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House of Lords Hansard
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15 July 2019
Volume 799

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to combat childhood obesity.

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My Lords, we are delivering a world-leading plan to tackle childhood obesity. Later this summer, we will set out further action through a prevention Green Paper. In addition, the Chief Medical Officer is reviewing what more can be done to help us meet our ambition of halving childhood obesity by 2030. The review, due to report in September, will consider the approaches taken internationally, regionally and across the country, and will make a series of recommendations.

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My noble friend will have seen coverage in the weekend’s press of food companies which are continuing to breach the government advice that a child should not be weaned until six months of age. They are also still failing to reformulate infant foods. For example, one portion of baby porridge contains 9.4 grams of sugar in a 24 gram portion. That of course leads to further childhood obesity, dental decay and addiction to sugar. Can my noble friend tell us what conversations and discussions the Government are having with food companies, in particular Heinz, Danone and Nestlé about reformulation and the age at which infants should be weaned?

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My noble friend is a great champion on this subject and has been an expert in it for a long period. Through the prevention Green Paper, which is due to be published this summer, we are determined to look at a range of further options to tackle obesity. We have publicly committed to taking action on infant and baby food. She will know that we are making progress on the reformulation section of the obesity strategy. However, we have further to go, and I am grateful to her for her Question on this issue.

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Is it possible to consider something very clever? Rather than accepting that the poorest among us are the ones who deal with obesity, why do we not give them a Waitrose lunch and dinner and subsidise it, and stop having to pay further upline in the NHS? Why do we not start thinking globally rather than just a bit at a time?

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I thank the noble Lord for his question; I hope that we can occasionally think cleverly in government. He is absolutely right that obesity is strongly correlated with socioeconomic deprivation, and that is why chapter 2 of our plan tries to target those areas that are most affected by delivering a childhood obesity trailblazer programme, working with local authorities to address this. They have been provided with £100,000 in the first instance to try to improve the impact of the childhood obesity plan. We shall see how that goes, but I am very happy to pass on his suggestion.

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My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly some time ago produced a report on childhood obesity. Does the Minister agree, dipping into that report, that we need not only a national strategy but—as demonstrated to the committee in Amsterdam—a local strategy, where the local authority can take the initiative, and there can be education and pregnant mothers can be helped to see their way through their own diets and therefore to help their children? Does she agree that we need a local strategy as well, and can the Government initiate that with local authorities?

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The noble Lord is quite right that the national plan must be implemented locally. Public Health England works with local authorities to do that and has set up a number of tools, such as the Change4Life plan, which includes food scanners that have been downloaded several million times to help parents and families make better food choices. We have more to do on this, and we very much welcome proposals to do it. I know that the Amsterdam model has been particularly effective; indeed, my noble friend raised this with the previous Public Health Minister, and I am sure she will continue to raise the issue.

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My Lords, does the Minister not agree that activity is an important part of tackling obesity? We have had some wonderful examples of sporting success in women’s football, cricket, netball and other activities at the moment. What are we going to do to make sure that these examples of sporting success are fed down to children and made available on free-to-air when possible?

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We should all be incredibly proud of the sporting achievements over this weekend; we should not hesitate to do whatever we can to promote them throughout our schools and make the most of the moment. The noble Lord is absolutely right that regular physical activity has been linked not only to improved physical health but to improved mental health and academic achievement. That is why the Chief Medical Officer has recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day. We know that only one in five achieve this; that is why the money from the sugar levy is going into schools activity. But we have more to do. We have announced the national plan and now need to implement that effectively, and I hope that the noble Lord will hold us up to the mark in delivering it.

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My Lords, notwithstanding the importance of anti-obesity guidance in supporting the long-term health of the general population, is the Minister aware of the concerns of eating disorder specialists about its unintended consequences on those for whom “Eat less, exercise more” is not an appropriate message? Clinicians are reporting an increasing number of young people citing anti-obesity guidance to justify excessive behaviours in exercise and diet restriction. Does she agree that, while anti-obesity policy is vital, it needs to be sufficiently nuanced that it does not cause unintended collateral damage to these vulnerable groups?

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The noble Baroness presents a sensitive and sophisticated point: the whole point of the obesity message is that children should be eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising in an appropriate way.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that obesity will break the NHS model if we do not do something about it?

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I absolutely agree with my noble friend. Obesity is a crisis that will not only create misery for those who will then experience increased risk of tooth decay and of diseases such as cancers, diabetes and other severe illnesses, but it will also create significant unsustainability within our health service, which we are able to prevent. Since we know the tools that we have to prevent it, we should all be working together to make sure we do.

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My Lords, we know—and the noble Lord, Lord Bird, made this point—that it is the poorest children who are obese. This is largely because their parents buy food which is high in fat, sugar and salt, because it is cheaper than fresh food. It may or may not be from Waitrose, but the noble Lord makes an important point there. I have two questions for the Minister. First, is it true that two-thirds of the deadlines of the plans that have been put forward for the obesity strategy have been missed? Secondly, what is the Government’s strategy for dealing with summer hunger—those children who will not get proper meals during the summer break?

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The noble Baroness is quite right to raise inequalities. This is exactly why chapter 2 of our plan is focused on childhood obesity trailblazer programmes, where we have identified areas of highest deprivation to provide specific support to local authorities in those areas. We have also recognised this issue around school holidays: around 50,000 disadvantaged children will be offered free meals and activities over the upcoming summer holidays, funded by £9.1 million from the Department for Education. That follows a successful programme last summer, which saw improvement, with football play sessions and cooking classes for more than 18,000 children across the country. However, the noble Baroness is right to recognise that this is a real challenge that we need to address.