HL Deb 12 July 2004 vol 663 cc1007-9

2.56 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the introduction of the Healthy Start scheme in replacement of the Welfare Food scheme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health: (Lord Warner)

My Lords, we shall begin implementing the Healthy Start scheme as early as possible in 2005 by piloting the new scheme in a single area. In the light of that experience the scheme will be rolled out across Great Britain as soon as possible.

Lord Clement-Jones:

My Lords, I welcome that commitment to beginning the pilot scheme. Indeed, I welcome the Government's extensive consultation on the change from the Welfare Food scheme to the Healthy Start scheme. However, the Minister will be aware that there is considerable concern, particularly in the light of the COMA review which originally considered the Welfare Food scheme, that the current scheme in its current form will not adequately deal with iron and vitamin D deficiency. Does the Minister agree that there is considerable scope for improving the voucher value for the second year of life which would then cover infant formula and follow-on formula and, as in the US, enable food such as eggs, pulses and mineral-rich fortified cereals to be purchased as well?

Lord Warner:

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's commendation of our consultation arrangements. With the advent of the new scheme, which is intended to start as early as possible in 2005, vouchers will be exchangeable for liquid milk, infant formula, which is fortified with iron, fresh fruit and vegetables. We intend at a later stage to make two new supplements available, one suitable for pregnant and breastfeeding women and one for children.

Baroness Cumberlege:

My Lords, I appreciate that there will be a pilot scheme and that one has to see the results of that, but there has been a lot of concern that this scheme is open to fraud. Can the Minister say what measures are being taken to prevent that? Further, there is concern that children who need this formula milk will be denied it at a time when they are developing and when it is particularly crucial for brain development.

Lord Warner:

My Lords, on the second point, as I said, there will be a pilot scheme which will be just that. We shall consider how the scheme is working and learn from it before rolling out the scheme nationally. Antifraud measures will be built into the current scheme. These include anti-fraud devices built into vouchers, mechanisms for reconciliation of vouchers issued against those reimbursed and spot checks on retailers followed by enforcement action where appropriate.

The Countess of Mar:

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it is very important that children get the right nutrients to start with, a healthy start does not necessarily mean a sterile start? It is important that they receive antibodies to build up resistance so that illnesses such as asthma, eczema and various other allergic conditions do not occur. What are Her Majesty's Government doing to encourage parents to ensure that their children are not necessarily brought up in a sterile environment and that they get what my granny used to call a peck of dirt before they die?

Lord Warner:

My Lords, the scheme is designed to expand the range of healthy foods to people previously entitled under the Welfare Food scheme. As I said, supplements will be available. A key feature of the new scheme will be that, when people apply for it, they will be able to access consultation from health professionals.

Earl Howe:

My Lords, could the Minister pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about follow-on formula in the second year of life? There is considerable concern among childcare groups that it is not a feature of the scheme as currently promulgated. Will the department undertake to look again at that?

Lord Warner:

My Lords, we will pilot the scheme on the basis described, and will look at and learn from that pilot.

Lord Clement-Jones:

My Lords, will the Minister consider not only the content of the follow-on formula, but the value of the voucher in the second year, which goes back down to £2.80 for that year?

Lord Warner:

My Lords, we are trying to run the scheme at roughly the same level as the Welfare Food scheme, as was made clear in the legislation. It is a demand-led scheme, and noble Lords know that the voucher will be £2.80, going up to £5.60 for each child up to 12 months.