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29 Jan 2003 : Column 937—continued

Geraint Davies: I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that schools should reduce the amount of salt and fat-impregnated food on offer and should not have coca-cola machines, and that the Government should think seriously about the possibility of not allowing advertising in the middle of children's programming to induce children to get hooked on salt and fat-impregnated processed food?

Mr. Steinberg: I am always delighted to give way to my hon. Friend. I wondered whether he had written my speech for me, as I shall come to those topics in a few moments. If he will bide with me, he will get the answer.

The increase in fast-food intake, coupled with the huge decline in physical activity, is the main reason why children are becoming fatter. Sport England recently produced some statistics showing that the proportion of young people who spend two or more hours a week in curricular sport decreased from about 46 per cent. in 1994 to 33 per cent. in 1999. In the same period, the number of 17-year-olds walking to school fell from 59 per cent. to 49 per cent. Senior pupils have no excuse for not walking to school. They cannot be worried about what will happen on the way there. The reason is simply pure laziness, which means that they get lifts instead. Indeed, car journeys have doubled over the same period. One of the most frightening increases, however, has occurred in the number of hours spent watching television. The figure rose from about 13 hours a week in the 1960s to 26 hours a week in the 1990s. I suspect that any new research would find that much more time is spent in front of a screen, bearing in mind the development of computer games and so on.

Those powerful statistics demonstrate a reduction in physical activity, but investment in sport and other physical activity has not declined. In the past 15 years, five sports centres have been built in my constituency. People cannot blame a lack of facilities for doing less exercise. I suspect that the problem is that we make too many excuses and that the population is merely becoming lazy. We are lazy in our eating habits—it is very easy to buy something from McDonald's or to fry our food—and our exercise.

Mr. Alan Williams: My hon. Friend is making some interesting comments. I was lucky enough to attend a conference in the United States, which has an even worse child obesity problem than ours, where child psychologists said that children as young as two were now developing brand preference. That is why there are so many jolly little jingles and plastic giveaway toys. Children who do not even know what they are telling their mums and dads that they want are being indoctrinated into brand preference and their parents will unthinkingly give them what they want.

Mr. Steinberg: My right hon. Friend is right. I visited America a number of years ago. The amount of food

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served there—especially meat—was, frankly, disgusting. One could not eat it all. If people eat in that way, it is not surprising that they are getting fat. He is right that television and advertisements are dictating the way in which people lead their lives.

The Government need to take some tough decisions to ensure that lifestyles change. On the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies), I believe that every schoolchild should have at least two hours a week of timetabled and compulsory physical education. On his specific question, schools should be allowed to serve only healthy meals. There should be no chips or crisps. Manufacturers of unhealthy food should be banned from having any involvement with schools. Companies such as McDonald's, Walkers, Pepsi and Coca-Cola should not be allowed to give sponsorship to schools. We should not allow them to have any involvement with schools, let alone through sponsorship.

We could also ban cars from towns, which would make people walk a little more. Car parking should be banned outside schools and moved to, say, a quarter of a mile away. We should make kids walk to school if they have people who can accompany them. I know that those proposals are radical, but there is a reason why: our kids are eating the wrong foods, getting no exercise and suffering the consequences. Such measures need to be taken very seriously, because we are, frankly, killing ourselves.

The second issue that I want to raise is completely different, although it again relates to waste, value for money and even fraud in some cases. The operation and winding up of the Teesside development corporation relates to my area in the north of England. I know that this issue has been mentioned already, but I want to go into it in a little more detail. The TDC, which was the largest corporation of its kind, was set up in 1987 and wound up in 1998. It received some £354 million-worth of grants and generated income of about £116 million.

The usefulness of Members of Parliament is shown by the fact that this particular investigation was initiated by local MPs, who complained to the National Audit Office. They had worries about the corporation's operations, but they had gained little satisfaction from the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. As it proved, their worries were fully justified. The NAO's report clearly showed that, from an early date, the DETR and the regional government office in the north had had severe doubts about the TDC's financial probity and working, but had done very little about it. The report was highly critical of the lack of control and involvement of board members. They existed but were not used, and they appeared to take no interest in the running of the corporation. They sat back while some horrendous things went on.

The chief executive managed the TDC as a one-man band and was a complete law unto himself. On numerous occasions, he personally handled controversial property deals without the board's approval or even knowledge. In the main, his financial director was not invited to board meetings, even when financial items were being discussed. How on earth that could happen God only knows, but it did. The chief executive ignored and overrode DETR cautions and warnings. The NAO investigated many cases. In two of

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them, the corporation had re-acquired sites from prospective developers for the original sum paid plus £1.6 million, even though none of the developments had actually taken place. In other words, £1.6 million of taxpayers' money was just given away to developers, in return for nothing other than getting the sites back.

The chief executive flouted the TDC's guidebook and his responsibilities as an accounting officer, and he ignored Treasury guidelines for accounting officers. That led to financial losses on transactions of some £11 million. He believed that his actions were justified because his primary role was to foster regeneration, by entrepreneurial means, with the private sector. However, he went far beyond what could be regarded as acceptable, and in doing so he abused his position, knowing full well that, at the end of the day, the taxpayer or the Government would bail him out if anything went wrong. He spent money that had not been approved by Parliament, and in the process he lost the taxpayer millions of pounds.

To make matters worse, when the NAO investigated the TDC, it was unable to find key information such as marketing and disposal files and contract files with developers, which, as we learned, had been shredded. In my view and that of many other Members, the very fact that those documents were missing and had been deliberately shredded shows that the NAO had discovered only the tip of the iceberg.

The worrying aspect of this case was that the then DETR clearly knew that something was not right about that corporation. For more than two years, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) had tabled parliamentary questions that made specific and general allegations. The same Member met the relevant Minister, and an internal investigation took place. However, it concluded that limited evidence had been found, and that there was little point in investigating what was possibly maladminstration. In my view, nothing was done simply because the DETR knew that it would otherwise disturb a can of worms, and all hell would break loose. The NAO's later investigation did indeed discover a can of worms.

Thus I am very critical of what was, in essence, a failure on the part of the then DETR. In failing, it also failed the taxpayer.

Mr. Bacon: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech. Does the fact that the permanent secretary who was in charge at the time is now in charge of social security give the hon. Gentleman any cause for concern?

Mr. Steinberg: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on that, except to say that I hope that that permanent secretary's record is a little better in social security than it was in dealing with the fraud that I mention. I had better not go down that line because I seem to remember that that permanent secretary said—what was it again? Perhaps I should not go into that any further. I am sure that, if I did, you would be very cross, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I do not want that to happen.

When the corporation was wound up in 1998, it estimated that it had left a surplus of about £14.5 million. Again, after investigation, it became

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clear that there was no surplus at all. In fact, there was a deficit of about £23 million, but that could rise even further to as much as £40 million—a sorry state of affairs and, again, the taxpayer has had to pick up the bill.

The final report that I want to comment on is about the handling of medical negligence claims in England. The costs to the taxpayer are entirely different from those of obesity or the Teesside development corporation. I am trying to show that public money can be wasted in a number of different ways. By March 2000, provision to meet likely settlements for medical negligence was £2.6 billion and claims expected to arise from incidents that had occurred but had not been reported were estimated at a further £1.3 billion. Thus a total of £3.9 billion in medical negligence claims is expected. That is staggering. How many hospitals could be built with £3.9 billion, making such claims unnecessary because the hospitals would be in better condition?


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