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Children's Food Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.37 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill seeks to provide a legal framework for the regulation of children's food. It covers the marketing of food and the provision of food in schools. It takes account of the skills that children need in order to make good decisions about diet and health, and requests the Government to accept a new duty to promote healthy food to children.

I cannot claim to be the inventor of the Children's Food Bill. There has been a long campaign, organised by Sustain, on behalf of more than 150 organisations. They care about children, food, children's health and our common future. I welcome the support of Unison, the GMB, the National Union of Teachers and the Communication Workers Union, and that of the Co-operative Group, the British Medical Association and the British Heart Foundation in particular.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is always very impressive when a list of supporters of that kind is read out, but what assessment has the hon. Lady made of the extent of support from her parliamentary colleagues—of the 350 or so Labour Members, either those who are present now or those who, in the event of a Division, may vote for the Bill?

Mary Creagh: More than 250 Members from all parties in the House have signed an early-day motion that I tabled on the subject. I think that that indicates the level of support for the Bill.

The Bill was first tabled in 2004 by Debra Shipley, the former Labour Member for Stourbridge. Jamie Oliver's "Feed me better" campaign caught the public mood in the spring, and raised awareness of the quality of school meals. I feel that I am carrying a torch that others have lit. Returning to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I thank the hon. Members for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for their support and sponsorship, and for making this a cross-party Bill.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends and to Members in all parts of the House who have been so generous in sharing with me their wisdom and experience in supporting this Bill's passage.

Children and food—those are two very emotive words. What should we feed our children and what are we feeding our children? Those are two questions with very different answers. Obesity is a growing problem in the UK, especially among children. Government figures for 2002 show that 30 per cent. of children aged two to 15 are obese or overweight.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that as part of the wider debate and in order to influence behaviour, we need to examine how children themselves view food and their relationship
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with it? A recent study in south Wales shows not only a rise in child obesity but a significant change in the rate of obesity in girls, compared with boys.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for raising the serious issue of the difference in obesity levels among boys and girls. The level is considerably higher among girls and there are many possible reasons on which we could speculate, such as girls' attitudes to sport—particularly team sport—and their body image and self-awareness. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are affecting young women's growth and fertility, and their reproductive ability in later life. I agree that this issue needs to be looked at.

If childhood obesity continues at its current rate, more than half of children will be overweight or obese by 2020. The links between poor diet and chronic disease are well known. If we do not deal with this problem, for the first time ever, mothers of my generation may have a longer life expectancy than their children. So we need to take action.

The Children's Food Bill has six clauses and five main provisions, and I am absolutely delighted that the Government have agreed to two parts of it. This is truly wonderful news and a great victory for the Bill. Tuesday's schools White Paper promised to introduce minimum nutritional standards for all school meals and a ban on junk food in school vending machines. That is a real victory for the organisations, parents, teachers, school dinner ladies, celebrity chefs and parliamentarians who have campaigned long and hard on this issue.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that it was very important that the White Paper gave that commitment, because it is clear that the educational achievement of children—particularly those from disadvantaged homes—is adversely affected by poor nutrition? The hot meals provided at school may be their only hot meal until they get home in the evening.

Mary Creagh: That is indeed an important issue. Since working on the Bill, I have heard about the various difficulties that disadvantaged children face throughout the country. Sadly, we know that for many such children, the school meal is the only hot meal that they will get all day. A child's ability to learn will not be helped by consuming crisps and fizzy drinks, rather than something nourishing and sustaining. I welcome the fact that the new schools being built will have proper kitchens; staff should not simply be reheating food that has been cooked elsewhere.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that there were national nutritional standards until 1980, when I lobbied this House against the then Conservative Government's removing them? At that time, substantial and nutritional meals were provided. In fact, school meals were first introduced after the Boer war, because when our soldiers came back they were regarded as rather puny. So this issue has been known about for a long time, and we are in part reverting to previous practice—with, hopefully, future improvements.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting contribution. A class divide still exists
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between the physical development of children from poorer backgrounds and those from better-off backgrounds. In many ways, we are turning the clock back to provisions that were in place in the 1970s and 1980s, but which have now disappeared.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Hull city council, which has introduced free, healthy school meals in all its primary schools? One school in particular has seen a take-up of 98 per cent. Already, teachers are commenting on the educational achievements that have followed from the good nutrition of those children. Breakfasts and after-school refreshments are available as well as the healthy school meal lunches.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Her example of what Hull city council is doing is one of the most radical and exciting examples of a local authority using its powers to address chronic ill health in its community. It is crucial for us to carry on those initiatives because where everyone has a free school meal, it takes the stigma out of having school dinners. Everyone eats together and children also learn about how to talk to each other across a school dinner table, which is very important.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I welcome the principles behind the Bill. Picking up on the previous intervention, does the hon. Lady recognise that not only local authorities, but individual schools can introduce healthy school meals. St. Birinus school in Didcot has a healthy school meals menu that details all the benefits. Does the hon. Lady also agree that healthy food, including food bought from local producers, need not be any more expensive than food purchased through a contract with a central catering company? Does she accept that we in south Oxfordshire and the vale are disappointed that, under the healthy schools initiative, the Government have given a school such as St. Birinus, which has achieved so much, only £1.50 a week in additional funding to help with its healthy school meals?

Mary Creagh: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of local and sustainable produce. Many schools across Yorkshire and in my Wakefield constituency are trying to emulate that example. In one school, the head chef makes such delicious meals that they are outsourcing her and using the school hall for weddings, baptisms, christenings and so forth. That school, in the Morley and Rothwell constituency, made £40,000 and bought a school minibus, largely on the basis of the head chef's efforts and hard work. It is a tremendous achievement.

We should be saying that it is not just a matter of school dinners; we should be producing food that we all want to eat. When we go into the Members' Tea Room, we are not offered only burgers, chips and pizza—[Interruption.] Okay, there is the all-day breakfast, in which some of us were indulging only this morning. However, what is good enough for us should be good enough for our children.

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