HL Deb 02 February 2004 vol 656 cc440-3

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen asked Her Majesty's Government:

What initiatives they propose to tackle obesity in children.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the Government take very seriously the need to tackle obesity not only in children but also across the population in terms of prevention and management of the condition. Prevention is the best long-term approach, especially for children. We already have under way a comprehensive programme of action which is now being further developed through two new cross-government strategies: the Food and Health Action Plan, which promotes healthy diet, and the Activity Co-ordination Team, which promotes physical activity.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that wide-ranging reply. Does she agree that schools have a role in tackling obesity by means of exercise and diet? What are schools currently doing with regard to exercise and diet, and are there any future plans to expand that process?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, schools have an incredibly important role to play in spreading the message about healthy eating and diet. It is very important that that message goes to the mainstream of schools, through the National Healthy School Standard and the Personal, Social and Health Education Curriculum. We have recently introduced two welcome initiatives: the first will ensure that all four to six year-olds get a free piece of fruit in schools—we will have accomplished that by the end of the year—and the second is the new Food in Schools Programme. As for sport, we are putting £1 billion into additional sports facilities in schools to help to increase access to sport.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, with reference to schools, the FSA said that it is sometimes easier to get a fizzy drink than it is to find a glass of water. When it publishes its very welcome report on the promotion of food to children, will the Government—particularly the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills—look very carefully at the situation involving vending machines? I refer to that in particular in light of the fact that only three companies control all vending machine operations in schools.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, that is a very important point. The consumption of carbonated drinks has doubled since the 1980s. I draw two points to the noble Lord's attention. We all look forward to the FSA's report on the promotion of food to children. The Food in Schools Programme consists of eight elements, one of which is to promote more access to water in schools and another of which will examine what else vending machines can offer by way of healthy options. I am also told that the vending machine industry is in close consultation with the Department of Health about what else can be done.

Lord Chan

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, for poor families in areas such as Merseyside, it is cheaper for mothers to feed their children on hamburgers rather than healthy food? What will the Government do to help mothers—particularly single mothers—to feed their children on healthy food?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the policy of promoting healthy eating must be put firmly within the strategy of reducing inequalities. We do not have complete evidence but we know that women in low-income families are twice as likely to be obese as women in the highest percentage. In areas such as Merseyside, it is important to have a co-ordinated strategy. The Food and Health Action Plan involves precisely that; it brings together all of the partners— transport, local authorities, and so on—to ensure that there is better access. Giving information is not sufficient: enabling people to reach cheap, adequate sources of food is very important.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, is the Minister aware that figures given to us by Cancer Research UK in its briefing on this issue show that one in four adults are now obese—not overweight—and that 5 per cent of children are obese? However, they are not being measured in the same way—many more children could well be obese; 20 per cent of them are certainly overweight. In the circumstances, doing the sort of things that the Government are doing and taking account of all of the issues that we have discussed, such as carbonated drinks and vending machines in schools, is very worthy, but that only chips away at the surface of the problem. Is there any way in which we could properly educate the whole population about obesity?

Baroness Andrews

Yes, my Lords, I quite agree. Fifteen per cent of 15 year-olds are currently obese. It is important to approach the issue as a partnership in which industry is part of the solution. The Food and Health Action Plan is very much about co-ordination. The Food Standards Agency has figures showing impressive increases in awareness of, in particular, fruit and vegetables and the amount of salt in food. We have made a good start, but there is a long way to go.

Baroness Billingham

My Lords, will the Minister be supporting Sport Relief 2004 this year? Sport Relief is a combination of Comic Relief and the BBC. It intends to raise millions of pounds for this purpose, both in the UK and internationally. I have just come from a meeting and I am very excited about it. Will the Minister say what prospect there is of getting a huge party from this Chamber to go on the Westminster Mile on 21 July to raise money for it? We can jog, cycle, skateboard or get out our Zimmers; we can all raise money for a thoroughly worthwhile cause.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the noble Baroness has made an irresistible argument. I shall be sitting on the Whip's chair later this afternoon, if people want to volunteer. I am sure the date of 10 July will be marked in all noble Lords' diaries.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I am sure that we are all pleased to hear of the initiatives under way. More than £4 billion is spent per year marketing goods on television to pre-school children alone. Does the Minister agree that, if legislative control is to be avoided, considerably more corporate social responsibility needs to be exercised by the food industry?

Baroness Andrews

Yes, my Lords. We are putting a lot of pressure on the industry to do just that. The Food Standards Agency is looking at the whole field of promotions for foods, particularly those aimed at young people and children. There was a good and lively debate on 27 January, which the noble Baroness will know about. The Food Standards Agency will be making recommendations at its March meeting and will issue a document for formal consultation later this year. At the same time, Ofcom is making it one of its first priorities to make a fast-track review of this, looking at the best approach to take to any changes to the Code for Broadcast Advertising. A great deal is happening in this field.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, in recent debates on sport I argued for an extension to the PE curriculum in schools. Will the Government consider extending it to tackle this problem? It must be financially profitable.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, we expect every child to have access to two hours' PE and sport in school; by 2006, 75 per cent of them will have it. We are making great efforts. We are investing in school sport facilities and in a range of out-of-school sporting activities, particularly those linking school activities and adult club activities so that, once we capture the children, they go on being active in their adult lives.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

Does the Minister agree that food labelling can be misleading and confusing for those who are seeking to lose weight? What plans do the Government have to introduce simple, standardised food labelling that would help everyone, including children?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, we are pressing hard on this issue, both here and in Europe, and with the industry. There are several issues. A problem is that labelling is not mandatory unless a claim is made on the label that the food is, for example, low fat. In practice 80 per cent of products carry information but often one cannot read it or cannot understand it. We could make a start by insisting that sodium is always labelled as salt. That is something we want to see. In Europe, we are pressing for full labelling and contents listing to be mandatory. We hope that we shall be able to achieve that in the not too distant future.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many children, particularly fat children, suffer from second-hand, sedentary living—too much television; too much Game Boys; and too much computer use? Has she ever read The Secret Garden in which a chronically ill child is cured by seeing plants grow, by handling live animals and by running free in God's beautiful world?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I have read The Secret Garden. The noble Baroness is quite right. You will find that in contemporary children's literature there is also great emphasis on activity and adventure. One of the aspects of the Food in Schools programme that the noble Baroness will enjoy hearing about is growing clubs. They encourage young people to create and cultivate gardens. We are looking forward to seeing the results.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, as I have young children—three under the age of four—I tend to watch a lot of breakfast television. This morning, between 5.30 and 6.30, I was surprised to see a number of advertisements, involving three different products, that highlighted the fact that there was chocolate within the staple food—breakfast cereal—being advertised. When the Minister talks to the industry about responsibility, can she try to make clear the difference between breakfast cereals and sweets?

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I did not know that breakfast television started that early. It is very impressive. One of the matters that the FSA is looking at is those foods that are favourites of children. Cereals are problematic in relation not only to chocolate, but also in relation to salt and sugar. We are making salt a priority for change. It is a particular problem because children's tolerance of salt levels is much lower than that of adults. I imagine that cereals will be one of the priority groups that the FSA will want to study. I believe that the industry is also prioritising it.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is time to come down to earth on this subject? The simple fact is that it is nothing to do with manufacturers or with the price of food. Children prefer food that is bad for them. They do not like vegetables and other foods that they are supposed to eat. It is very difficult for parents to persuade them. When I was a child, I was told to eat everything on my plate or I would not get any pudding, or that I should think of all the poor children. I used to say, "Well, give it to them". Seriously, this is the root of the problem. This is what needs tackling first.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, we all have a problem with self-denial, I would not deny that at all. However, we should not give up the ghost on this because the evidence from the Food in Schools programme shows that there is a 95 per cent take-up rate and that the children are enjoying the piece of fruit they get each day. Furthermore, early evaluation suggests that it is also leading to a take-up of fruit outside school. I speak for myself when I say that we ought to be a bit more optimistic and, maybe, a bit more self-disciplined.