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Question agreed to.



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Soft Drinks in Schools

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]

5.32 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I thank the House for allowing me the debate. I welcome the current consultations on nutrition and hydration in schools. Like many others, I was shocked by some of the ingredients that are used to feed our children through school dinners and the amount of junk food and drink available during the school day.

I understand and applaud the need to examine closely the drinks and snacks that are available throughout the school day from tuck shops and vending machines, and to ensure where possible that those drinks and snacks are healthy and beneficial. However, I have some serious concerns about the recommendations of the school meals review panel on the drinks that should be allowed in schools and their impact on a company based in my constituency—Waters and Robsons of Morpeth, Northumberland, manufacturers of Abbey Well natural mineral waters.

The school meals review panel recommendations on drinks are that

Waters and Robsons have worked closely with local education authorities to produce a low-calorie drink that has natural flavours, contains no artificial flavours or colours and also contains no sugar. It is sweetened with sucralose, a natural sugar alternative, which has fewer than 5 calories per 250 ml serving.

The company has also developed a new bottle to replace canned soft drinks in vending machines, and it is on the approved list of suppliers to schools in 60 local    authority areas. That will change if the recommendations are accepted and those excellent drinks are banned from schools. How could a perfectly healthy low-calorie product, approved by the Food Standards Agency, find itself on a blacklist when it should be hydrating children and playing an important role in the fight against obesity?

In October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced at the Labour party conference that her Department was launching a new initiative to make school meals available and to ensure that they would be much more healthy. The initiative will have the support of the vast majority of parents and teachers, but to achieve that goal, low-calorie drinks need to be added to the list.

The consultation document, "Turning the Tables", which was published on 3 October, dealt only with school meals but strongly advised that the policy be rolled out for other types of food and drink available throughout the school day. I am worried that the report was rushed out to meet the conference deadline, and was not seen by a number of members of the panel before publication. I cannot believe that all members of the panel agreed that intense sweeteners, which are being promoted by the Food Standards Agency as a healthy choice, are all bad for children.
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The only drink allowed for the purposes of hydration is plain water. While I applaud the promotion of water, I suspect that many children would prefer an alternative. If the only choice is between plain water, full fruit juice, milk or sugar-sweetened dairy drinks, the calories will pile on and children will still feel thirsty.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and on his speech. As someone who has served as a school governor, may I point out that many schools receive valuable income from the drinks machines in their establishments? If the machines could contain healthy drinks, schools' income would be maintained and children would be better off. That would be better than banning the machines altogether.

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that excellent point. I shall refer to that matter later.

I am convinced that a small group of agencies is actively promoting the idea that intense sweeteners are unhealthy, even though there is no evidence to support that. In fact, the opposite would appear to be the case, as the Food Standards Agency is actively promoting them as a healthy option.

The Health Education Trust was represented on the school meals review panel by its chief executive, who I suspect is the main opponent of the use of intense sweeteners. I understand from discussions with Waters and Robson that the HET offers its services to food and drinks producers as a consultant, giving advice on food and drinks that it feels able to endorse as suitable for schools, at a cost of £500 a day, along with £100 per brand endorsement. It also runs a healthy vending project, in which an operator must pay £500 to display the HET endorsement logo, and 5p commission on every vend through the machine.

Interestingly, the HET endorses Volvic Touch of Fruits, which is produced by a French company and contains 11 teaspoons of sugar per litre. By any standards, that is a lot of sugar. Yet the HET told Abbey Well Foods that it would not endorse its product even if it were to reformulate it to a similar profile. When Abbey Well asked to meet the HET in order to try to understand its position, it was informed that it would have to pay the normal consultation fee prior to any such meeting. Will my hon. Friend the Minister examine the make-up of the HET to determine whether there are genuine conflicts of interest among members of the committee?

In order to address some of the problems, the British Soft Drinks Association met the Department for Education and Skills on 23 November. I understand that little progress was made there. The DFES was unable to answer any questions relating to why intense sweeteners were excluded from the proposals, but suggested that it might be because they helped children to develop a sweet tooth. However, they were unable to supply any evidence to support that view, other than anecdotal evidence. The DFES was unable to respond, even when it was explained that the amount of sweeteners could be adjusted to meet any desired level.

The DFES confirmed that a new panel, the school food trust, had been set up to examine rolling out the recommendations to include all food and drink in
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schools, including snacks and the contents of vending machines. I understand that those members of the school meals review panel who were available would be invited to sit on that panel. There are no prizes, therefore, for guessing what their recommendations might be. They are due to report in January after a six-week period, and the main role of gathering the evidence has been allocated to a director of the Compass catering group. Compass has a potentially significant financial stake in the supply of food and drinks products to schools. Perhaps it is not therefore the best choice for the role.

The current proposals appear to rule out all carbonates and still and juice drinks, regardless of calorie or juice content. Many drinks classified as "healthy choice" by the Food Standards Agency in relation to advertising to children would also be banned. Rising concerns about calorie intake and obesity have moved the soft drinks industry into developing products to meet the demand for drinks that have less or no sugar but that continue to provide tasty refreshment and hydration.

Consumers of all ages have responded with great enthusiasm to low-calorie drinks. Consumption of regular sweetened drinks fell from 96 litres per head in 1984 to 84 litres per head in 2004. Over the same period, low-calorie drink and bottled water consumption rose from 10 litres per head to 147 litres per head. In 2004, the share of the soft drink market held by regular sweetened drinks was 27 per cent., while low-calorie drinks had 49 per cent., bottled water had 15 per cent., and fruit juices had 9 per cent. There is a danger, therefore, that if a choice of healthy, tasty, low-calorie products is not allowed in schools, children will vote with their feet and seek potentially unhealthy products from outside school.

In the main report, "Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food", section 10 of the recommendations states:

I support that statement in its entirety. I am not advocating allowing high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt products. Unless we allow a wider range of healthy foods, snacks and drinks, however, more children will be tempted to buy and consume their food and drink outside school. The regulatory impact assessment released with the report recognises that children might react negatively to the proposed changes, resulting, in its own words, in the consumption of unhealthy foods outside school.

I started my speech by applauding the efforts of the Department and I shall conclude in the same way. The initiative is excellent. It is flawed, however, in not allowing a wider range of healthy options to be available throughout the school day. There is nothing wrong with tuck shops and vending machines in schools, provided
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that the school sets the standards for the products available. As the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) mentioned, for many schools it is a useful form of extra income. Sixteen per cent. of two to 15-year-olds in the United Kingdom are obese, and the figure is much higher in some areas. To help fight that rising problem, low-calorie products from an approved list should be allowed.

Will my hon. Friend address the following questions? Will he allow a member of the Food Standards Agency to become a member of the advisory committee? How will he ensure that there is no conflict of interest for anyone sitting on the advisory committee? Will he make public the evidence used by the advisory committee for rejecting any ingredient? I realise, of course, that there are a number of genuine fears about the use of some artificial sweeteners, and it could be an ideal time, when we are considering food and drink in schools, to widen the debate on this issue.

However, the drinks that are currently supplied to 60 local education authorities and manufactured in my constituency are those with which I am concerned today. Abbey Well drinks contain no artificial colours or flavours, are made with natural mineral water and are sweetened with sucralose, which has the same profile as sugar but with only five calories per serving. The average consumption of between 40 and 120 cases a week in each secondary school that the company supplies demonstrates that such products are both popular and beneficial, and I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that they continue to be consumed in schools.

5.44 pm

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