HL Deb 14 January 2004 vol 657 cc593-625

4.29 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote rose to call attention to the extent of marketing aimed directly at children and the case for limiting its effects on society, children and families; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I start with a nostalgic reflection. The more one looks at the pressures on today's children to become adults well before it makes any kind of sense, the more I realise just how much easier was the task of bringing up children for my own generation of parents. In those days of black and white TV, there were limited channels as well as limited viewing hours. But, even then, I can remember huge tussles about viewing favourite TV programmes when homework had not been finished. In those days TV advertising was in its infancy. Today, incidentally, we are told that most children keep the TV on while doing homework. That is something that would have horrified my old English teacher.

So it should be no surprise that today marketing to children is very big business indeed. The UK preschool market alone is worth no less than £4.3 billion a year. Given that 76 per cent of pre-school children watch two hours or more television each day, and children between the ages of four and 15 watch rather more than that, it is hardly surprising that the food industry, marketeers and advertisers regard children as such a good target audience.

During my time at the Broadcasting Standards Commission, we researched various aspects of children's broadcasting—both its quantity and quality. In those days, only 15 years ago, there was near invisibility of pre-school material. Overall, we found that the quantity was certainly up and the quality down, with far too many cartoons and a paucity of good drama. Since then the number of children's programmes has grown significantly—from over 10, 000 hours in 1996 to over 32, 000 in 2001. That is largely due to the increase in dedicated children's channels such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

It is hardly surprising that that greatly increases the volume of advertising to which children are exposed. Our newspapers. too, have grown considerably in size, as have the number of adverts and promotions that they contain. But it is advertising on TV—that additional member of the family in every household—where the effects are perceived as greatest. That, along with the growing emphasis on successfully promoting brand loyalty, the use of celebrity endorsement and what are called "tie-ins"—the "must have" Muppet or Lord of the Rings model and the like. That is not the only form of expansion that affects the situation. More than three out of four of those between five and 16 now have their own television.

Computers, too, are increasingly seen—rightly, we must concede—as a "must have", if children are to cope with today's technological taken-over world. It is more and more possible, with the rollout of broadband, for them to receive "broadcast" material on computers—including adverts. Finally, three out of four youngsters own a mobile phone on which again it is increasingly possible to receive, among other forms of communication, broadcast material, desirable and otherwise. Only a few days ago, our attention was drawn to the increased availability of child pornography online.

This background, I hope, sets the scene. What about the problems posed by all that in today's universal global market economy? There are a number of reasons why we should be concerned; first and foremost, by the inevitably high pressure all that puts on parents to buy the goods advertised. Parents are already undervalued for the role they play in bringing up tomorrow's citizens. Yet in so many ways the state fails to support them in that vital task. It is hardly surprising that no less than 84 per cent of parents feel that companies marketing their products target children too much; and at an increasingly young age.

Parents have, as the National Family and Parenting Institute reports, a sense of family life and parental control struggling under a tidal wave of marketing they cannot fight … They would like not to have their children seen as fair game by aggressive, smart marketing they cannot fight … with billions spent targeting children as consumers". It is not just the targeting of children as immediate consumers, but they are used by marketeers to pressure their parents to buy a wider range of goods, such as cars and holidays. If that kind of pester power, as well as peer pressure from other children, is a problem, as it clearly is for all parents, it becomes impossibly tough for poorer families.

In face of that anxiety, what, if anything, happens elsewhere? Do any controls or regulations exist in other countries? Sweden and Greece ban advertising to children under 12. Australia and Ireland and other countries ban advertising during pre-school children's programmes. By contrast, apparently, Britain has the highest rates in Europe of advertising to children.

Some form of guidance does already exist in this country. For example, each advert for TV has to be pre-vetted by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, with any complaints made to the Independent Television Commission. Restrictions cover adverts which might cause harm to children—physically, mentally or morally—or take advantage of the natural credulity of children. Adverts are also not permitted that exhort children to purchase or to ask their parents to make enquiries or purchase". However, there have been complaints that the system has not proved effective. Regarding the print media the non-statutory Advertising Standards Authority, through its CAP Code is the industry's watchdog. It lays down strict provisions about what may or may not be marketed to children. A recent ASA report says that there is not a general problem with non-broadcast material targeted at children.

Ofcom, the new communication industry's regulator, with the ITC's responsibility for TV adverts since the beginning of the year, is currently engaged in public consultation on how TV and radio adverts should in future be regulated. Ofcom's overall policy is for lighter, not stronger, regulation and they hope to co-regulate the advertising aspects of their responsibilities with the ASA. Both bodies will have important powers if they choose to use them.

So is that existing statutory regulation and self-regulation enough? To illustrate the way in which we might respond to that question, I shall give an example. One of the most worrying developments over recent years is the increase in obesity. One can see there all too clearly one possible result of increased marketing. In recent years obesity among six year-olds in this country has doubled to 8.5 per cent and for 15 year olds has trebled to 15 per cent. Girls are the worst affected. A further concern is that with so much time spent on computers and watching TV the young are not taking anything like enough exercise.

It is hard to believe that those figures have nothing to do with the fact that the global spend on marketing food is an incredible £40 billion. An interesting figure to put that in perspective is that for every dollar spent by the World Health Organisation on preventing obesity and related illnesses, the global food industry spends 500 dollars promoting fatty foods. Diabetes UK is but one of the many health organisations which are concerned about that.

In the UK, food advertising accounts for some 50 per cent of all advertising in children's programmes. Of that, three-quarters was for fast or convenience food. It is small wonder that a Guardian poll in October last year showed that 57 per cent of adults wanted food advertising banned during children's TV programmes. With the growing concern about the increase in child obesity and with other countries sharing our concerns about direct marketing, is it time for further action in the UK? That is a difficult question. There is an inevitable unease, which I share, about living in what is seen as an increasingly nanny state.

Moreover, we are calling almost daily, and equally rightly, for young people to be fully involved in decisions that effect them—not least if we are to re-engage them as our future citizens in democratic processes. So why should not the young, it might be asked, be exposed to and learn to cope early with modern market forces? So is voluntary action, self-regulation, likely to be a sufficient response to this kind of anxiety? We might consider whether the new children's commissioner should have responsibility in that respect. Do we need more than that?

Most companies today are well aware, through Mori polls and the like, that customer loyalty, and therefore a successful bottom line, depends on them behaving as corporate responsible citizens. Where more important than in the food marketing industry? To move further down that road may be sufficient to change some of the most unscrupulous marketing techniques.

Voluntary actions such as those increasingly being agreed between manufacturers and school authorities—to remove brand logos from vending machines in schools and to introduce and promote water, fruit and healthier foods alongside the unhealthy favourites—are surely steps in the right direction. Certainly, that kind of behaviour can usefully be encouraged throughout the country.

Happily, with a number of government pilot schemes, there are signs that this is beginning to happen. In recent months, too, the increased media coverage about the dangers to us all from unhealthy foods has raised general awareness of the problem as well as an increase in MPs' questions calling for more action by the Government.

So if restraint could be agreed voluntarily for all advertisements used on TV before the watershed, or at the very least during actual children's programmes, and if Ofcom plays the important media education role it has been given and sees to it that children as well as adults become more sceptical viewers, that may be all that is needed.

But if, as I suspect to be the case, that proves ineffective, it may be time to begin applying—especially to the marketing of unhealthy food to children—the well rehearsed "precautionary principle"; that is, it is time to take further action when threats of harm to human health or the environment are seen even though the cause and effect relationship has not been fully established.

Both the Food Standards Agency—I am sure that we will hear more about its views from my noble friend Lady Howarth—and the Consumers' Association would appear to support further action along those lines. So does the scale of parental concern shown in a number of recent surveys. The National Family and Parenting Institute states: Expecting parents to continue to bear the main burden of gate-keeping—in an environment where the full creative and economic might of the marketing world is put to persuading children to buy—seems unfair, unworkable and detrimental to both the children's and parents' best interests". And as one parent put it: It's tough sometimes … and I need to ask if the advertising industry are comfortable spending millions of pounds targeting children direct and then saying it's down to mum and dad to stand up to them". Perhaps the best example so far of the development of the "precautionary principle" has been with the tobacco industry. The natural desire in a democratic society to allow adult citizens to choose whether or not to smoke has given way over time, as scientific knowledge of damage to health has grown, to a total ban on tobacco advertising of any kind. And soon, if exhortation fails, we are likely to see a ban on smoking in public places.

In closing, I should like to remind your Lordships once again of the blatant brand marketing to pre-school children to the value of £4.3 billion a year. Should that be allowed to continue during children's programmes? A Private Member's Bill was recently introduced in the other place by Debra Shipley MP which would go some way to banning advertising during pre-school children's TV. I would support that step along the legislative road. The question is—and I hope that it will be addressed by your Lordships—how much further should we go in that legislative direction?

I am particularly looking forward to hearing the views, priorities and suggestions for action that your Lordships will put forward in your speeches. And of course, above all, I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government's reaction is to this area of concern and their plans to deal with it. I beg to move for Papers.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, although I am interested in the subject of the debate, I wondered whether I had sufficient knowledge to make a worthwhile speech, but when I received a piece of briefing I was convinced that I should speak. It arrived via my Whips Office from the Advertising Association. The first page outlines the advertising industry's view on advertising to children. Paragraph 4 states: Advertising provides information to make choices"— okay, that is not too bad remembering that we are talking about children— and in many of the mature UK food markets, advertising merely drives brand share and endorses loyalty". Anyone who took an interest in the Bill banning tobacco advertising heard that argument a great deal. I thought it was spurious when we were talking about adults and in this situation I think that it is patently absurd. I also think that it is insulting to the intelligence of your Lordships that such advertising should be brought out.

I hope that the Advertising Association takes this kick in the pants and feels it as hard as I am aiming it. It has succeeded in raising another voice against it. I hope that if the association is paying someone to produce this stuff, it demotes him or gets rid of him. It is vaguely insulting.

Having been inspired, I started to look a little further. It became clear that behind that attitude lay the fear that there would be a ban or restriction on the advertising of confectionery, fizzy drinks and so forth. That has undoubtedly been inspired by the fact that a huge industry was built up around the claiming of compensation for damage resulting from the use of tobacco and in relation to tobacco advertising. The great advertising industry, having won on tobacco, is now turning to new targets. It may by cynical opportunism by some or it may be seen as a campaign by others. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, rightly asked how far we should go down the legislative road. What are we trying to do here? Where are we going?

Due to the shortness of time, I referred only to the executive summary of the FSA report, but when I began to read it I suddenly said, "This isn't rocket science". Home static entertainment has reached saturation level. When I was growing up, a long time ago now, only two channels provided children's programmes. They were shown only for a short time and to a mass market. As the noble Baroness said, today there are channels dedicated totally to the younger market.

I have a daughter who at 16 months is beginning to recognise television programmes—or probably I have noticed that she is beginning to do so. That means she is a ready-made target for advertising. The BBC markets spin-off toys for children—I have bought them for nephews who recognised the TV programme and wanted the toy—and that is a form of advertising.

However, we must look strongly at dietary advertising shown at certain times. The fact of the matter is that we like to eat fat, salt and sugar and we always have done. Our traditional fast food is fish and chips—not the slimmers' paradise, we can safely say. The fast-food format of the big hit of fat, salt and sugar has become much more readily available.

The FSA executive summary talks about the big four. I will not go into it, but it relates to the consumption of food purchased in supermarkets. People sit around snacking a lot of foods without a good nutritional balance and which are very high in calories and so forth. We have an audience which sits down and watches television as opposed to going out and doing things. As I said before, the fact that one had about two hours of children's programmes only meant that they had to find some other way of entertaining themselves, whether by kicking a football or something else. That meant that they could not just sit down. When sitting in front of a television set, which we all tend to do, we usually have something to eat or drink at the same time, whether a cup of tea or a sugary drink.

If we are to look at one area of advertising, I would suggest very highly sugared and caffeinated drinks. These drinks are sold in schools and action is going to be taken. I have just received information that Canada has banned the sale of fizzy drinks and in Scotland action has been taken to restrict their impact and to remove advertising. That should be a way forward to remove one link.

I discovered by accident through a radio programme that the consumption of cola drinks leads to consuming more calories more quickly. It is also very sugary. In the school environment one is going to be pumped up slightly more. We all know that because we all experience it. How often on a boring committee day have we had strong coffee and a couple of spoons of sugar to keep us awake? We all do and there is nothing new about it. The only thing that is new is the intensity of what is now taking place.

If we wish to tackle obesity and improve behaviour in schools, we should think long and hard about exactly what we are going to do in this area because it involves all the other aspects of the matter under discussion. If we wish people to have immediate sugar hits while watching television, then why should they go out? They are having a sugar "rush"; they have a picture before them and they do not have to think or move. They have the wonderful comforting feeling that they are doing something which is slightly wrong. Why should they move? We must think long and hard about what we are doing.

I occasionally find myself dragooned into doing a part of the family shopping with a small child. I have to make sure that she does not go too close to the brightly coloured items. I see families with perhaps three children going round the store. A child recognises a brightly-coloured packet and grabs it. I do not know what I would do in that situation with just one child. One can visualise three children grabbing their favourite sweets in association, for example, with a soft drink which is drunk by a sports star who is exhibiting a certain pair of trainers. I have recent experience of a particular brand of rugby boots provided to me and a few parliamentary friends. It was sports kit designed by arts students and worn by nobody. I will return to that and give names later on. It is incredibly difficult to resist products which are endorsed at that level.

I go back to the original inspirational advertisement. Anyone who says that it is merely to ensure brand share is talking rubbish. Apart from everything else, the market is constantly changing and becoming a more established spending market. I hope that we shall look long and hard at this matter. We will not overreact because we have always had a degree of fast food in our culture such as fish and chips, although it is hamburger bars now. But let us try to keep a balance.

We should look to see if there are certain big offenders in this market. I suggest that the first area we should look at is that of highly sugared and highly caffeinated drinks.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has chosen a very hot topic and developed the theme very skilfully. My consideration will focus mainly on food advertising and promotion. The nation has woken up at last to the extent and dangers of a developing epidemic of obesity. As the noble Baroness has said, some of the same considerations apply to the promotion of designer or branded toys, sports kit and computer games. These drain parents' bank balances and contribute to our massive private national debt. They encourage a sedentary lifestyle, which we do not want.

I declare an interest in the problem of food advertising since I am chairman of the All-Party Food and Health Forum and honorary secretary of the National Heart Forum, which has just made a detailed submission to the Department of Health on policy options on food marketing to children, the very topic of this debate. A little later I shall outline some of its content, but first I would like to consider the role of exercise in the obesity epidemic.

The food industry correctly points out that both children and adults have become much less physically active over the past two decades for a variety of reasons. That contributes to the imbalance between energy intake and energy output, which underlies the problem of overweight and obesity. I readily agree that this is the case and that to make a serious impact on the problem both sides of the equation need to be tackled.

But when advocating physical activity as the solution, it is worth remembering that it takes a surprisingly large amount of activity to burn off surplus calories. As regards a standard-size energy dense product such as a Snickers or Mars bar, which weighs about 50 grams and contains about 300 calories—I am not speaking about the jumbo-size, which is twice as big and provides calories at a cheaper rate per calorie—one should look at ways in which one might dissipate the 300 calories in the bar.

One way would be not to take the lift to the top of the Canary Wharf tower, but to climb the stairs at a fast rate of, say, 92 steps per minute, which would equate to 50 feet per minute. That is for an average-size adult. That exercise would metabolise about nine kilocalories each minute, according to Department of Health figures. To dissipate the energy in the Mars bar in that way would require 33 minutes of climbing. That would achieve a 1650 foot vertical ascent, the equivalent of walking to the top of the tower more than twice over. An overweight person would have more trouble in doing it because they would expend more energy each step. Only a trained athlete could do that without frequent stops for breath. I found the calculation very hard to believe. I have double checked the figures and they are correct.

The point of the exercise is to emphasise how extremely difficult it would be to increase physical activity on a population-wide basis to the extent necessary to overcome our current obesity problem. To be fair, regular, moderate exercise does seem to increase the resting metabolic rate, which helps to use up further calories. Exercise must play a part in the fight against fat, but control of the food intake is far easier to achieve in the short term and in my view it is far more important.

The noble Baroness has outlined the extent of the problem of advertising to children. I have some information to supplement hers coming from a monograph called "TV Dinners: What's being served up by the advertisers?", which is the result of careful research by Charlie Powell for Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, which closely observed 40 hours of commercial television programmes. To summarise the results, food advertising is two to three times more frequent during children's hours of viewing than during adult viewing periods. Up to 10 food adverts per hour may appear during children's viewing of commercial television. More than half of the adverts for food during children's viewing times are for confectionery, cake or biscuits. Between 90 and 95 per cent of products shown are high in fat, sugar or salt. Fruit and vegetables are not advertised at all.

A further thorough review and research into the effect of food advertising was carried out last year by Professor Gerard Hastings and his team from Strathclyde, City and Oxford universities—a review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency. I previously described that carefully conducted study in your Lordships' House during an Unstarred Question on obesity tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, last October. Its findings confirm and amplify Sustain's work, but its main impact was to establish clearly good research evidence that advertising influences children's food preferences and what they consume—research that, until recently, the food industry could, erroneously, say was lacking.

That finding was scarcely surprising, as it is presumably to change children's habits that manufacturers and fast-food caterers promote their wares. They would not do it if it did not work. They know that it works. Unfortunately, the diet that they advertise, to cite the report to the Food Standards Agency, varies greatly from the recommended one, and themes of fun and fantasy and taste, rather than health and nutrition are used to promote this to children". There is general agreement among the health professions, consumer organisations and the majority of parents that there is too much promotion of the wrong kind of food to children. We have already heard about that from both previous speakers.

The question of whether to tighten the voluntary agreements entered into by the food and drink and advertising industries, which are now clearly insufficient, or to legislate, to introduce statutory legislation. now faces the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and, currently, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom. Judging by her more recent informal statements, the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, although clearly recognising that there is a problem, would first like the food industry to put its own house in order.

Most of those who work in public health in the widest sense feel that that is unlikely to be effective. The Minister herself, having battled with the tobacco industry, probably knows that too but, at present, tactics dictate that she wears kid gloves. In her words, she prefers, not to pick a fight with the industry". Under such a voluntary agreement, the content or quality of advertisements under such a system might improve, but it is unlikely that the industry will ever agree to restrict the total or cumulative volume of advertising without a statutory requirement to do so. However, if a strengthened voluntary code is to be tried first, it is important that the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency and consumer organisations have an input into drawing up the code: it should not be left to the food and advertising industries and Ofcom alone.

The effectiveness of any voluntary agreement should be closely monitored for a limited period, with the clear understanding that regulation will follow as night after day it is not fully effective. The Department of Health has received the full report of the National Heart Forum, drawn up by Jane Landon, on policy options for food marketing to children, which I mentioned earlier. That report followed the forum's "young@heart" initiative, which was a life course approach to preventing coronary heart disease. The report explores in much greater detail all the issues over which I have skated and includes international comparisons.

I hope that my noble friend will recommend that that thorough analysis reaches not only the Department of Health but all relevant government departments before any decisions are made. The report would also be useful to the House of Commons Health Select Committee, which is now approaching the end of its inquiry into obesity.

The noble Baroness has raised a topic of great importance and urgency for the nation's future health. I very much hope that the Government will take heed of the warnings and useful suggestions that have already been made in the debate.

5.4 p.m.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on instigating this important debate. She is a consistent supporter of the rights of children and this debate is more than anything else about our adult responsibility to ensure that children have every opportunity to grow up with good health, able to enjoy long, disease-free life without the stigma of obesity.

I remind the House that obesity is not only a health problem. The charity Childline has listened to hundreds of children who are suffering from bullying simply because they are seen by their peers as fat. We know the implications of bullying for emotional growth.

It is a shocking fact that the 2002 health survey for England found that 16 per cent of children between the ages of two and 15 are obese and 30 per cent are either overweight or obese. As we have heard, diet and nutrition are key factors in increasing the risk of cancer, stroke and coronary heart disease, as well as a number of other serious diseases. It is also known that obesity is associated with increased risk of mortality. In 2002, cases of mature onset diabetes in obese children were reported for the first time. The National Audit Office has projected that by 2010, one in four adults will be obese and the total cost to the National Health Service and economy will be about £3.6 billion.

I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency, which is currently considering ways to encourage children to eat a more healthy and balanced diet. In that context, the agency is also considering the role played by marketing and promotional activities in influencing what children eat.

Previous stakeholder discussions on the issue have revealed polarised views. Many consumer groups oppose the concentration of advertising on foods high in fat, salt and sugars, and some support action to redress that balance. Among those are parents, who feel powerless in the face of large corporations. They cannot be expected to deal with that challenge alone. The National Family and Parenting Institute found that 84 per cent of parents felt that companies targeted their children too much and in that response there was a remarkable consistency across gender, social class, size of family and age of children. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Northbourne will say more about the work of that excellent organisation and its findings.

Industry, meanwhile, doubts the ability of advertising to influence the balance of children's diets, and considers the decrease in children's physical activity to be the major contributing factor to obesity. There certainly needs to be action on both diet, or calories in, and activity, or energy out, although if I went up the tower at the pace suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I think I might have a heart attack.

However, in the interests of children and the future health of the nation, to do nothing is simply not an option. In September, the Food Standards Agency published the results of a systematic review of the available evidence on the issue, the Hastings review, which has been described by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, so I shall not repeat him. It concludes that advertising to children affects their preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption. Those effects are apparent not just for different brands but for different types of food.

To follow the review through, the agency has held a meeting of academics to debate it, together with another research review produced by the industry on 31 October. The seminar, the peer review, supported the conclusions reached in the Hastings review. I assume that the debate will continue.

The agency then published a paper that sets out a range of policy options to address all aspects of the marketing and promotion of food for children. The purpose of the paper is to provoke a wide-ranging discussion on the appropriate way forward. Although I admire the real passion of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we must have research and reason if we are to win the debate.

A stakeholder meeting was held in December to begin to consider how the issue might be taken forward. It identified four main strands for further work: composition and labelling of retail foods—people still do not know what is in the food that they have in their hand; broadcast advertising; consumer information; and provision of healthier options in food services. A large public meeting will he held in January to be attended by a wide-ranging audience to take those issues further. There will also be discussions at open meetings in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As the Minister knows, the agency board is due to discuss the issue in March 2004. It is anticipated that it will consider a wide range of policy options, which may be regulatory or voluntary, after which advice will be given to Ministers.

In December, Tessa Jowell publicly called on the newly established Ofcom to review the rules covering food advertising on television. Ofcom's chief executive, Stephen Carter, responded with an open letter on Ofcom's website. Ofcom has committed itself to further research to help decide what action it considers necessary. That work will comprise further research into the impact of food advertising on children's diets; an examination of the context of both the FSA's report and the factors that have led to the issue being on the public agenda; and an independent assessment of the Hastings review. But does Ofcom really need to repeat all that work already carried out by the FSA and others?

However, the industry is right in one area: this is not a one-issue problem; it is complex. There was a time when to be sent to your room was punishment; now, parents have told the National Family and Parenting Institute, it is hard to get them out. A 2002 survey by the Independent Television Commission revealed that, on average, each household has three television sets and that, on average, children aged four to 15 spend two hours 23 minutes watching television. Sustain estimates that 95 per cent of advertising during children's television programmes is for fatty, salty or sugary foods. Will the Minister think about what research might be carried out jointly by general government departments to take that work forward? Research on the influence of advertising is contested, but my question is: if it is not effective, why, in 2001, did food advertisers spend £161 million on selling chocolate and sweets in the UK, much of it directed at children?

There is no doubt that the issue will need action on many fronts, and that departments and agencies, both statutory and non-governmental, must work together. The Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and organisations such as the National Family and Parenting Institute need to work together with—dare I say it—industry in tackling the difficult problem. What are the Government doing to ensure that the many departments involved in this complex problem work together to a good solution?

The Food Standards Agency is working on ways to encourage children to eat a healthier diet, including the promotion of novel ways to increase children's fruit and vegetable intake; for example, using the Bash Street Kids comic-strip characters and a "how to" guide on fruit tuck shops, an alternative to buns and biscuits. The agency is looking at the promotion of a healthy diet and activity through, for example, an interactive CD-ROM called "Dish it Up!" for 11 to 12 year-olds and a school lunch-time based nutrition and physical activity programme for seven to nine year-olds. It is also looking at the improved promotion of diet through peer education, because we know that children have much more influence on each other than we adults have on them.

Many factors influence what children eat, or calories in, and the measure of exercise that they take, or energy out. It is also a result of changing behaviour. But we cannot condemn the next generation to poor health, if some of what we know can make a difference. It is the responsibility of us all to remember that to do nothing is not an option. Will the Minister outline the range of options that the Government intend to follow to ensure that children are protected from inappropriate direct marketing with all the problems that follow to their health and well-being?

Lord Rea

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, does she agree that the laudable efforts of the Food Standards Agency and others to improve children's diets and eating habits are virtually swamped by the huge expenditure of the advertising industry in promoting the wrong kind of diet?

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, I thought that that was the general tenor of my remarks. I apologise if I lacked clarity. As noble Lords will gather, I am suffering from a cold, so perhaps I was not clear.

5.15 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for initiating this debate. Again like other noble Lords, I have read articles in preparation for the debate, most of which seem to concern children and food. So I, too, can throw statistics around like confetti; for example, that 60 per cent of children regularly eat crisps after school; 40 per cent eat biscuits; 30 per cent eat chocolate; and sales are predicted to rise by 20 per cent in the next four years. Or this: spending on advertising aimed at children rose sixfold in the years up to 1998. It was stated in the other place that on children's television a child is likely to see between six and 11 adverts every hour for food high in sugar, salt and fat. The more I read the statistics, the more my heart sank.

I then read the ASA's own document, its code of practice—still more statistics. A snapshot survey carried out in July 2003 showed that the compliance rates for non-broadcasting adverts directed at children was 98 per cent. My heart lifted a little as I read the standards with which advertisers are required to comply; for example: An advertisement should contain nothing that is likely to result in physical, mental or moral harm to children". I was reassured to know that compliance rates in the non-broadcasting world are so high. I have done all my background homework.

However, I began to be troubled again, because none of the lobbying groups seemed to be getting to the core of the matter. Not one of them was challenging the assumption implicit in all this: that children, even the very young, are branded and defined simply and only as consumers. Not one of them asked whether that was an adequate definition of childhood. Not one asked whether that was what childhood was for.

It would be fascinating to discover when the word "consumer" began to fashion the very ways in which we think, and when it entered our national vocabulary. My guess is that it came into prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Gradually the stranglehold that that word now has on all aspects of society has tightened, and now even the smallest of children are defined by it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, brought to our attention a quotation that I also discovered. It states: The pre-school market is worth £4.3 billion per annum". I do not know how one could begin to create such a statistic, but the use of the word "market" is the giveaway. The youngest child is no longer a miracle, a gift or a source of wonder but is simply regarded as a consumer. I find that morally degrading, because it assumes that the child is nothing more than a manipulatable and voracious computerised dustbin.

The problem that the debate has highlighted relates not simply to the physical, mental or emotional wellbeing of children, important though all those are. It actually relates to what we as a society think that childhood is for. I am much taken with the Swedish experience, which refers to the need for children to have safe zones in which they are protected from commercial influences. At least, that assumes that childhood has a kind of moral integrity as a stage in our human development that we, as adults. should have a duty to safeguard. I would go further and argue that childhood is also a place in which things of the spirit must be given room to grow. Of course. I would claim that all of us—children included—are made in the image of God.

I am not defined by what I consume. I am defined in my terms, at any rate—by my relationship with God and with my neighbour and by my destiny in God. Why are we, as adults in Britain today, so lacking in moral courage that we do not wish to protect children from exploitative and commercial pressure? Why are we so spiritually bereft as a nation that one third of parents provide a television set in the bedroom for the under-3s? I find that hauntingly sad.

I warmly welcome the debate. At heart, it is about whether, as a nation, we are prepared to submit to a definition of childhood that sees children simply as consumers or whether we have the courage to say that childhood needs protection from exploitation because only in that way can the spiritual needs and rights of children be given a place to grow and flourish. We are in serious danger of producing a nation of fat and greedy children with thin and starving souls. Is that really the best that we, as adults, can do?

5.23 p.m.

Lord Chan

My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote on securing this debate, which is of importance not only to children but to their families and communities. Noble Lords who have spoken have identified the main focus of direct marketing to children—food and drink. My concerns are focused on people who live in economically poor communities, in which marketing to children leads not only to bad health but to debt, further poverty and increasing crime.

Marketing aimed directly at children has become more widespread and unavoidable with television being in all our homes and the computer becoming an essential tool for school homework. In many homes, the computer is part of the bedroom fixtures for children. We know that, through the Internet, children can be reached by people and organisations for good or ill.

Television advertisements aimed at pre-school children are probably the most effective influence, as other noble Lords have said, on their choice of food and drink, as well as of clothes, toys and entertainment. In single-parent homes, television is used as a childcare tool because mother is too busy to give all her time to childcare. As a consequence, children watch advertisements repeatedly, remember the jingles and ask mother for the products promoted. At Christmas, parents, including single parents, feel obliged to spend hundreds of pounds that they do not have and can hardly afford to borrow to buy the latest computer games, scooters, shoes and other presents. Under such pressure, poorer families accumulate debt and suffer more stress.

In economically poor areas of England, fast food outlets sell the cheapest meals. That is welcomed by families, but it restricts their choice of healthy food and leads to poor health. In addition, fast food outlets promise to give free toys with children's portions, and that too is welcomed. Parents with limited money go to the nearest supermarket to buy special food offers of two for the price of one. Such offers tend to be on less healthy products than we would otherwise buy. The adverse effects of unhealthy food on children are well known and have been rehearsed by other noble Lords. Among ethnic minorities, the ill effects include dental caries and gum disease, particularly in children from Chinese, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi and Pakistani families.

Parents in our poorer housing estates also directly influence their children by smoking at home. Some break the law by asking children to buy cigarettes from corner shops. Sadly, such practices lead children to start smoking at an early age. Older children and teenagers can be influenced directly by pop music programmes and soap operas on television, and they assume that all popular and attractive young people wear designer clothes and shoes and use the latest mobile telephones, which receive computer and TV images. All such products are costly and add to the burden of financial debt for the family. In some poor housing estates where money is not available even through borrowing, children resort to bullying other children who are better off, theft from shops, breaking into cars and other crime.

The most dangerous form of direct marketing to children in such deprived estates include adults and older children who peddle drugs outside schools and around their homes. Such activity is illegal, and police officers are assigned to tackle it using their crime prevention powers.

In order to overcome the effects of harmful marketing to children, the Government must promote the marketing of healthy food and habits. That needs the co-operation of schools and would involve another look at how we use television, advertisements and public billboards. Public health leaflets that have attractive covers featuring popular actors and singers could be put through front doors by the local primary care trust. That was done by the PCT of which I am a non-executive director in Birkenhead and Wallasey. We used Catherine Zeta Jones on the front cover, and not only did everybody read the eight-page document but they asked for further copies. Instead of just banning food that leads to poor health, the advertising media should promote healthy alternatives, such as fruit and low fat, low sugar and low salt foods.

In the communities to which I have alluded, neighbourhood regeneration needs to undergird all our attempts to overcome the difficulties of direct advertising to children. There should be playgrounds that are safe for children. They should not only have safe apparatus but also be places where children will be safe from adult predators. We need to have adult mentors who are prepared to organise and teach good quality skills, such as football. In Toxteth, Liverpool, former professional footballers, particularly from the local community, give their time to organise children and to teach football skills to children from poor housing estates. That has led to a number of children being recommended to join famous professional football clubs and, in turn, for them to promote healthy living.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on securing this debate. I also share many of the concerns about the plight of young people and, indeed, their parents in modern society. Where I think that I differ from previous speakers is in the assumption that the problems can be solved or even considerably reduced by further restrictions on advertising.

We have always been a bit ambivalent about advertising in this country; for example, whether it is as to its cost effectiveness—I refer to the celebrated quotation made by Lord Leverhulme: "I think that half my money spent on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don't know which half."; whether it is as to its importance when we find businesses in a recession cutting their advertising budget at precisely the time that one would think that they should be increasing it to stimulate demand; or whether it is as to its value. There is something ingrained in the British character—particularly, perhaps I may say, in the Scottish character—that there is a duty to create the perfect product, and the world would then beat a path to our door and purchase it. That was reinforced when we had an Empire and a captive market, which is why most of British manufacturing industry has now gone down the Swanee since we no longer have an Empire, but did not learn how to compete with others.

Now, a question has been raised about almost the morality of advertising. My remarks are not designed to defend the advertising industry, although it is important to recognise that it is an important creative industry in this country, which is of international repute. We have very few industries that can claim that. Nor do I rise simply as someone involved in broadcasting to express concern about the loss of potential advertising revenue, particularly from children's programmes. It is worth pointing out that in Sweden, for example, where no advertising is permitted to children under 12 years old, the number of children's programmes produced is only five hours a week by the commercial sector, of which only two-and-a-half hours originate in Sweden. That contrasts with slightly more than 11 hours of children's programmes produced each week by ITV and 25 hours produced by Channel 5 in this country. Those are issues that need to be weighed in the balance.

My reason for saying, "Think again before you assume that advertising or restrictions on advertising present a solution" is that it is a distraction from the main problem. Perhaps we may look at some of the problems afflicting young people today. Undoubtedly, the biggest problem is drugs. Do we have any advertising for drugs? We do not. Yet drugs are a huge problem among young people. Yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, figures were quoted as regards smoking: 27 per cent of girls aged 16 and 16 per cent of boys were already regular smokers. At that age, they cannot have seen an advert for smoking that does not immediately warn them that smoking kills or seriously injures their health. Yet the figures are still high.

I turn now to sweets. My part of the world has a notorious sweet tooth. If UK consumption is 100 units, we are well up into the 120s/130s when it comes to consumption of chocolate, and so forth. But which country in Europe has the highest level of consumption of chocolate and sweets? It is Sweden, where no advertising whatever is allowed to children under 12 years old.

I turn now to another example; that of the world of pop music. What produced the big upsurge in pop music in the late 1950s and early 1960s? It was not plugging on the BBC. The BBC still had the old Home and Light programmes. Indeed, it was so long before the BBC introduced Radio 1—I think it was not until about 1967—that it lost the market to pirate commercial radio, which eventually led to the introduction of official, regulated commercial radio in this country.

My problem is that I do not think that restrictions on advertising present the solution. I was very much taken with the recognition of my noble friend Lord Rea of the number of times that we would all have to go to Canary Wharf to work off the effects of a Mars bar, but it is a fact that calorific intake in this country has gone down in the past decade. I appreciate that the problem is that we are not burning it off. It might be very nice, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, if we went back to two television channels. I would certainly settle for one radio channel, providing that it is mine. The problem is that we have got more than that and, regrettably, no one will ever say, "No. Let us get back to two or three". We are faced with problems, but we must do something to encourage children to take more exercise.

I gather that it is a fact that the number of children between the ages of 5 and 10 undertaking any form of walking is down by 17 per cent since 1986. As regards 11 to 15 year-olds, the figure is down by 29 per cent. Only one-third of the children in this country takes the recommended two hours of exercise each week. It is all very well being nostalgic. I certainly took more than two hours exercise each week. We did not have a television, and the streets were safer to play in than they are now. There are huge problems, but do riot let us imagine that advertising has caused them.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, was open enough to acknowledge the fast food of fish and chips. That antedates the arrival of advertising in this country. We all went for a fish supper. It was relatively cheap, fairly quick, saved parents time, cost a little money. and we all went for it. It had nothing to do with advertising.

My concern is that we should not assume that this problem can be solved by blaming other people or the advertising industry. It must be solved by personal responsibility, which includes parents and schools. Otherwise, the problem will not be solved at all.

Lord Rea

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he realise that the figures he quoted as regards the calorie intake in this country going down are disputed? Many people believe that the official statistics which show that are incomplete and have not adequately taken into account food that is eaten outside the home.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, knows a great deal more about this subject than I do. I obviously accept what he says. But the very fact that no one is saying that the figure has gone up dramatically, and yet the problem of obesity has increased, indicates that it is not advertising that is causing the problem.

5.39 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this important subject for debate, and on the excellence of the speakers. Perhaps I may point out to the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, that the Motion is targeted not against advertising but against marketing. Turning to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, which I admired very much, I was impressed by the statistics that he gave, as we all were. I wondered whether he would be able to work out what I should have to do to work off one of those wonderful cream cakes that I am always tempted by.

I am always put at the end of the list. I think that is because I nearly always attempt to say something slightly different. On this occasion I plan to talk on this issue from the point of view of parents although I am not saying that previous speakers have not. I believe that when the Minister replies he will say, because it is government policy, that it is the responsibility of parents to say no to their children and to control their children's exposure to television and commercial pressures. I have no argument with that. However, it raises the issue of what the responsibilities of parents are in our society. Where is it written down and who decides? Is it just what the Government choose to say is the responsibility of parents? Are children taught in school of their responsibilities when they become parents? If not how can parents know what they must do? What responsibility does the state leave to them and more importantly how do they prepare to perform those duties?

It is high time that this Government or some other one introduced a much clearer contract between parents, the state and other groups such as the extended family and community. Parents do not have a voice. The Government say that it is the responsibility of parents to address these issues. If there were a trade union for parents—I believe there ought to be—and if I were its general secretary, I should be saying to the Government: All right. My members will take responsibility for looking after children in this way, but we want your help as follows". I would then list some of the things which the Government need to do to work with and support parents in fighting the battle against obesity in children and damaging marketing.

The recent National Family and Parenting Institute MORI survey, to which many of your Lordships have referred, shows that a large majority of parents want to be good parents. We should remember that at all times. The vast majority of parents want to be good parents. They want to be responsible for their children's welfare and behaviour. Why do the Government not do more to support them in this task and to work in partnership with them to achieve the results we all want? The same MORI poll showed that a huge majority—some 84 per cent of parents surveyed—thought that commercial companies are targeting children too much.

The skills of persuasion and marketing today have been refined and developed to such a degree as never before. Technology places very powerful tools in the hands of these persuaders. Those include the Internet and television. They invade the home like a kind of fairy godmother, sometimes beneficent, sometimes evil.

The Government and some adults tend to say that parents should just say no. Parents do say no. They say no all the time. They have to say no much too often. Experts tell us that if we are to be good parents we should adopt positive parenting. We should say three good things for every time we say no to our children. That is all very well but with the advertising pressures of today, one has to say no about 27 times for every time one can say something good. It is not satisfactory. It is a conflict which in my view could and should be looked at very seriously.

Parenting has never been so difficult as it is today. Traditional parenting patterns do not always work. A recent Mothercare survey showed that around 70 per cent of parents still rely for their parenting skills on instinct or on what they learnt from their mothers. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health issued a report about a year ago in which it was made absolutely clear that parenting skills applicable to our parents are not necessarily applicable to parenting today. Parents need education and support. That is working well where it is available but Parenting Forum, in which I declare an interest having been chairman for eight years, tells me that only about 25 per cent of potential demand is currently met.

I ask noble Lords to listen to the voice of one parent. He or she was the subject of a parenting order. Having gone through the parenting course, that parent said this, "Why did they wait for my son to commit a crime before I was able to get the parenting advice and support I have been trying to get for years?" When will the Government adequately fund the delivery of affordable parenting education and support where and when it is needed by young parents?

Having talked generally about parenting support, I should like to look at one or two areas in the context of marketing. There is the whole issue of education and advice for parents and the question of labelling on goods and control over children's use of television and the Internet. I should like, briefly, to say a word about each of those.

Affordable education for parenthood should be available to every parent and prospective parent—within reason—where and when they want it. Where it is already available, it works. It is very popular. But no one should be excluded. I am sure the Minister will not know the answer to this question off the cuff, but how much are the Government currently spending on parenting education and support?

I turn to the subject of advice. Goods in the food industry today are complex and the dietetic problems involved are not always simple. We have talked a great deal this afternoon about fats, salt and sugar. There are all sorts of other things that are not good for children's health. There may be foods that are good for another reason—perhaps because they introduce a balance of vitamins. It would be simple to have a voluntary registration scheme which would enable food manufacturers marketing goods to children to say they would like to have a particular food assessed. There would then be a kite mark—perhaps a figure of a child—in different colours. The simplest would be: green, jolly good; yellow, maybe and red, not on your life. It might be that one could not put the negative one for legal reasons but one could allow manufacturers to apply to a national body for a kite mark for their food if they believed it was reasonably healthy and wanted to sell it on that ticket.

I turn now to the question of control of technology. There has been in existence a technology associated with what is called the Zchip or the J chip. This enables television sets to turn off at a certain hour, to accept only certain stations or to pick up signals which make them black out on material as it is broadcast. It is one thing to say to parents that it is their responsibility to see that children watch appropriate programmes for a reasonable period. It is much more difficult for a parent to do this. There is a statistic that the average household has three television sets. More than 60 per cent of children under 12 have a television set in their bedroom.

One may say that it is foolish of parents to allow that, but if all your child's friends have one, it is extremely difficult not to do so. However, it is much better to say, "Yes, you may have a television, but when you reach the age of 10, you shall have one of these". That may or may not bring about a terrific row, but at least it will happen only the once. If it is a question of going into a child's room and turning off the television every evening—pulling out the plug and returning to find that the child has simply plugged it in again—that is the kind of thing which makes parenting difficult. The Government should put their shoulder to the research which will perfect the available technology so that this problem can be solved.

I do not know whether comparable solutions are available for the Internet, but I strongly suspect that there are. Indeed, computers used in schools have modems which vet the sites to which the user may set up links.

Finally, I want to say this. One of the reasons why many parents today have difficulty in setting boundaries for their children is that they lack the self-confidence to do so. They feel under attack. The Government, employers, marketers, restaurateurs and the general public often resent their children in public places. Parenting has never been so difficult.

My noble friend Lady Howe remarked that the Government do not want to be seen as creating a nanny state. However, there is all the difference in the world between giving parents the help they want and behaving like a nanny. Parents need encouragement and support and, indeed, the vast majority of parents want that, provided that it is presented in the right way. The vast majority of parents love their children—most of the time—and want nothing more than to give them a good start in life.

I believe that the Government should be working in partnership with parents rather than constantly patronising them. They should listen to parents. There is no formula in this country for listening to them, no organisation through which parents can speak to the Government except, possibly, the National Family and Parenting Institute. That organisation may be moving into the role with the establishment of Parentline; I hope that it does. We need a way in which the Government can consult parents and so that parents can have a voice. If parents feel that they are being treated as grown-ups, they are much more likely to behave like them. The Government have done that in the Sure Start programme, which is a rip-roaring success because they have worked with parents.

I am running out of time so I end with a practical proposal. As a token of their real intent to work with parents, I suggest that instead of setting aside the frankly derisory sum of £25 million over three years for the parenting fund, the Government should make available 10 times that sum—£250 million—over the period. That would be a real gesture of confidence in the nation's parents.

5.53 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on introducing a debate on a topic which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, remarked, is of great importance and urgency to the nation.

As we know, we are all back in the House: Christmas is over and the new year sales are on. Consumer debt in this country has reached its highest level ever, while savings as a proportion of GDP are at their lowest ever level. Yet we congratulate ourselves on the rate of economic growth we have achieved as a result of the consumer boom over the past few months. We lord it over France and Germany because we are spending money which perhaps we do not have. The newspapers, television and even the Government encourage us to go on spending money. Saving is perhaps no longer seen to be a virtue. In any case, you could be cynical about saving if you have put your money into Equitable Life.

Perhaps this is the age of instant gratification. Among the cuttings I have received, one mentioned the interesting speech broadcast last October on Channel 4 by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. It caused something of stir because he said: What makes me wince, I suppose"— about the consumerism that is gripping society— is the conscious targeting of young people—who don't actually have purchasing power themselves, but can use what advertisers call 'pester power' with parents—in a way which trains children into certain assumptions about what ought to make … their lives satisfactory". Too often these days, "I want" means "I get'.

Today we have questioned whether limitations should be put on the advertising of, in particular, food products to children. I shall return to that in a moment. However, a number of noble Lords have considered the problems surrounding the degree to which the state should regulate in this area. It took a long time to reach the decision not only to control but to eliminate tobacco advertising because ultimately we recognised that tobacco is addictive. I am not sure whether fast food is addictive. The legal suit being pursued against McDonald's in the United States is fascinating because it implies that fast food is addictive.

We need to look at the situation we have now, where advertising is aimed at children. The advertisers tell us that a child of three years of age can distinguish between brand images. For example, it knows the difference between adverts for Coco Pops and McDonald"s on television. Further, there are enormous peer group pressures on children. How many grandparents were asked this Christmas to provide a Playstation 2? How much does it cost? Over £200, which is an enormous sum.

The Advertising Standards Authority tells us firmly that there is a clear code of practice in relation to children's advertising; that on the whole it is adhered to; and that where it is not, in those cases the appropriate people have been brought to book. Nevertheless, the issue of how people are being brought up in a consumer society is very real.

I shall not repeat all the statistics already cited in our debate, but I wish to bring two sets to the attention of noble Lords. First, 24 million Britons are either overweight or obese. We have heard the statistics for children, which are terrifying, but it is worrying that 24 million people are overweight. Sir John Krebs reckons that, if we do nothing about obesity, within a few years it will cost the National Health Service £3.6 billion to deal with the health effects. I should have thought it would already be costing the NHS as much as that.

In addition, we must face it that many families do not sit down together at mealtimes any longer. I was amused to learn that they graze from the fridge. Too often children help themselves to fast foods from the fridge. Food that needs to be heated is put in the microwave for three minutes. By then it is done and you do not have to worry about it. Thus the socialising effect referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is missing. Parents do not talk to their children.

The Sure Start programme has emphasised how important it is that parents talk to their child. Some parents do not know naturally how to do that, just as some parents do not know naturally how to feed their children well.

As well as the advertising aimed at young children on television, we have all the advertising that comes through schools—the sponsorship deals for computers and books in schools. We are told to "Shop at Tesco" or "Shop at Sainsbury's" and acquire a coupon. Without those promotions, many schools would be very short of computers, so I am quite pleased about such sponsorship deals. Whether it is right that Cadbury's should be sponsoring sports kit, or whether it is all so cynical, or whether Coca-Cola and Pepsi should install drink machines in schools, it is nevertheless vital that such sponsorship is regulated—perhaps we should have water rather than Coke and Pepsi machines.

One can become cynical about why companies do such things, but would a ban work? We expect adults to discriminate, but if we banned advertising during children's TV programmes, advertisers could just switch to the adult programmes that children watch. We know that about 80 per cent of the audience of "Coronation Street", "Neighbours" and so on, are children. Advertisers would switch from one programme to another, and there may be a switch to other forms of advertising. We have not talked about the main form of advertising that children receive today, which is text messaging. It is more important to ban unsolicited advertising and e-mails to children through computers and text messages than carrying a ban on television too far.

We also need to think more logically about the issue and put it into context, as suggested by the noble Lords, Lord Gordon and Lord Northbourne. I very much support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his call for parenting initiatives. Parents should he encouraged to teach their children about dietary principles, for example. In Question Time today, we talked about salmon and the suggestion from America that the salmon we eat is contaminated. People react quickly to such issues. If we were to put more effort into informing people about what is a balanced diet, and the need to balance diet with exercise, perhaps that would help.

I come back to the £3.6 billion that it costs the National Health Service annually. It would clearly be worth our while to spend 1 per cent of that each year—£36 million a year—on positive advertising. I think that it would be worth spending 10 per cent—£360 million a year—on positive advertising from the other side. By spending £360 million, we could save perhaps not the whole of the £3.6 billion, but quite a lot of it in time. It is important to make the Government recognise that. We know from the drink-driving campaign that such campaigns must be long term and that the message must be repeated again and again to get it through.

What other suggestions can I make from the positive side? I am impressed that what I used to call a cookery class became home economics and is now called food technology. In classes on food technology, I understand that a great deal is taught on nutrition and dietetics to our 13 and 14-year-olds, most of whom regard it as being incredibly boring. The right time to get to people is when they are pregnant or have young children because that is when they want to know what to do. That is when we should be running classes about what is good or bad for us.

What do the kids cook in class? I was rather shocked to discover from a friend that her daughter who was having cookery classes at school cooked baked beans on toast.

Earl Attlee


Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, that takes us back to our youth.

My friend's daughter also learnt how to cook popcorn. She was reprimanded for bringing in real apples to bake an apple pie instead of a tin of puréed apples. We could do rather more in cookery classes and teach how to cook from scratch, as the Americans say.

We in Britain watch more television than people in most other countries of the world. The weather has something to do with that. But many kids are bored by adult TV. We need to provide alternative activities for some of our bored children. Youth clubs, and groups of scouts and guides are all old-fashioned and have gone down the spout. When such facilities are provided, they are attended. Our schools should be open every day until 10.30 in the evening. The kids should be able to use the computers because many of them do not have computers at home. There should be sporting activities so that they can get the exercise that they need. That would be a relatively small step. The facilities are there, but keeping them open requires the will to do so. Kids clubs and organisations such as Kidscape are emerging, but we need far more of them.

We should not rush into being a nanny state. This is a cultural question. I do not want our society to go down the American route of blame and litigation. However, positive steps can be taken to counter the culture that has emerged to try to push it in a different direction. I want the Government to take the lead in such positive steps.

6.6 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for introducing this important debate today. The Motion calls attention to the case for limiting the effects of marketing aimed directly at children. We all agree that children require a degree of protection, but views differ as to the extent to which they should be shielded from advertising, marketing and promotional offers.

I fear that I may be a little on my own in this debate, with the notable exceptions of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and, possibly, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. However, it will be interesting to hear the Minister.

Advertising and marketing are a feature of a free market economy where the consumer is king and where products and services compete to inform the consumer of their existence, and their benefits in contrast to other brands. In today's free market democracy, children and adults are surrounded by commercial messages. The codes governing advertising and marketing in both the broadcast media and the press have specific rules to take account of children's inexperience and credulity. Those codes are essential, and are supported by the public and industry. They are regularly reviewed to ensure that they are kept up to date with technological developments and changes in advertising and marketing practices.

As we have heard, some countries, such as Sweden, do not allow advertising on television to children under 12. However, it is impossible to cocoon children from the commercial world in which we live. Shielding them from a part of those commercial messages will not work. We must also not forget that advertising helps to fund the free press, TV and radio broadcasting, and it can also provide funding and resources when they would otherwise not be available—for sporting events or for schools, for example.

A much better solution is to teach children about the role of advertising and marketing practices, so that they learn about the intent and purposes of commercial messages and how to use them effectively. Educating children to understand the role of marketing is essential to the development of their ability to make critical comparisons and informed decisions, especially later in life. When they become adults, managing far greater financial resources, they will come under even greater pressure. The consequences of believing the contents of every advert offering a financial product could be devastating.

Advertising slots around children's television programmes is currently an issue of some debate. Some argue that advertising should not be allowed around children's TV programmes because children are particularly vulnerable and open to influence. However, there is research which suggests that children understand the difference between advertising and programmes from a very early age and that they grasp the commercial intent of advertising from around five years old. Personally, I am not entirely convinced, and neither are many of your Lordships.

The Food Standards Agency has recently published an analysis by Strathclyde University which concludes that advertising has a significant effect on what children want to eat or drink. But other research concludes that other factors, such as parents and siblings, have a much stronger influence on children than advertising.

Many noble Lords have referred to the problem of carbonated sugar-laden drinks. It is a problem not easily solved by regulation, but I think there is a lot to be said for all schools providing a cold water drinks machine next to a fizzy drinks machine, if the school must have a fizzy drinks machine at all.

The noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Gordon of Strathblane, talked about the requirement for exercise. For a variety of reasons, our children do not walk very far. They do not even spend much time outside in fresh air. Not only does this cause overweight and obesity, it may also explain why we are seeing more respiratory illnesses in children. They simply spend too much time indoors, so are exposed to the perils so ably identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—a double whammy if ever there were one.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, talked about the work of the Food Standards Agency. We are lucky indeed to have the benefit of her experience in your Lordships' House. I think there is a problem of educating parents, but the parents most needing it may be the most difficult to contact, let alone influence. How depressing it is for me to see a mother going for a takeaway to feed her family. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, covered this point in detail.

No doubt flexible working in order to support the 24-hour economy is having its impact on family feeding arrangements. This was a point well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans gave us a very strong moral perspective. He talked about the provision of TV sets to very young children. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, talked about access to TV and computers. He rightly said that both were seen as childcare tools.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, followed the moral line of the right reverend Prelate. He first asked: what are the responsibilities of parents? He then covered the need for parenting support. The noble Lord made a suggestion about what he called a Kitemark, the symbol of the BSI. But I rather think that parents and children also need to understand the merits of fruit compared with chocolate. This goes right back to the noble Lord's original point.

New primary legislation has been touched on by some noble Lords, notably a Private Member's Bill in another place proposed by Debra Shipley MP. I usually have an allergic reaction to any suggestion of further regulation.

We on these Benches are opposed to the outright banning of advertising and marketing to children. There are strict rules in place to regulate marketing specific to children. We will look at the result of Ofcom's investigation into the current codes, but we suspect that there may not be much room to make them any tougher.

We oppose a ban on advertising for the following reasons. We believe that obesity in children is caused by a number of factors, including an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, parental influence and diet choices. We do not believe that a ban would have the effect that many campaigners claim. However, I am certain that obesity is a major problem. The Chief Medical Officer is rightly extremely concerned about the future impact on the cost to the NHS, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. When I put my defence and security hat on, I am worried about the size of the pool of youngsters who will be fit enough to join the Armed Forces, even after extensive training.

Countries such as Sweden have introduced such a ban and, as pointed out by noble Lords, have not seen any significant change in child obesity levels. Without complex regulations, a ban would prevent anyone advertising healthy food, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Chan. I think it is unfortunate that the quality of fresh fruit in the UK leaves a lot to be desired.

It is impossible effectively to define children's television and adult television. For example, "The Simpsons", "Hollyoaks" and "EastEnders"—I am not quite sure what these programmes are—would all be outside a ban on advertising in children's TV time, which is between 3.30 and 5.30 p.m., but all have a very significant children's audience. A ban would have a significant impact on the ability of broadcasters that rely on advertising revenue to offer children's programmes, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane. Unlike cigarettes, which are harmful even in moderation, we do not believe that food can be so easily classified.

I look forward to the Minister's response to this fascinating debate.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the whole House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for introducing a debate that has been wide-ranging and most thought-provoking. It has covered some very interesting ground, from the narrowest of concerns about consumer behaviour to the real morality of the nature of society that we participate in and whether such consuming activity meets all the needs of our citizens. I hope I am able to join those who brought a perspective to our debate which looks at this issue from a moral standpoint.

I pay due respect to the strong arguments that we need to recognise the nature of the problems which are provided by a young population—youngsters, in particular—who take too little exercise and are subject overmuch to the influence of television and other media through the computer. At the same time, I am afraid that I also agree with a great deal of what my noble friend Lord Gordon said; namely, that we should not look upon advertising as the all-powerful mechanism by which all tastes and consumption patterns are determined in our society, and that a simple ban—not, I hasten to add, that any ban would be simple—would not be readily effective in changing such patterns.

I also want to develop the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was keen to emphasise. It is not a question of our young people being subject to these influences, but the fact that they are there, static, and responsive to these influences. It may be necessary to pay due regard to their future health problems by seeking to ensure that we have the requisite sport and exercise opportunities, which impact upon a number of departments.

One point to which I am particularly responsive is that raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, when she asked whether I would give some indication of coordinated activity on these issues between departments. I hope that in the deployment of my arguments in my short contribution, I will give evidence of the fact that we recognise that these issues go across government departments. We need a perspective which recognises the contributions of a range of government agencies. I hope that I am able to convince the House that the Government are acting in crucial areas in this respect.

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, indicated, this country is deservedly regarded as a centre of advertising excellence in terms of quality and observance of high standards and integrity. That is entirely due to the effectiveness of the UK regime for regulating advertising and ensuring compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of regulations and codes of practice.

Apart from statutory controls to protect consumers from misleading advertising, further independent controls are operated to ensure that advertisements are truthful, decent and honest and prepared with a due sense of responsibility to consumers and society. Both UK statutory and non-statutory controls are highly flexible and responsive. A single complaint will trigger action and there is no burden of proof on complainants.

The UK advertising community demonstrates its commitments to high standards by operating its own pre-clearance service—a point the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to in her opening remarks.

We should recognise that the advertising industry is regulated. Reference was made to the efforts of my honourable friend in another place who introduced a 10-minute rule Bill—a Bill more for propaganda purposes than one likely to engage this House in a great deal of activity in the near future. But that Bill was extremely limited. It received considerable support, a recognition that our colleagues in the other place are also aware of the problems that have been rightly and accurately identified in our debate today. That Bill sought to ban the advertising of foods high in sugar, salt and fat during pre-school children's TV programmes. That is how limited its perspective was; that it was aimed at the most impressionable of young children.

I had some sympathy with that Bill. But part of the solution must surely be to give our young people the skills and abilities to identify the hard and the soft sell. That may come through greater support from parents and the wisdom that they can impart through long years of wrestling with these issues. We must also bear in mind the aspects identified by the right reverend Prelate; that is, that we need to look at our children in a wider perspective than simply as consumers.

Schools are concerned to give breadth to young people from the perspective of the broader educational objectives in which this crucial issue of media literacy exists. They want to give children the ability to understand the nature of the messages being sent out through the extremely powerful media which television and computers represent. They want them to have a rounded perspective which will give them the potential to respond to these issues with judgment and an ability to handle the various messages thrown at them.

The only comment I would make to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who made a powerful speech on the dangers of the present pattern of consumption and the lack of exercise—I appreciate he identified certain food substances as having rather more powerful impact than others—is that there is a wide difference between foodstuffs and tobacco. We all know of the detrimental effects of tobacco.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the reason I mentioned tobacco was to emphasise the incompetent degree of lobbying that I received. I understand it is a different process. I simply say that there is an industry waiting to get in on the act. If we are not going to feed the lawyers, we must be ready for it.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. I was commenting on the obvious fact that however damaging certain foods may be if taken in abundance—we all know the detrimental health effects on people who have a poor diet—they are in a different world to that of tobacco. Therefore the arguments which obtain with regard to the necessity and success of withdrawing tobacco advertising from the media do not obtain to foodstuffs which at times people seem to suggest.

On the more general issues, the question is how to encourage people to recognise that no one substance is detrimental; that the problem is achieving a balanced dietary approach. It is the educative aspects of our society that are important and ensuring that young people recognise that the over-consumption of certain foods is detrimental to their health. The Government can play a more significant role than simply placing restrictions on advertisements, as I indicated earlier, by improving media literacy; by being concerned that we educate our young people so that they have the perspective to make judgments about advertisements and the nature of selling that takes place in the media; but much more importantly, by addressing our minds to the fact that levels of participation in sport and exercise among young people are too low at the present time. They have been declining for a considerable time.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way and apologise for intervening. However, will he please draw his remarks to the attention of his colleague in the education department?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord pre-empts me a little. I was coming on to exactly that point. As a result of a representation of joined-up thinking we currently have an initiative in place which involves the Secretary of State for Education—this must be a matter of great solace to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in the point he makes—and the Secretary of State for Health to tackle obesity in young children. That means we need within our school framework greater opportunities for exercise than obtain at present and aspects of the school curriculum need attention in those terms.

I bear in mind also what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, rightly identified. This involves not just the school curriculum but also the opportunities for participation beyond the normal school day. We are keen to see how far we can extend educational facilities in the post-school hours. The noble Baroness will recognise the considerable efforts made by school governors these days to make their facilities more available, not just for their own students, but also as part of the community facilities. We need to encourage that in every way we can. That is why the Government absolutely insist that if any proposal comes before us with regard to the reduction of playing field opportunities and space, it is to be compensated for in adequate sporting facilities that at least match those which are being withdrawn.

It is a simple fact that we are able to promote exercise and sport much more effectively in modern facilities than we ever could in our school sports fields which spent some months every year under water and in any case could probably only take 22 players over a period of one and a half hours—I speak as a sportsman who toiled away on many wet muddy playing fields and I have a great nostalgia for those days. With indoor facilities we can encourage participation at much greater levels than that.

That needs to be encouraged. It means that schools need to pay greater attention to the question of exercise for young people. To that end the Government are putting £1 billion into sport for young people over the next two years, including 3, 000 more sports coaches, 15, 000 more sports teachers and 2, 000 new facilities.

We recognise that we need to look at the question of calories going in and the way in which calories can be burnt, and my noble friend Lord Rea was keen to emphasise this, although his specific illustration must have chilled almost everyone in this House. When he was talking about the chocolate bar, I thought that he was going to recommend to noble Lords that rather than taking the lift from the Ground Floor to the Principal Floor of the House we should walk up the stairs and burn off the requisite calories. When I discovered that he was talking about a building 600 feet high, I winced. But the evidence he gave was, of course, accurate. It is a lesson to us all that over-indulgence in certain foods is not easily remedied by casual exercise and a slight additional walk of 10or 15 yards, or even 25 stairs or so. It requires a little more than that.

There is no doubt that we need to address the issue of food in schools. Clearly schools have an important role to play, as eating habits are formed early in life. That is why my right honourable friend in the other place, Charles Clarke, is working with the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, to develop an action plan that will set out to make healthy living a crucial part of school life. The Department for Education and Skills joint Food in Schools programme with the Department of Health covers what children learn in the classroom and what they eat during the day. They learn about diet, hygiene, nutrition and the benefits of healthy eating, while our nutritional standards set out what school meals should include.

But for any of this to work, food manufacturers have to think about the role they play and how they promote their goods to children—which, after all, is the burden of the introduction to the debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. As a nation we are rightly concerned about the growing issue of obesity. The Government are determined to take action but, to make a difference, we need food manufacturers and the advertising industry to work with us to ensure a healthier nation.

As my noble friend Lord Gordon indicated, it may be that we cannot lay at the door of the advertising industry the accusation that the success of its persuasive techniques has transformed the dietary patterns of the nation. That is not so. It is the case, however, that food manufacturers would not invest the amount of money that they do in advertising if it was not efficacious to some degree. We want them to play their part in being efficacious in ensuring that we get good messages over to young people. Otherwise, against that background, our society is storing up for itself significant health problems in the future if the levels of obesity continue to develop at their present rate.

The debate has focused overwhelmingly on young people, but let us not, from our rather more advanced and mature stage of life, exculpate ourselves from the situation. There have been one or two frank confessions today that we ourselves are not always mindful of good dietary practice. We all succumb from time to time to the lure of products that do not provide healthy eating but which are hugely delightful to partake of. We all recognise that it is not only children who are becoming more obese. As we broadcast our opinions to the nation with a view to ensuring that there is some degree of response, we should be aware of the lessons that they imply for ourselves. I say nothing against the excellent catering facilities of the House in making such remarks. Far from it. It may be because of their success that over-indulgence takes place from time to time.

I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that we are concerned to improve the quality of media literacy within the framework of the school. We intend to ensure that children are better equipped to meet the challenges of the modern world in that respect. We also recognise that parents need support in these terms.

The noble Lord brings to the debate his obvious commitment to the fact that the family is still by far the most important cultural unit in our society in determining perspectives and attitudes. In this respect, we need look not only at the child but also at the home background from which it comes.

As noble Lords have indicated, sometimes the issue of poor diet is crucially related to a poverty of resources. It is a simple fact that better and more nutritional foodstuffs often are more expensive. That is why we need to look at the issue of poverty in our society and that is why the Government take pride in the fact that we have a programme for an effective challenge to the issue of child poverty. It is to be hoped that we have the basis for improving the diet of young people living under more deprived circumstances.

As I mentioned initially, this country is deservedly regarded as a centre of advertising excellence in terms of quality and the observance of high standards of integrity. It has strict controls over advertising to children. Any further restrictions therefore need to he considered very carefully indeed.

The Food Standard Agency's commissioned review of research into the effects of food promotion has clearly initiated a wide-ranging discussion on the appropriate way forward. It is consulting on the issues and options and we look forward to considering the results in due course. Through this work—the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, produced direct evidence of this—we are able to identify the crucial challenge presented by obesity among young people in our society. It is a challenge to which we need to respond across a range of government departments.

The debate today has taken forward these issues in a substantial way. I hope that I have indicated in response that a number of government departments have recognised the priority of these issues and are committed to pursuing strategies to help tackle them.

6.37 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, when I introduced the debate I said that I was looking forward to hearing your Lordships' contributions. It has been an extremely wide-ranging and interesting debate in which a great many expert suggestions as to the way forward were made. We are not yet on the road towards new legislation but the precautionary principle is definitely out there and needs to be noted.

For me, the most important thing to come out of the debate was a recognition of the need to involve parents. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has been a champion in this area for many years. He is right on every occasion to involve a partnership with parents. In the same way, a partnership between government departments and a partnership with the food industry is also crucial.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I particularly thank the Minister for his wide and comprehensive review and for indicating the Government's commitment in this area. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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