a similar set of views. I want to emphasise that the causes of obesity are complex and that a number of factors can be involved.
We need to tackle the problem at both ends. We have talked extensively about the supply side and the drink companies, but we also need to talk about the demand side. We need far better education about how we can look after ourselves. We also need to give people the means of eating better food. In addition, we need to encourage them to take more exercise—we have touched on that, but I will talk about it a bit more later.
To tackle obesity—I am sure that this is the consensus that is developing—we need a comprehensive and broad approach that helps families, schools and children to make the right decisions. That might include people seeking medical help—I have had constituents in this situation—to get them started on the path away from obesity. That might include a programme or a summer camp—some way of starting to have a different diet and lots of exercise.
Many Members have referred to the statistics on obesity. The Health and Social Care Information Centre statistics are quite frightening: one in five children leaving primary school is classified as obese, and one in every three children is obese or overweight. There has been a significant move towards healthier, more nutritious meals in schools, and that is vital. However, I have concerns about how children and their families manage in the school holidays, when those healthier school meals are not available.
On a point of order, Mr McCabe. Like you, I sit on the Panel of Chairs. I was here for the first one and a half hours of the debate, and I had to leave the room for 20 minutes. I have introduced a Bill on sugar, and I was wondering whether I could crave your indulgence and make a small contribution, given that the debate is meant to go on until 7.30 pm.
You are welcome to intervene in the debate, Mr Davies, but we have moved on to the winding-up speeches.
I appreciate that, but I was wondering whether you might exercise some discretion.
No, we are going to continue with the winding-up speeches.
I was saying that I have concerns about how children and their families manage in the school holidays. For anyone who has not heard about it, I want to commend the Feeding Birkenhead project, and the work done on it by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). The project makes sure that children have healthy food in the school holidays. It is sad that we need to think about that issue, but we do.
Between April and September 2015, Trussell Trust food banks in Greater Manchester gave more than 22,000 lots of three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis. Of those, nearly 9,000 were directed to children. We have talked about choice, but if we think this through, we realise that, if families rely on food banks to feed their children, that will limit the number of healthy meals they can make with fresh food. Clearly, for people in the upsetting circumstances of not managing financially, feeding their child with something is better than seeing them go hungry.
At the start of the debate, we heard about people who do not have local shops that sell healthy food, and we have to take that into account, too. Some people are also fuel-poor, while others work a number of jobs, which leaves them with little time to cook. We must not, therefore, jump to conclusions about why people are in this situation.
We should look at the wider issues around poverty, which must be addressed to ensure that people can access a good-quality diet. There is an awful lot more to achieving a good-quality diet than just wanting to do that. How, therefore, does the Minister plan to help families that have to rely on food banks? Next weekend, I will be helping the Trussell Trust food bank to collect food in my local supermarkets. On a previous occasion, one donor gave me lots of vegetables—onions and things like that. I thought they were part of her shopping, so I ran after her to give them back. However, she said, “That is just to liven the donations up. All the packet food seems a bit dull.” However, that is not the way Trussell Trust food banks operate—they have to have packet and tinned food. We have to think through what is happening in families where there is a reliance on donated food, which will not always contribute to a good enough diet.
Education must play a significant role. We want to provide children and adults with information about how they can achieve a healthy diet. One of the most interesting things Jamie Oliver has done—it was not his recent interventions here in the House—was his programme showing people how to cook. There were families that existed entirely on one or two sorts of takeaway.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, if one wanted to make money out of a potato, the easiest way to do that would be not to sell it, but to smash it up, mix it with salt, sugar and fat, reshape it into something called “Dennis’s Dinosaurs”, freeze them, give them a jingle and sell them cheaper than a potato to get addicts of sugar and other additives for manufacturers? Should we not, therefore, focus on providing lower-priced fresh food, and on increasing the price of sugar-impregnated food?
As I was saying, we should look at the whole range of options. I want to talk about health campaigns. The Public Health England campaign Change4Life is an excellent example of providing families with information about small changes they can make to improve their health, as well as with advice on healthy recipes, diet and exercise. However, I fear that the announcement of a 25% cut to the non-NHS part of the Department of Health’s budget will have a significant impact on Public Health England. I want public health bodies to be able to continue campaigns to tackle obesity, but I am worried that their ability to do so will be damaged by these significant cuts. I am concerned that we will not in future be able to fund campaigns such as Change4Life, and that they may just not happen.
We must also be careful that the huge cuts to the public health grant given to local authorities do not reduce the advice and support available to those wanting to lose weight. At many community events in Salford, I have seen health improvement staff working with community groups and running all kinds of sessions. I fear that we will not have that in future.
Although the debate is about a sugar tax, I want to mention the importance of increasing physical activity among adults and children. I was a member of the all-party commission on physical activity, which published its report “Tackling Physical Inactivity—A Coordinated Approach” in 2014. We have discussed various aspects of our children’s health, but inactivity is a key factor, which is why a number of Members have referred to it. It is important that we encourage children to maintain active lifestyles from an early age.
May I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to a novel approach that has come out of St Ninians primary school in Stirling, called the daily mile? A teacher got the children to go out and run round the field. That seems to have made a huge difference at the school. Obviously, it costs absolutely nothing, and it seems to help the kids to concentrate, because they have been outdoors in the fresh air and—in our neck of the woods—probably in the rain as well.
That type of initiative is wonderful, but fewer and fewer children are walking to school, and an awful lot more are being taken there by bus or by their parents. The Health Committee report reminds us that the latest figures show a fall in physical activity. In 2012, only 21% of boys and 16% of girls did enough exercise to meet the Government’s physical activity guidelines. That is a fall from four years earlier, when the figures were 28% for boys and 19% for girls. We are therefore going in the wrong direction, and we are all becoming couch potatoes. We might worry about this for ourselves, but it is a great concern when children are involved.
I am a former member of the Health Committee, and it is a pity that little emerges from the report, which simply reiterates and endorses the findings of its predecessor Committee’s inquiry, in which I was involved.
I absolutely recognise that physical activity is important and that it should be for everyone, irrespective of their weight or age. Like me, the hon. Lady will remember Julie Creffield, who spoke so powerfully before our Committee in the last Parliament. However, the current Committee felt that it did not want to be distracted by something we had already produced some work on. We therefore wanted to endorse everything that was said by our predecessor Committee, rather than to go over that ground again.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I think it is a bit too easy to lose sight of physical activity, and that is why I have raised the issue. I hope we can be brave and bold about these issues too—it is good to be brave and bold about children’s health, but let us cover all the issues.
It has been said that treating obesity and its consequences alone costs the NHS more than £5 billion a year. It is great that we are having this debate, because we are past the point where we can just let things trundle along. Let me come to the crucial point in the debate. Public figures such as Jamie Oliver have come out in support of a tax on sugar, and he has added stardust to the debate. However, this is a complex issue, and the solutions must deal with that complexity. We know that something must be done, but what is that something?
The problem goes deeper than the demand side. The food and drink industry has not been dealing with the real problems. A number of hon. Members have talked about the Government’s responsibility deal, which has not worked. Firms have made promises and then failed to carry out their pledges. We have talked about labelling, which I will come on to. Many of the suggested interventions involve better labelling of products, but research by a team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests that interventions that improve information about and awareness of the risks do not necessarily translate into positive behavioural change.
As has been touched on, the responsibility deal focused mostly on salt, which was perhaps welcome. There have been real moves in that area, although every time I have a bowl of tomato soup these days, I regret that it does not taste like it used to. It is clear that salt is being taken out of our diets, but not sugar, which is the focus of our debate. The research team also found that although responsibility deal partners claim there has been “considerable sugar reduction” under their calorie reduction pledge,
“the current progress reports do not substantiate these claims.”
In fact, responsibility deal partners say they have reduced sugar levels under the calorie reduction pledge, but they have not.
On the relationship between sugar and calories, is my hon. Friend aware of emerging science showing that if two people both eat, for argument’s sake, 2,000 calories a day, and one has a history of eating a lot of sugar, that person will be predisposed to convert more of the sugar to fat than the other person, irrespective of the amount of exercise they do? That is a particular reason we should target sugar.
I did not know that; my hon. Friend clearly has background knowledge and experience that I do not.
I want to come back to the responsibility deal, which is important in terms of the Government’s approach. That deal is seen as flawed because firms were allowed to decide what pledges they signed up to, and there were no penalties for those that did not honour their promises or, indeed, take part at all. At the time of the responsibility deal’s introduction, organisations such as the BMA, the Royal College of Physicians and Alcohol Concern complained that the pledges were not specific or measurable and that, in fact, the food and drink industry had simply dictated the Government’s policy. We have to get away from that.
The Minister will tell us more about a sugar tax, but it seems that the Prime Minister has ruled out action on sugar, despite the independent report commissioned by the Department of Health. That leaves me wondering whether the Government are listening to vested interests, instead of the experts whom they commissioned to write the report. The corporations that make the bulk of sales of sugary drinks in the United Kingdom want to maximise profits for their shareholders. They will not voluntarily lower the amount of sugar in their drinks unless there is something in it for them, or unless they are required to do so by law. Likewise, they will not reduce the amount or nature of advertising of sugary drinks—not voluntarily, anyway.
We must look back to what happened with the tobacco industry, which consistently pushed for a voluntary approach to avoid legislation. The industry trundled along, smoking continued unabated and profits were left alone. In my local authority, Salford, smoking was increasing at levels that really concerned me, particularly among young people. However, once specific regulations were introduced, such as warnings on cigarette packets and the blanket ban on smoking in enclosed spaces, smoking levels started to decline. I am therefore inclined to think that one of the most effective remedies would be a modest but compulsory reduction in the amount of sugar in soft drinks. A fiscal solution such as a sugar tax could well form part of the solution, but the Opposition retain a concern about the impact that extra taxes will have on the pockets of parents, as has been mentioned, particularly in low-income families. If we have learned any lessons from what happened with the tobacco industry, it is that intervention will need to involve legislation.
The report produced by Public Health England makes a number of recommendations, which Opposition Members will study in full. We believe a fiscal solution such as a sugar tax may be necessary, but we are not yet fully convinced. As a number of Members have said, we should not focus on one thing as a silver bullet. The Opposition will consider all the evidence on what can be done to tackle childhood obesity as we review our policy over the coming weeks and months.
This has been a high-quality debate. I hope that the petition and the debate will ensure that the Government do not repeat past mistakes with voluntary approaches such as the responsibility deal, which has generally been seen to have failed. I urge the Minister to look at a wide range of activities to tackle childhood obesity, including doing much more on physical inactivity.
What an excellent debate we have had. It has been a real pleasure to listen to so many extremely well-informed contributions. Let me start by acknowledging the strength of public feeling about the issue. We are responding today to an e-petition with a great many signatories, and I thank everyone who signed it. I also praise the passion and commitment shown by Jamie Oliver, as other Members have, in raising the profile of healthy eating and, in particular, the impact of sugar on our diets and health. I will attempt to respond to most of the specific points made, but I am a little constrained by the timing of the debate.
Let me reflect on where we start from. A number of Members have cited the current obesity statistics. The most recent figures, published only last Thursday, show that there has been a relatively small overall change in overweight and obesity prevalence in the past five years. In that sense, levels remain unacceptably high, but there is a degree of stability. We saw some slight encouragement in the figures for children in reception, but we then see obesity prevalence more than double between reception and year 6. As the Chair of the Health Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), and others have rightly underlined, there is a very wide gap in obesity prevalence between the most deprived and the least deprived areas. I share the deep concerns expressed in all parts of the Chamber about that.
We have seen some good progress made on school food in recent times, so there are reasons to think this is a good moment to move forward, as there are areas in which we have encouraging building blocks. This debate, alongside the Health Select Committee report published today, is a valuable and timely opportunity for Members to make their views known at a critical juncture in the development of our comprehensive cross-Government childhood obesity strategy. That is a perfectly sensible reason for the timing of this debate and the publication of the Committee’s report; it is extremely helpful to have them.
Earlier in the debate, one Member wondered whether I was feeling isolated. Far from it: it has been wonderful to spend the past few hours with Members from across the House who feel as passionately as I do about tackling this issue and, in particular, to hear the challenge of tackling childhood obesity framed in the context of improving the life chances of so many children, particularly those from the most deprived communities. That is certainly a strong strand of my thinking as I look at this issue. I have listened carefully to the comments made and will look in greater detail at the Select Committee’s report, to further inform our ongoing policy development.
It is no secret that the Government have no plans to introduce a tax on sugar, although all taxes are kept under review. Such decisions are a matter for the Chancellor, as part of the Budget process. That being said, driving sustained behaviour change will require broad-ranging and concerted action of the kind we have discussed. It is extremely welcome that, whatever Members’ views on a sugar tax, there is consensus across the House on the fact that there are no silver bullets in this debate. That is a really important point.
I happen to have introduced econometric modelling to Unilever. Would the Minister accept that if a sugar tax is introduced, less sugar will be consumed, and the Government will make money and save money on the health service? Is it not a no-brainer? What is the justification for her resistance to this obviously sensible measure?
I will touch on some of those points, but I want to take this opportunity to update the House on what we are already doing, to give some sense of our direction of travel and, in particular, to reassure people who have been urging us to look widely at a whole range of things beyond the silver bullet arguments. I hope to give some reassurance in the course of my remarks that we are, indeed, doing that.
What is the Minister’s justification for not introducing this measure?
Unless the hon. Gentleman continues to chunter at me from a sedentary position, I will come to the vital issue of teaspoons, about which he and I have spoken before, and upon which a number of Members have remarked.
Today, I will principally talk about some of the steps the Government are already taking to improve children’s health, particularly in relation to food and diet. I fear my response is rather limited in its scope by the proximity to the publication of our strategy, but I want to reassure Members that this is a major priority and a manifesto commitment of the Government. There is no argument from us about the scale of the challenge, which has been outlined well in a number of speeches today. As I said, I passionately agree with the Chairman of the Health Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, about the impact on health inequalities of childhood obesity, so there is no argument there either.
We can all agree, and have all agreed, that as a society we are eating too much sugar. It is bad for our health and can lead to excess weight gain. That, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease, as other have said, as well as type 2 diabetes—my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) gave a very good speech about that—stroke and some cancers. The link to tooth decay has also been brought out in a number of very good speeches.
I was interested to hear the, as ever, extremely well informed contribution from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). As a very distinguished clinician, she will be aware of the links between obesity and many of the big health challenges of our age, but I think that is less well understood more generally in the population. We need to talk more about that—I have challenged a lot of our major charities to talk about it more—so that people become as understanding of that as they have of the link between tobacco and some of the very significant disease groups.
However, public awareness is increasing. In recent evidence, 92% of people said that they were trying to manage or reduce the amount of sugar in the foods that they buy, while 26% of households were very concerned about sugar in food and 30% reported being more concerned than they were a year ago. Concern was higher for sugar than for fat or salt.
Before I talk about the report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, I would just say that I regret the comments made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who is not in his place. He spoke about some extremely respected clinicians—members of that committee—who have done great service not just to the committee, but to the nation’s nutrition more generally. The point was made very well by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) about transparency and the need for people to declare their interest. That is all done by the members of that committee, and I want to thank them, on behalf of the Government again, for the work they have done for the committee’s report on carbohydrates and health, which it published in July. I accepted, on the Government’s behalf, the report’s recommendations, which were that no more than 5% of energy in our daily diet should be from sugar. That is the equivalent of about seven sugar cubes or five or six teaspoons and there are wider implications for the general dietary advice from the Government from that policy shift. We are working through those with Public Health England.
As the House knows, and as many speeches have touched on, we are currently consuming more than double the recommended limit for sugar, and teenagers’ consumption is nearly three times the recommended level. Again, we are under no illusion that we need to take action in this area. Earlier in the year, I requested that Public Health England prepare evidence for the Government on effective approaches for reducing sugar consumption. That is the report that the Health Committee has had chance to respond to.
As the Minister would accept, there is an elasticity of demand for any product—namely a relationship between the price and the demand. Will she focus a few comments on why precisely she is resisting simply putting up the price of sugar through a tax? I appreciate what she said about my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), but if no reasons are being given, he probably cannot understand why. If there is no rational reason for doing so, he is assuming it is because of the lobbyists.
That is not right. Again, I come back to the point stressed in the report by Public Health England—indeed, the Health Committee’s excellent report underlines it—that there is no silver bullet. It is really important that we address the fact that a number of wide-ranging issues need to be tackled and that several options are available to us in policy terms. PHE concluded that no single action on its own will be effective in reducing the nation’s sugar intakes. Its report shows evidence to suggest that higher prices in targeted high-sugar products, such as sugar-sweetened drinks, tend to reduce the purchases of such products in the short term.
Mention was made of the possibility of Cochrane reviews in coming years. An interesting article in the current issue of The Economist notes that the longer-term effect on public health is as yet unknown. Obviously that is because in most cases these measures have not been in place long enough, but it is an important concern—and the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) will have noted a degree of reticence on the part of those on his own Front Bench about the evidence, but anyway. We are, of course, well aware of what Public Health England said in its report about the evidence on higher prices. However, its report also argued strongly for implementing a broad, structured programme of parallel measures across all sectors, if we are likely to achieve meaningful reductions in sugar intakes across the population. As we have heard, it identified areas for action that include restrictions on marketing, advertising and price promotion, and work to reduce levels of sugar in food and drinks—I welcome the focus of a number of speeches on reformulation of product, as we think it has a significant role to play. Areas for action also included improving public food procurement and improving knowledge about diet and nutrition. We are considering all the evidence and working closely with Public Health England to develop our policies.
A number of Members have talked about education. This debate provides the opportunity for me to talk in more detail than I generally can in such debates about the Change4Life programme, in which we continue to invest significant sums. The Change4Life campaign has provided motivation and support for families to make small but significant improvements to their diets and activity levels. Last January, Change4Life’s Sugar Swaps campaign encouraged families to cut back on sugar through two TV advertisements focusing on sugary drinks and after-school snacks. That campaign also included radio, digital and outdoor advertising.
I expressed concern about budget cuts for Public Health England. Will the Minister address that? I, too, admire the work it has done, but it is not helpful to cut the budget, is it?
As the hon. Lady will see, the campaign is going to be very significant again this coming January, so as I say, we continue to invest significant sums. It is a very important campaign and a very important brand that is being developed, and we see it as something we want to build on.
Will the Minister give way?
I am going to make some progress and develop my point about Change4Life, because Members have asked questions about that.
The campaign included radio, digital and outdoor advertising; public relations and media partnerships; work with 25 national food retailers and manufacturing partners; community events and schools programmes; and, importantly, work with all 152 local authorities. More than 410,000 families registered with the last campaign. Families who signed up purchased 6% less sugary snacks by volume and 6% less sugary puddings by volume, while increasing consumption of lower-sugar snacks and puddings. For each person who signed up, another two in the general population said they had also made a food swap.
The Change4Life team is developing the next Sugar Smart campaign, to launch in early January 2016. The campaign will alert families to the problems of consuming too much sugar, reveal the amount of sugar in the most popular food and drink and tell them about the new guideline daily amounts. It will encourage people to download the Sugar Smart app, which I have seen being used and is very impressive—hidden sugars no more, I can assure the House. People will be able to see for themselves how much sugar is in the products they are buying. The campaign will include advertising on TV and online and posters, in addition to social media activity and PR. Five million information packs will be given to families through schools, commercial partners and local authorities, and there will be digital support to help families who want to cut back on sugar.
However, obesity is a complex issue, which the Government cannot tackle alone.
Will the Minister give way?
I am going to come on to teaspoons, and I do not want to run out of time before I do so. I will make a bit more progress and then see how we are getting on for interventions.
The Government cannot tackle obesity alone. I welcome the fact that we have consensus across the House on that, and the Committee draws that point out in its report. Businesses, health professionals, schools, local authorities, families and individuals have a role to play, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) brought out.
I want to talk about some of the industry action that has been taken. There has been progress in recent years on reducing sugar consumption. The focus under the voluntary partnership arrangements, which have been discussed, has been on overall calorie reduction, of which sugar can form a part. Billions of calories and tonnes of sugar have been removed from products and portion sizes have been reduced in some areas. Some major confectionery manufacturers have committed to a cap on single-serving confectionery at 250 calories, which is an important step.
We have to be realistic about consumer relations, which are important. Before I was an MP, I worked for the John Lewis Partnership—John Lewis and Waitrose—and I know only too well the important role that retail relationships play in an average family’s life. We need to involve those partners. Some retailers have played a part, for example by removing sweets from checkouts. Interestingly, they did so after asking their customers in surveys what support they wanted, as family shoppers, from industry to help them to make healthier choices. Much of the action that retailers have taken was in response to that.
I was very interested in the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) made in an intervention about consumer power. There is much greater consumer power to be unleashed, but the challenge to the industry to make further substantial progress remains. Like the Chair of the Health Committee, I have had some encouraging conversations in that regard, but we need to make more progress.
Providing clear information to consumers to help them make healthier choices is important, as a number of hon. Members have set out. The voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme, introduced in 2013, plays a vital part in our work to encourage healthier eating and to reduce levels of obesity and other conditions. The scheme enables consumers to make healthier and more balanced choices by helping them better to understand the nutrient content of foods and drinks.
I turn to the issue of teaspoons of sugar, which has come up a lot in the debate. It is more complicated than something so simple should be; “teaspoons” sounds straightforward, but labelling is an EU competence, so member states cannot mandate additional forms of expression, such as spoonfuls of sugar, for pre-packed food. Under EU legislation, it would be possible for companies to represent sugar content in the form of spoons of sugar or sugar cubes on a voluntary basis, as long that met a number of EU criteria—I will outline what some of them are. It would sit alongside front-of-pack nutrition information, which I remind the House is voluntary, not mandated, in order to meet the same criteria.
For the public nowadays, “teaspoons of sugar” is more helpful than “sugar cubes”, because very few people use sugar cubes.
I am aware of that; the point has been made to me a number of times.
Let me mention a few of the criteria that would apply if we were to move in that direction. There would be a requirement to consult, and we would have to ensure that any measure was supported by scientific evidence and did not constitute a barrier to trade. Any such form of labelling would need to be agreed with the Commission before it was implemented, to avoid future infraction proceedings.
I have heard the strength of feeling in the House and I understand the point being made, but references to sugar cubes are quite powerful; last year’s Sugar Swaps campaign proved that they can be made meaningful. However, I will ask my officials to look carefully at the issue, because I have heard a great deal of interest in it being expressed today, and I know that the Health Committee took evidence on it. I wanted to underline the point that it is not as straightforward as it might seem, but we will look closely at it again in the light of the interest in it.
Did the same apply to cigarettes? Were we not allowed independently to add the warnings and so on that we put on cigarettes in this country? Did that have to be EU-wide?
As we approach the transposition of the new EU tobacco directive, the hon. Lady will see that the measures being taken are EU-wide, but those are two slightly different things. I am happy to come back to her in more detail after the debate, but generally speaking, packaging and labelling are EU competences.
I was delighted to hear so many hon. Members say that front-of-pack labelling was important. The scheme is popular with consumers. It provides information on calories and levels of specific nutrients in an easy-to-read, intuitive format. Businesses that have adopted the scheme account for two thirds of the market for pre-packed foods and drinks. Within the Change4Life programme, front-of-pack colour-coded nutrition labelling will continue to be included as a key message whenever there is a campaign focused on healthy eating. We use that in all the Change4Life materials, across a wide range of formats.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, that there will indeed be a physical activity strand in our childhood obesity strategy. I agree with the balance that the Health Committee struck on tackling childhood obesity, which is an important strand of the work. The great news about physical activity, as the Committee’s report underlined, is that it is good for everyone, whatever their weight. There is no downside to being more physically active, so of course we will want to reflect that.
This has not been touched on much this afternoon, but there is also a significant role for the family of health professionals in giving advice and supporting families to make changes to their lives. That relates particularly to families in more deprived communities. Only this morning I was talking about the role of health visitors, for example, in family education and family support. Again, a strand of our strategy will develop that.
Will the Minister give way?
Yes, but this will be the last intervention I take, because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) to respond at the end of the debate.
I simply want to ask whether there will be any space for views to be heard on restricting advertising, whether that relates to high-sugar products being described as low-fat products, to watersheds or whatever. In the same way as we imposed restrictions on the advertising and pricing of cigarettes, will the Minister come forward with any suggestion on restricting advertising in this case?
We have already said that the childhood obesity strategy will be a comprehensive, cross-Government strategy. I commissioned advice from Public Health England, and of course I have been working closely with that organisation on policy development for many months now. I am paying close regard to the advice that it has provided us with, and I welcome the fact that the Health Committee found it so useful in producing its report.
I welcome the debate as an opportunity to respond to the important campaign on the e-petition and the important new Select Committee report. It is a timely opportunity. I want to reassure the House that the Government are considering a wide range of options for tackling obesity, and particularly for reducing sugar consumption among children and the wider population. I hope the House agrees that all of us—central Government, local government, the industry, schools, families, communities and individuals—have a part to play. I will reflect carefully on the speeches that I have heard today, on the Committee’s recommendations and on its overarching challenge to us to be “brave and bold”—a message that I have heard loud and clear this afternoon. I look forward to making progress, and I very much look forward to publishing our childhood obesity strategy in the new year and making progress throughout this Parliament, and indeed well beyond it, on one of the greatest health challenges of our age.
This has been an interesting debate, and I thank all who have spoken in it. We have heard the message clearly from all parts of the House that action on the matter is imperative. We have heard about the health problems, dental decay and loss of life that result from poor diet. The message has been clear today—even from those, such as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who started off as sceptics, as I confess I did—that the evidence all points to the need for serious action. That action should include the taxation of sugary drinks, not as a silver bullet, as we have all made clear, but as part of the overall strategy. I urge the Government to look again at the matter, because it is an area where gains can be made relatively quickly to improve people’s health.
There is plenty of evidence from the past that Government action can change people’s behaviour. It used to be the norm for people to go to the pub and have several pints before driving home, but it is not now. There used to be lots of smoking in public places, but there is not now, and smoking is reducing as a result of the action that has been taken. We now face a new emergency, which has to do with diet. Nearly everyone who has spoken in the debate—probably not the hon. Members for Nestlé and Britvic, who are no longer present—agreed that that was an urgent problem.
When the Government publish their strategy, I hope that we will see a concerted plan to tackle our poor diet and particularly our intake of sugar. I hope that plan will go across the public sector and involve local authorities and our health professionals, as well as tackling the food poverty and deprivation that lead to poor diet. It is not by accident that some foodbanks are now giving out packs of cold food only, because they know that some people cannot afford fuel or have had their fuel cut off.
I hope that the Government will also tackle the advertising industry. We like to think that children watch only children’s programmes, but peak viewing time for children is between 8 and 9 o’clock. We have also heard about the amount of advertising that is now online, which is impacting on our children.
I hope that we will soon hear a clear strategy from the Government to tackle the obesogenic environment in which people find themselves, to help people to make healthier choices in their lives. In particular, as far as the petition is concerned, I hope that the Government will revisit the idea of a tax on sugary drinks. The fact that it is only part of the overall strategy, as has been said, does not mean that it is not important. The strategy as a whole, in its many guises, is important. The Minister is constrained in what she can say today, but I know that she understands a lot of the issues. I say to her that the health of our children and adults demands action.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, I am winding up; I am sorry. The health of our children demands action now. If we do not take such action, we will see much more illness in our society, much more drain on the NHS and a poorer life for all of us in the future.
Question put and agreed to,
That this House has considered e-petition 106651 relating to a tax on sugary drinks.