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Childhood Obesity: Bexley

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered childhood obesity in Bexley.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am particularly delighted to see here my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), a constituency neighbour and personal friend; we work together for Bexley. We are glad to see him back in his seat after his recent illness; indeed, we are delighted to see him here today.

I am grateful to be able to raise what is both an extremely important health issue in my borough of Bexley and a national concern—namely, childhood obesity. This is an opportune moment to raise the issue of obesity, because today Public Health England chief executive Duncan Selbie is urging shops and food outlets to reduce portion sizes by 20% within the next six years after stating that obesity has become “the norm”. Indeed, he is today launching the One You campaign, with the slogan “400-600-600”—the number of calories that people should eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner. He says that the issue of overweight or obese children needs to be addressed. PHE nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone says that children are consuming 500 calories a day more than they require; that is equivalent to another meal. Therefore, as I said, this is an opportune moment to raise the issue.

Bexley is a great place to live and work in, and I am delighted to have been a resident of Barnehurst for a considerable time, because there is so much to see and do. I urge you, Mr Hollobone, and my hon. Friend the Minister to come down to Bexley sometime and see the huge opportunities that there are to visit the parks, stately homes and other facilities that are so good.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his very kind wishes on my return to duties at Westminster. I support him in this debate and what he says about the London Borough of Bexley. He has rightly focused on the comments this morning by Public Health England. Obviously, part of this issue is what goes into ready meals and things like that. What thoughts does he have on what Public Health England has said about ingredients and what goes into so much of the food on the supermarket shelves that we buy, and the impact that that is having? He is making really important points this morning.

That is a very valid point. Recipes, portion sizes and calories need to be looked at and addressed. I urge all restaurants, fast food outlets and food manufacturers to look seriously at how they can reduce people’s salt, sugar and calorie intake. We have to address that, as I am sure the Minister will accept later.

The statistics for childhood obesity in Bexley are mixed when compared with those for the rest of England. There are areas of public health where we do much better, and I will highlight the stop smoking campaign, which has been very successful across our borough, but unfortunately childhood obesity is a real issue in the borough and needs attention.

It is widely accepted by health experts that once weight is gained, it is difficult to lose. The Government have called childhood obesity

“one of the top public health challenges for this generation”.

That is certainly the case for Bexley. The Government are well aware of the issue nationally and are being proactive in addressing the concerns. The childhood obesity plan in 2016 was a welcome step forward, but plans need to be actioned; we are looking for results and outcomes. Measures in the plan included the soft drinks industry levy, which will apply to manufacturers; a recommitment to the Healthy Start voucher scheme, enabling low-income families to buy fruit and vegetables; and action to increase physical activity in schools. We all appreciate that there is no quick fix, but that is the first step on a long journey that aims to

“significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next ten years.”

We do need an understanding and a culture change.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House. It is in the news every day—indeed, it is in the news this morning—and it is very important for people back home in Northern Ireland. “Childhood obesity in Bexley” is the heading for this Westminster Hall debate on the Order Paper, but in Northern Ireland we have similar figures—of children aged between two and 15, 17% are classed as overweight and 8% as obese. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that it is time for the Department for Education and the Department of Health and social care to work together to put in place a strategy to reduce childhood obesity, which would clearly involve schools?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and totally agree with him. I think that the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care are working together, but more needs to be done. I appreciate that this is not just a Bexley issue—it also matters to the people of Northern Ireland and across the country—but I specified Bexley because it is particularly bad compared with other places.

The earlier a child is exposed to obesity, the earlier they can experience medical consequences and problems. In fact, a study by Cancer Research UK found that obesity could cause 670,000 cases of cancer nationally over the next 20 years, plus millions more cases of other diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Obesity and the medical problems stemming from it cause problems for our whole society. It causes a loss of productivity in the workforce. It restricts opportunities for individuals. And it adds another burden on to our NHS. In fact, Cancer Research UK also claims that the cost to the NHS per year by 2035 could be an additional £2.5 billion, over and above what is already spent on obesity-related diseases. Of course, quality of life can also be reduced by being heavily overweight, as that restricts opportunities and choices.

Childhood obesity is strongly linked to adult obesity. According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, four in five obese schoolchildren are likely to be dangerously overweight for life. Therefore, we have to act early, before there are serious consequences from something that is avoidable.

I have said that, statistically, Bexley is not performing well, unlike other areas, where provision and action are good. In Bexley, the prevalence of overweight or obesity among children in reception classes is 26.7%. That is worse than in London in general and in England in total. In year 6, the figure in Bexley increases to 39.4%, which is almost one percentage point higher than the London average and more than five percentage points higher than the England average. That is very disappointing. When we consider that in Bexley 12.3% of reception age children and 24% of year 6 children are obese, it is a real cause for concern. Let us look at the trends over time. The number of overweight or obese reception age children in Bexley increased from 20% in 2007 to 26.7% last year. That is why we are raising this issue today with the Minister—to highlight the issues that we have in Bexley.

Diets, of course, play a very important role in lifestyle. Approximately 54% of adults in Bexley meet the “five a day” recommendation for fruit and vegetables. Again, that percentage is below the London and national averages. It does not set a good example for our children. Sadly, children do follow their parents and grandparents, and when habits are formed young, the consequences are great. We need to promote and pursue the importance of fruit and vegetables. Fruit can be an enjoyable snack and an alternative to chocolate, cake and sweets, while a diversity of vegetables is essential to a balanced diet.

Bexley Council—a good, Conservative-led council—is taking action. Just over a year ago, Bexley joined the nationwide Sugar Smart campaign led by Jamie Oliver. The aims of the campaign for us are to educate people and raise awareness across Bexley about the harmful effects of excess sugar consumption, and to reduce individuals’ sugar intake across the borough. The council is encouraging local organisations and businesses to participate in the campaign and support this very important initiative. Bexley has now signed up to the campaign 16 participants, including a number of schools, and I hope that the figure continues to grow during the rest of this year, because that is a very important facility and opportunity.

I am grateful for the information that has been given to me by Dr Anjan Ghosh, who is the director of public health and deputy director of health and wellbeing at the London Borough of Bexley. Dr Ghosh advises that the Bexley health and wellbeing board recently signed off on the development of a system-wide prevention strategy that is far reaching and ambitious in scope and has the potential to harness council, NHS and community assets in improving health and wellbeing outcomes, helping Bexley residents to start well, live well and age well. The strategy is currently in development, and part of that involves developing an obesity strategy for Bexley that has the same population health focus.

Part of the work is to unpick why obesity statistics in Bexley are poor compared with statistically and demographically similar London boroughs. The programme includes a two-tier child weight management programme for children aged four to 11 and their families, a family lifestyle programme and guidance to support healthier living, eating and lifestyles. Each category programme is designed specifically to provide age-appropriate messages, activities and behavioural change that will benefit the whole family. Once the 12-week programme is over, there will still be access for the families and young people to drop in, to update themselves and take the service further.

I know that schools and teachers are doing their very best to advise children, as well as to educate and support them to eat well. However, parents, as the primary educators, have primary responsibility and we need more support from parents. The scale of the issue is huge. I will not go through the statistics of how many biscuits, cakes, ice-creams and all those type of foods are consumed by young people every year, or how many calories those foods and fizzy drinks contain.

One has to say that it is a worry to see secondary school children coming out of school in the afternoon into Bexleyheath, going to the fast food outlets in the town and consuming burgers and chips, which have an enormous calorie intake. That is a huge concern. There has been an increase in our borough of waffle shops, ice cream parlours and other fast-food outlets. While it is good to see business thriving, it is worrying that some are exacerbating the problem and increasing the sugar and calorie intake of our youngsters. Treats are fine for special occasions, but should not be the mainstay of an individual’s diet. I am not a killjoy, but everything should be in moderation. In addition, I think that many of us eat too much and have portions that are too large. That is why the report I have highlighted this morning is so important.

Further to that point, on the news this morning they were saying that they were not against the idea of fast-food outlets, but we should have smaller portions. In other words, if we start with smaller portions, it will be a step in the right direction and maybe that is the way to go forward.

I think that is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman highlights the calorie content and intake, which is so important.

I also want to highlight physical activity, or inactivity, which is a huge problem that can lead to obesity and is the fourth leading cause of global mortality. Increasing activity levels could help to prevent a number of illnesses, including cancer and diabetes. Regrettably, in Bexley, over 21% of adults are physically inactive.

I was honoured and privileged to serve as Sports Minister in the then Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the first half of 2016, while covering the maternity leave of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). It was a brilliant experience to go around the country and see first-hand how sport can make a real, positive impact on people’s lives. We must promote the wide range of sports available out there and their benefits. Sports participation is a great way for young people in particular to become physically active, improve their health and fitness, and—depending on the sport—to be part of a team, socialise and be part of something, gain motivation and confidence, and also have fun. We all know that sport is fun.

I know that the Minister will agree with me on that. I used to be a keen tennis player. I do not get time for that now, but I am still a keen walker. We have places such as Hall Place and Danson Park in our borough, where one can have a good walk. It is a really invigorating experience. I also enjoy going to north Norfolk and Sheringham Park with my wife, Marilyn, and we have long walks along the north Norfolk coast. That is important exercise.

In conclusion, we must take action on all fronts. The concern is not only the advertising and promotion—in supermarkets we still see the calorie-laden chocolates and what have you by the check-out, which is a worry too—but what parents are feeding their children and the fast foods. The intake of sugar and salt is too high. The issue is people making sensible lifestyle choices, to ensure that they are eating healthily and looking after their health. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the serious issues across the country. Government, industry, schools, the NHS, families and friends all have a part to play to ensure that we are eating and living healthily.

The benefits of reducing childhood obesity are clear. It will save lives, but it will improve the quality of young people’s lives, which is important. Education is the key. We need to educate our children and businesses. We need to encourage everyone to be more active and eat better. We need more promotion of sports and to continue to reduce children’s calorie and sugar intake. We need to educate parents and grandparents on the risks of lifestyle to themselves and their families. Of course, publicity and promotion are important, essential in fact. Politicians at local and national level should get on board too and need to be engaged to achieve results. For our Borough of Bexley, we need results. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know well, to take these matters seriously and give us the lead.

Let me start by repeating what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett): childhood obesity remains one of the top public health challenges, if not the top one, facing this generation. I have said that in this Chamber before, and I welcome any chance to debate this subject. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also echo his words about how nice it is to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back in his place. He is my dear friend and I worked closely with him when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We have said many prayers for him in the last few months. It is great to see him back in his place.

As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the latest figures, which I pore over, continue to show us that child obesity rates in England remain way too high. Almost a quarter of children are overweight or obese when they start primary school. Probably more worrying is the fact that that figure rises to around a third by the time they leave primary school.

Evidence shows us that the deprivation gap in obesity prevalence between children in the most and least deprived areas is increasing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford gave figures for Bexley, and he was right to, but let me give some national averages. Obesity prevalence among children in reception living in the most deprived areas was 12.7%, compared with just 5.8% among those living in the least deprived areas. In year 6—the final year of primary school—those figures were 26.3% and 11.4% respectively. That gap worries me. It should worry us all. It continues to widen. This is one of the great burning injustices of our times; the Prime Minister has used that phrase, and she is dead right. My view is that we have not just a right to act, but a responsibility to act as a Government with a publicly-funded health system.

Bexley is fairly affluent, but there are areas of significant deprivation, as there are in all of our constituencies. Data for Bexley show higher rates of excess weight in children than the averages for London and for England. Also, obesity prevalence has remained higher than the national average, as my right hon. Friend said, for over five years, so he is right to highlight the issue. The impact for Bexley and the rest of the country was highlighted just last week through new analysis by my good friends and partners at Cancer Research UK suggesting that millennials are on course to be the most overweight generation in history. That should and does worry us greatly.

We know that obese children are much more likely to become obese adults; it is very hard to lose the weight, as my right hon. Friend said. That increases their risk of developing the serious diseases that I speak about as part of my portfolio, including type 2 diabetes. There was a lot of press coverage and an Adjournment debate in the House last week about the sheer number of people picking up type 2 diabetes, which is an entirely preventable condition. It increases your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, including bowel and breast, two of the most common cancers, which is why CRUK are rightly so active in this space. It is also a major risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

We launched our child obesity plan in August 2016, as my right hon. Friend rightly said. It was a very robust piece of work informed by the latest evidence and research in the area. At the heart of the plan is a simple desire to change the nature of food that children eat and to make it easier for families and parents—who play a key role—to make healthier choices for them and for the country.

The plan is a challenge—and it is meant to be—to us in national Government as well as those in local government, which I will come on to, in businesses, in the NHS, and in schools and families. We all have a role to play in reducing child obesity levels. In developing the plan, my officials and my predecessors have been clear, as I am, that we have considered a number of different policies. We have focused on the ones that are likely to have the biggest impact on preventing child obesity.

As my right hon. Friend will remember, key measures in the plan include the soft drinks industry levy, which was announced by the previous Chancellor; the sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme; and helping children to enjoy an hour of physical activity every day, which is so important.

Since we published the plan, real progress has been made on sugar reduction. The soft drinks industry levy will come into effect in April—it is important to remember that it has not yet come into force, but it is nudging behaviour. Public Health England has formulated a comprehensive sugar reduction programme with the aim of a 20% reduction in sugar in key foods by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one. We will be judging that shortly to see where progress has been made.

Companies, such as the makers of Lucozade, are important. I visited the headquarters of Ribena, the Suntory brand, in Uxbridge earlier this year. I pay great tribute to its work. I was in the lab testing the new Ribena, which goes live this week.

It was very nice and very refreshing.

As a company, Ribena has taken a hit in doing that, but it reports great staff satisfaction and a feeling that it is doing the right thing. As the Minister, I have never been afraid to call out businesses that are making poor choices and those that are making the right choices. Ribena is making the right choices.

Kellogg’s also made a good decision about the reformulation of sugar in its cereals, which sit on my children’s breakfast table every morning. Tesco, Waitrose and Nestlé have led the way by removing millions of tonnes of sugar from their products and they deserve credit for that. We expect almost half of all drinks that would otherwise have been in-scope of the soft drinks industry levy to have been reformulated by the time it comes in. That is a crucial step towards improving our children’s health, as data shows that sugary soft drinks are the main contributor of sugar in our children’s diets.

My right hon. Friends might be thinking that we will be victims of our own success, because the industry levy will not produce the revenue so we will not be able to reinvest it. However, someone far cleverer than me, before my time, managed to persuade the Treasury—a clever, neat trick—that we will invest all the revenue we expected to get from the levy, plus what we said we hoped to raise during this Parliament, in giving school-aged children a better and healthier future, including through doubling the primary school PE and sport premium; investing in school breakfast clubs, which are so important; and providing £100 million in 2018-19 for a new healthier pupils capital fund.

As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford and by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, this work should be done between the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, and of course it is being. Our original plan was a cross-Government piece of work. Last month, I talked to the new Secretary of State for Education about the plan and introduced him to some of things that I want to do.

It is a joined-up conversation because, as my right hon. Friend said, schools have a huge role to play in teaching children about healthy eating. The national curriculum requires them to teach children about food, nutrition and healthy eating, and how to cook a repertoire of dishes as part of design and technology classes. Things have changed since my day, when a fish finger sandwich was one of my challenges in design and technology and I managed to get it wrong.

It is compulsory for pupils in maintained schools from key stages 1 to 3 to be taught about the principles of a healthy and varied diet and why that is important, and the national curriculum can be used as a benchmark for free schools and academies, which ordinarily sit outside it. Alongside our commitment to continue to provide free school lunches to infant pupils, which means that about 1.4 million more children are eating a healthy lunch, we are investing £26 million in breakfast clubs, using revenue from the soft drinks industry levy.

Our plan is not just about school-aged children. In November, we published a series of example menus and associated guidance to support early years settings, such as nurseries and childminders, to offer food and drink in line with Government dietary recommendations for infants and children from about six months to four years—a key cohort—before they get to primary school.

The guidance includes useful information for early years settings to show how they can meet the early years foundation stage welfare requirement to provide “healthy, balanced and nutritious” meals for children. They are also responsible for educating parents and carers to help them to prepare healthy, balanced meals at home and introduce their child to new foods. There has to be a consistent thread from the education setting to the home setting.

My right hon. Friend was right to mention local authorities, which have a key role to play in creating healthier local environments in our constituencies. They can have a significant impact in local communities through levers such as the planning system, urban design and transport strategies. There are great examples of that, such as the restrictions on new hot food takeaways in Gateshead, which is something that my right hon. Friend might want to look at. I was interested to hear from my right hon. Friend about the borough-wide prevention strategy. As the Minister with responsibility for prevention, I would be interested to hear more and I note his offer to visit him in his constituency.

Other local initiatives include last year’s London-wide great weight debate on child obesity, which several London authorities, including Bexley, took part in. Such events show how communities can make their own contributions. The results of that debate are feeding into the five-year obesity strategy being developed in Bexley, which my right hon. Friend talked about. I welcome that, because it cannot all be about what the national Government do. We have to set the framework and the ambition. Sometimes we can use the taxation system as we have with the industry levy, but local government has a key role to play. I am excited to see the progress being made.

We continue to learn from the latest evidence around the country and around the world, such as the very interesting whole-systems approach in Amsterdam that led to a reduction of 2,500 in the number of overweight and obese children between 2012 and 2015. I am talking to people there and I hope to visit at some point.

This week, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, to implement part one of the child obesity plan, we launched our ambitious calorie-reduction programme alongside Public Health England. It is ambitious: it challenges all sectors of the food and drink industry to reduce calories in everyday food by 20% by 2024. I absolutely believe the sectors can do that—we have had a brilliant and positive response from them—and yesterday’s announcement, which is in the newspapers today, is very welcome. We are confident that those measures can make an impact.

All the reports and data that we publish on our progress in delivering our world-leading childhood obesity plan will be open to scrutiny and, I hope, to further debates in this place. That will include Public Health England’s assessment of progress on sugar reduction, which I mentioned earlier and which will be published in the spring. The Obesity Policy Research Unit’s evaluation of that research will be published as individual projects are completed. We are deliberately publishing and being measured all the time, and we will use that to decide whether sufficient progress has been made and whether we need to go further.

I thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford and for Old Bexley and Sidcup for their contributions, and I look forward to continuing the conversation in coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.