HC Deb 04 November 2003 vol 412 cc654-6
4. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What recent discussions he has held on the links between diet and health in children; and if he will make a statement. [135971]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman)

The impact of diet on health is recognised, and we are committed to improving children's dietary intakes. Ministers regularly meet other Government Departments and external organisations to achieve that. Discussion to develop the Department of Health led food and health action plan will enable further action to be taken by all stakeholders.

Helen Jones

I congratulate the Government on what they have already done, but in view of increasing evidence of poor diet among children, the likely effects on their health and the consequent likely demands on the health service, will my hon. Friend liaise with the Department for Education and Skills to establish how we might improve both the standard and the take-up of school meals? We need to send children a consistent message, and—as well as launching welcome initiatives such as the welcome fruit in schools initiative—ensure that they are given a healthy meal at lunchtime.

Dr. Ladyman

I thank my hon. Friend for her positive comments about the progress we have already made, especially with the fruit in schools programme. We do need to work closely with the Department for Education and Skills, and we are doing so. The food in schools programme, which is intended to provide healthy dietary options, is a joint initiative from that Department and the Department of Health. Ultimately, however, we must set ourselves a target. School meals must meet three criteria: they must be healthy, tasty and affordable. We are the first to admit that we have not achieved those standards everywhere yet, but we shall certainly be working on it.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Is the Minister aware of alarming reports from the medical profession about an increase in rickets caused by vitamin D deficiency? What plans, strategies or programmes exist for investigation of this serious matter? Has the Minister, for instance, any plans to legislate for compulsory cod liver oil?

Dr. Ladyman

I would welcome inclusion of that proposal in the next Liberal Democrat election manifesto. I suspect that it would win us a few more votes.

The hon. Lady is right, and my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Melanie Johnson), the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who deals with this subject, is aware of the issues that she has raised. We are working on a number of initiatives, including the fruit in schools and food in schools programmes to ensure that all children have a healthy and balanced diet. The evidence mentioned by the hon. Lady will be fed into that process.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough)

I recognise that many programmes and initiatives are emerging, especially in schools, but parents such as me and, I am sure, many other Members are concerned about the difficulty of ensuring that our children are not exposed to advertising and other means of forcing unhealthy foods down them. We try our hardest, but is there a possibility that a link with physical education and activity in schools would begin to make people understand we need to tackle problems of obesity now rather than later?

Dr. Ladyman

My hon. Friend is right—we must take an holistic view. It is a question not just of diet but of exercise, education and making sure that our children know what foods are healthy and how to create a balanced diet for themselves. On exposing children to undue influences, evidence from Strathclyde university, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency, shows that children are influenced by negative messages from TV advertising, for example. We are considering that evidence and we have an open mind as to how we shall deal with it in the future; however, my hon. Friend can be assured that we are going to deal with it.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Is the Minister aware that 13 per cent. of eight-year-olds and 17 per cent. of 15-year-olds are clinically obese, and does he share my concern about the dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes among young children? I recognise that the message that people, including children, should eat more fruit and vegetables is welcome, but does the Minister not accept that exercise is a crucial part of the equation in reducing these trends? Will he suggest to his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills that more should be done to encourage more exercise, particularly in our schools?

Dr. Ladyman

The hon. Gentleman is right, but he obviously needs to wash his ears out because I just said exactly that. Exercise is vital and we must look at these issues holistically. On discussions with the Department for Education and Skills, the food and health action plan, which I mentioned in answering the first question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), is a cross-Departmental initiative that is working on all these issues and taking an holistic view of the health of our children.