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Childhood Obesity

Volume 794: debated on Thursday 13 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made, if any, in discussions between the BBC and Public Health England regarding a joint strategic plan on childhood obesity.

My Lords, Public Health England and the BBC are firmly committed to working together on childhood obesity. Since July, the teams have met three times for discussions and are currently working on the detail of future plans.

I am grateful to hear that there have been three meetings since we met in July. Unfortunately, the latest statistics on obesity in children aged from 12 to 16 show a further deterioration. It is time we really got something moving in the form of a national campaign on obesity. The BBC has an important part to play in that. Will the Minister persuade his Secretary of State to lean on the BBC and Public Health England to get a move on so that we can see programmes being introduced, and then issue chapter 3 of the obesity plan to incorporate that into it?

I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the issue and I am grateful to him for the role he has played in bringing that relationship together. He knows very well that the BBC has played a critical role over decades in many very important health campaigns, such as on HIV or the “Just Say No” campaign on drugs. The BBC is absolutely committed. Of course, it would be inappropriate for Ministers to lean on the BBC, which has editorial independence that I am sure we are all anxious to protect. However, it is committed to doing more. It is doing a number of activities through its programming, including the “Blue Peter” cooking club, various CBBC programmes and so on. I do not think anyone doubts the BBC’s commitment to this, and we will see the fruits of that soon, I am sure.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that food economists have calculated that, calorie for calorie, fruit, vegetables and high-quality proteins are much more expensive than foods high in carbohydrate and fat? Is it surprising that poor parents find that they have to fill up their children with those foods that eventually often lead to obesity? The structural underpinning of this problem is poverty, which goes much wider than the Minister’s department. It should be a whole-government issue. What are the Government doing about that?

I absolutely recognise the problem that the noble Baroness has pointed out. The prevalence of childhood obesity doubles between the least deprived and the most deprived areas. The Government are committed to reducing that deprivation gap and taking a broad range of actions to combat poverty, none more so than making sure that everybody has the chance to work, which is why we have more people in employment than has ever been the case.

My Lords, following that point, more than a quarter of year 6 children in the most deprived areas are now obese, compared with just 11% in our richest communities. Poorer people cannot afford the Government’s Eatwell plate. What will the Government do post Brexit? Every document I have read has promised rises of between 4% and 20% in food prices and not one has said that food will get cheaper. We already know that we have a deep problem here. What are the Government doing to help, whether through Early Start, by subsidising fruit and vegetable consumption, or through doctor prescribing, to ensure that poorer children can get the food they need to ensure that they do not become—looking at it economically—a time bomb for us later?

The noble Baroness is quite right about the scale of the problem. It is worth pointing out that obesity and overweight issues cost the NHS alone £5 billion a year. There are two parts to the answer. First, the Government are making sure that plans are in place to ensure the continuity of food supply as we leave the EU, whatever the outcome of the negotiations. Secondly, there are two aspects to her key points: about £26 million is going into breakfast clubs as a result of the sugar levy, and of course free fruit and veg are available to young children in primary school.

My Lords, ITV and Veg Power are teaming up to launch a major initiative in the new year designed to appeal to children, as well as a public health initiative through ITV’s programmes. Does the Minister agree that ITV and all the other broadcasters could look at similarly imaginative ways of doing this through their programmes?

That is an excellent suggestion. Before this debate I looked at the Veg Power campaign, the ITV campaign to promote the eating of vegetables, which looks excellent. ITV has demonstrated its commitment and certainly shows an example to other broadcasters.

My Lords, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly produced a report some months ago on childhood obesity, covering all the jurisdictions it represents. Could the Minister take another look at that, because a number of issues came out of it—for example, the need for local authorities to take action, the need for action in schools and the need for action in the voluntary sector? Could the Minister come back when he has looked at what further action could be taken on those recommendations?

I should certainly be happy to do so. It is worth pointing out that that document and others have informed chapter 2 of the Government’s obesity strategy, which was published recently. Because the problem is not yet being dealt with, as we know, and we have an ambition to halve obesity, we are determined to act on things such as banning promotion of sugary foods and further restricting advertising.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report today from BBC News which shows that, while information has been provided that 600 calories is a decent meal, fast-food providers provide 750 or so on average, but chain-food suppliers provide 1,500 calories? What will the Government do to encourage those providers to provide lower-calorie-option meals for the public and for young people?

The noble Earl makes an excellent point. That is why in chapter 2 of our strategy, as I mentioned, we propose mandating consistent calorie labelling in out-of-home settings; indeed, the consultation on that has just closed and we will be publishing our results shortly.