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Office for Health Promotion

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the new Office for Health Promotion to take over responsibility for co-ordinating and leading efforts to improve the health of the nation in (1) tackling obesity, (2) improving mental health, and (3) promoting wellbeing and an active lifestyle through affordable access to sport, fitness and recreational facilities.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and reinforce all the plaudits rightly directed at our outstanding Lord Speaker.

My Lords, we are redoubling our efforts on obesity, mental health, well-being and other aspects of prevention. That is why the Office for Health Promotion will operate from within the Department of Health and Social Care. It will be directed by the professional leadership of the CMO and it will drive forward our prevention strategy. It will focus on reducing health inequalities and its approach will be proactive, predictive and personalised interventions.

This welcome government initiative has the potential to lead on vital cross-departmental work to improve physical and mental health, well-being and active lifestyle measures for all ages. Does my noble friend agree that this agenda deserves a well-being statement and budget from the Treasury, as in New Zealand? Given the critical importance of the nation’s health and the widespread interest shown in this Question, will my noble friend accept a request for an online meeting involving interested Peers and officials appointed to the OHP?

My Lords, I absolutely endorse my noble friend’s points. This is an extremely important agenda which we are getting behind in a very big way. I also completely acknowledge and recognise the enormous amount of interest from noble Lords in this agenda; we have taken a number of Questions on this and I celebrate the fact that noble Lords have as much interest as they do. I would be very glad to arrange such a session as my noble friend suggests.

My Lords, I too echo all the appreciative comments made about the Lord Speaker. Does the Minister agree that any interventions to address obesity must take account of the complex relationship between mental health and obesity? For example, people who are obese have a 55% increased risk of developing depression over time, and people living with depression have a 58% increased risk of becoming obese. Can we ensure that attempts to remedy one problem do not exacerbate the other?

The right reverend Prelate makes an extremely valuable point. He is spot on; these comorbidities are related and dealing with them is complex. It is possible to exacerbate one while trying to cope with another. That is one reason why we are putting so much investment into the cross-governmental effort and why this agenda will be led by a cross-departmental ministerial board, to ensure that that kind of co-ordination happens.

My Lords, as the country and the NHS emerge from crisis mode and we understand better that we were disproportionately hit because of the country’s general poor health, I urge the Minister to ensure that the Office for Health Promotion will focus on helping and supporting individuals attain a healthy lifestyle. Will he confirm that, despite what I know to be intensive lobbying, the Government will not water down proposals in the obesity strategy on, for example, advertising on social media and before the watershed and will stick to calorie labelling for alcoholic drinks, restaurants and other food outlets?

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the publication of the consultation on advertising is due soon, and I look to it very much. She is entirely right that obesity, seriousness of illness and death from Covid are clearly related; this has been a wake-up call and we are stepping up to the challenge as of now.

My Lords, the Royal College of Nursing has called for a substantial increase in the number of school nurses to ensure the monitoring and promotion of healthy lifestyles for pupils, so that they are better prepared for learning after substantial absences associated with Covid-19 lockdowns. Can the Minister outline how the Office for Health Promotion will work with the Department for Education to co-ordinate and lead improvements in children’s health, including in school nursing reform?

My Lords, I am grateful to the Royal College of Nursing and the noble Baroness for that extremely constructive and thoughtful suggestion. That is exactly the kind of cross-government, inter- departmental suggestion that the OHP will focus on. I will be glad to take that to the OHP and make it clearly.

Does the Minister agree that, whichever office is in charge of it, any successful obesity strategy must engage with the so-called hard-to-reach groups in society? As many play the National Lottery, scratch cards and so on, will the Government consider how this link might be used to incentivise and reward players for moves to better and healthier eating, drinking and exercising? As the National Lottery franchise will soon come up for renewal, will the Government consider changing its remit so that it is more focused on health than at the moment, or even consider taking a stake and creating a public/private partnership with a focus on not just cash prizes but better health rewards for the nation?

My Lords, Covid has been an extremely important educational experience; we have backed off from using the idea of “hard to reach”. Instead, we try to be much more effective at making ourselves approachable for the kinds of people the noble Lord talks about. He is entirely right that the levelling-up agenda means nothing if it does not mean levelling up health outcomes; we are very focused on addressing the kind of health inequalities he refers to. That will be a central mission of the whole project.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The public health grant to local authorities is 20% lower per head in real terms than it was in 2015-16. Restoring spending per head to this level would require an extra investment of £1 billion. How can poor health prevention and promotion of well-being be achievable and sustainable with such reductions in local public health funds?

My Lords, local public health resources have made a huge contribution in the last year through Covid. I pay tribute to those in local public health who have contributed so much during the pandemic. The grant to local authorities is slightly beyond the scope of the Office for Health Promotion, but the noble Lord’s point is very well made.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I warmly welcome this new and important government initiative to establish an Office for Health Promotion, leading national efforts to improve the public’s health, particularly through promoting physical activity. Given that we know that physical activity can lead to better health and well-being, has my noble friend had any discussions yet on how the promotion of physical activity will be measured, to help ensure that these improved health outcomes can be achieved?

My Lords, there is already considerable co-ordination between the department, DCMS and DfE on exactly that. I highlight the money that has gone from the tax on soft drinks to contribute to funding outdoor activity in schools, which has had an enormous impact. My noble friend is entirely right that physical activity is linked to better health outcomes; that is why it will form part of the agenda for the Office for Health Promotion.

My Lords, the policy paper does not reference the measures proposed in the childhood obesity plan and the recent Tackling Obesity strategy released last July. I hope that omission is not significant. Can the Minister confirm—I was slightly concerned by his response to the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin—that the ban on online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt has been watered down? In awaiting the consultation from the advertising industry, is that a “whether” or a “how”?

My Lords, consultations are there to have an honest conversation. It would be wrong for me to try to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation from the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, the Government have pointed to Singapore’s health promotion board as a model, citing its digital public health schemes such as the national steps challenge or the “Eat, Drink, Shop Healthy” challenge. Is the Minister aware of the risks that gamification and incentivisation of what for many of us are healthy behaviours present to people living with eating disorders? With its responsibility for both obesity and mental health, will the office ensure that eating disorder experts are always involved in planning obesity interventions so that the complex relationship between the two is taken into account?

I completely take the point of the noble Baroness. We are extremely conscious of the challenge presented by social media in particular to identity and sense of body image. I know that there is much liaison between Public Health England and obesity and anorexia charities about its marketing to ensure that it hits the right note. We are investing in digital technology to try to get people moving and change their lifestyles; I pay tribute to the team behind Couch to 5K, who have used apps and digital engagement to encourage millions of people to take important steps towards a more active lifestyle.