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5 July 2006 : Column 296WH—continued

3.29 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.44 pm

On resuming—

Greg Mulholland: The final issue that I want to raise with the Minister is the advertising of unhealthy food during children’s TV programmes. The Government have not yet decided to ban the advertising of junk food during such programmes, despite evidence that it contributes to the obesity epidemic that costs the NHS billions of pounds a year.

The Food Standards Agency and Ofcom appear to be working at cross-purposes when it comes to such advertising. Ofcom, which has been lobbied by far more food industry representatives than consumer and health groups, supports junk food advertising during children’s TV programmes because, apparently, it pays for new programming, yet the FSA disagrees because of the issues surrounding children’s health. I believe that most of us would agree that that confusing position must be rectified. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on those issues.

This debate has been about a local situation but also a serious national concern. We need a national framework that includes things such as minimum nutritional standards,
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which were touched on by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills). I challenge the Minister to give us his thoughts on that. It would be helpful, without in any way forcing local authorities to do things that they would not otherwise do. That suggestion would also apply in other sectors such as care homes, on which I have campaigned.

Given the positive developments, the Government must put their money where their mouth is—technically, I suppose that they must put their money where our children’s mouths are.

On the situation in Hull, I believe that the Unison representative is right. It is regrettable that that situation is being used as a political football. Instead, we should agree locally and nationally on the importance of better, healthier food for all our children, and we should maintain and perhaps increase the commitment to ensure that less well off children in our society continue to get free school meals. Let us end on a note of agreement and concentrate on that locally and nationally. If followed through with proper funding, that is what will make the biggest difference to children’s health and well-being.

3.47 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing this important debate. Improving the nutritional content of school meals is vital, as childhood obesity is a serious problem. The official Opposition welcome action to improve school meals, and we supported measures in the Education and Inspections Bill that were aimed at achieving that.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s interesting and positive speech about the innovative approach taken to school meals by Kingston upon Hull city council. I was impressed that it has used powers in the Education Act 2002 to innovate, as few authorities or schools have used them. I was also impressed by what she said about the “Eat Well, Do Well” campaign, and I will be interested in the outcome of the evaluation and the conclusions that are drawn from the pilot scheme in Hull.

The Government have promised improvements in school meals for some time. In 1997, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, stated that he was determined to ensure that all children who have school lunches were served good, healthy and enjoyable meals. In 2001, the Government introduced standards for school meals that were based on providing pupils with food from certain food groups on a specified number of days. Despite that, concerns continued when it emerged that average spending on primary school meals dropped to just to 35p per head a day. The Soil Association noted the contrast with the £1.74 per head spent by the Prison Service on food for inmates.

As other hon. Members have said, the controversy culminated with Jamie Oliver’s television series last year. Following it, in March, the Government set out £220 million of new funding grants for 2005-06 to 2007-08 to ensure that local authorities spent 50p per head per day on meals at primary schools, and 60p per head per day at secondary schools.

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The Government also created the School Food Trust and introduced tough minimum nutrient standards, which are to be made compulsory from September 2006. The new standards are to apply to all food served in schools, including, I believe, from vending machines. I hope that the Minister will correct me if that is wrong. We welcome those measures, because we believe that they will play a useful role in improving the health of our children. Ensuring that the food that is served in schools is nutritious is essential. High intake of saturated fat is associated with raised cholesterol and coronary heart disease, and high salt intake can lead to hypertension, which leads to heart disease and stroke. In its report entitled, “Salt and health”, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition stated that it would be inadvisable for children to become used to the levels of salt intake currently habitual for adults.

As we know, increased consumption of products containing added sugar can lead to tooth decay and predispose children to obesity. In 2002, the national diet and nutrition survey found that consumption of added sugar by four to 18-year-olds was higher than the recommended level. The main source of that sugar was carbonated drinks and confectionary—the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) raised those very points in discussing the vending machines in too many of our schools.

The benefits of healthy eating extend beyond the medical. The British Medical Association has suggested that anaemia can account for as much as one grade difference at GCSE, and there are social benefits to be derived from the shared enjoyment of a meal, too. In 2004, France Bellisle, of the Hotel Dieu in Paris, published a paper entitled, “Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children” in the British Journal of Nutrition. He found:

He cited cases where thiamine deficiency was shown to lead to behaviour problems, and noted that that occurred in cases where adolescents’ diets consisted largely of high-calorie junk food. Treatment with thiamine alone resulted in behavioural improvement in patients who had failed to respond to drugs or psychotherapy. Similarly, non-verbal IQ scores rise in children with nutrient deficiency when vitamin supplements are introduced.

In addition to the problems of poor nutrition, many argue that this country faces an obesity epidemic—the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North argued that, and I agree.

Mr. Wills: The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting contribution but, before he moves on, does he agree that, given the evidence that he has cited, the collective provision of a hot school meal is important, particularly for primary school children?

Mr. Gibb: I absolutely agree and will come to that issue in a moment. I have been to Finland and have eaten a hot meal in a Finnish school—it was pasta with a salad, and it was simple, delicious and very healthy. I am not here to make Conservative party policy, just as the Minister will not commit his party to vast amounts of public spending, but I shall be interested to read the
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evaluation of what has happened in Hull. The importance of a hot, healthy meal in the middle of a school day cannot be overstated.

The 2004 joint report by the Royal College of Physicians, the Faculty of Public Health Medicine and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that obesity in two to four-year-old children almost doubled between 1989 and 1998, and that it trebled among six to 15-year-olds between 1990 and 2001. If current trends continue, the report estimated that one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said, the National Obesity Forum has found that children who are obese by their teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50. The National Audit Office estimated that more than 30,000 deaths were attributable to obesity in 1998.

Providing children with a balanced, healthy diet will not completely solve the problems that we face, however. As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, childhood obesity is due as much to children exercising less than in the past as to problems with nutrition. Such provision is, however, an essential first step, although getting food right in schools raises further questions.

We need to address the issue of children leaving school premises during the lunch break to buy fatty fast foods. We also need to address the issue of packed lunches, which other hon. Members raised. One of the unintended consequences of the recent controversy surrounding school dinners has been a marked decline in the number of children taking school meals. According to the Local Authority Caterers Association, the number of pupils opting for school dinners has fallen by 12.5 per cent., which is nearly 400,000 pupils. Kevin McKay of the Local Authority Caterers Association said in May that

I am sure that that is just a transitional issue, but it is concerning.

Concerns have been expressed about the funding of the new nutritional standards, which the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned. The Local Authority Caterers Association has also raised that point, and there are concerns that the wages of catering staff will need to rise if they are to prepare food in line with the new standards. That would mean that more money was needed than the £22 million that has already been announced. Meanwhile, the school meal review panel believes that to meet its standards the cost of ingredients would have to rise to between 70p and 80p per head. That increases the probability of caterers having to introduce higher charges to cover the shortfall, which will affect the take-up of meals.

Then there is the issue of kitchen facilities. According to evidence, one third of new schools are not built with proper kitchen facilities, and many schools that once had kitchens have now converted them into classroom space—there are primary schools in my constituency where that has happened in the past few years. The refurbishment of kitchens is essential to achieve the school meal review panel’s goal that meals be cooked on site. At present, too few schools have such facilities, not to the mention the dining room issue, which other hon. Members mentioned.

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PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the cost of refurbishment to be about £206 million for primary schools, because so many have had their kitchens removed, and £83 million for secondary schools. The Government are achieving that by making the refurbishment or construction of new kitchens a priority, through the “Building schools for the future” programme. However, there is no “Building schools for the future” for primary schools, so it is unclear which mechanism will be used to ensure that funding is channelled to where it is needed. Perhaps the Minister in his response could indicate how many kitchens still need to be built, and within what time scale he expects that to be completed.

Another issue that has been raised is local procurement. The inclusion of organic, local produce in school meals is one of the aims of the Soil Association’s “Food for life” campaign. The school meal review panel suggested that food should be sourced from local suppliers. The regulatory impact assessment for the Education and Inspections Bill—those of us who sat on the Committee and considered it for several weeks will know it backwards—stated that

Interestingly, it continued:

The regulatory impact assessment also cited Oxfordshire, where using local suppliers resulted in a 20 per cent. reduction in the cost of food and a 69 per cent. reduction in weekly food miles. There is concern, however, that European Union procurement rules would prevent local authorities from sourcing food in that manner, as they preclude authorities from specifying local produce. A Government response to that point would be helpful, too.

We on the Conservative Benches fully share the Government’s objectives on school meals. Better nutrition means better long-term health, better behaviour and higher standards of educational attainment.

3.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall, and to make my debut in an Adjournment debate. I also extend hearty congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing such an important and topical debate.

I have listened to hon. Members’ views with great interest and I am glad that, whatever our differences—there are some small differences in emphasis in some areas—we all agree that childhood obesity is a matter of the utmost importance. The growth in obesity is an international problem, and this country is far from immune. The increasing prevalence of overweight children in England is among the worst in Europe. However, we are also the only country that has set itself
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a public target of halting the rise in childhood obesity, which we have pledged to do by 2010, within the public service agreement target.

There is a wealth of evidence to illustrate the scale of the problem. Twenty-two per cent. of men and 23 per cent. of women in England are obese. The figures have trebled since the 1980s. Sixty-five per cent. of men and 56 per cent. of women—24 million adults—are overweight or obese. Obesity rates among children aged two to 10 are rising fast. They rose from 9.9 per cent. in 1995 to 14.3 per cent. in 2004, and they are rising fastest among eight to 10-year-olds. Recent studies show that more than 30 per cent. of boys and 31 per cent. of girls aged two to 15 are overweight or obese.

The debate is therefore topical and important for our times. We are all aware that being overweight can lead to stigmatisation, including bullying, by childhood peers, but overweight and obese children can also suffer depression, poor social functioning, social exclusion and lower academic achievement. Those problems can easily continue into adulthood. In 2001, the National Audit Office estimated that obesity led to 9,000 premature deaths a year.

Just as there are many adverse consequences of obesity, the problem has many causes. At one level, obesity is a simple problem: it results from an imbalance between energy consumed and energy expended. However, at the heart of the problem has been a profound change in the way in which we and our children live our lives. We value the material improvements in ordinary life over the past two generations, but just as convenience lifestyles lead us to consume more calories, so they lead us to using fewer calories along the way.

We have more cars, televisions, computers and labour-saving devices at home and at work than ever before. The new technologies of home and the workplace ensure that we expend less physical effort on getting our work done. There is virtually no activity that cannot be done faster, easier and with less effort than was required 20, 10 or even just five years ago. We ride more and walk or cycle less. Many more children are driven to and from school today than was ever the case before. We and our children spend more of our leisure time sitting watching TV, on games consoles and using the internet, and less time in physical play. Children spend less time in unsupervised outdoor play today than they did in the past. Until we took action to reverse the trend, there had been a decline in the amount of sport and physical education that children took part in at school—activity that is now very much on the increase again.

Those factors are bound up with the profound changes that we have experienced in the economy and society at large, but they do not tell the whole story on obesity. There are unique factors for every individual, and several factors are likely to be at work at the same time. One factor is physiological characteristics. We do not all use calories at the same rate; we all have slightly different metabolic rates. There are psychological characteristics: we each have different attitudes to food, exercise and lifestyle. There are environmental factors, such as family lifestyle. As children, we are very much influenced by our parents’ diet and behaviour, and
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socio-economic status. Children who have two overweight parents are six times more likely to be overweight than other children.

The debate is about obesity and school food. I do not deny that what children eat at school is a major part of the issue, but it cannot be the only part of our strategy for tackling childhood obesity—it is not the only club in our bag. As we have discovered throughout the debate, there is no single simple cure for obesity. Preventing obesity is much easier than treating it. Prevention involves introducing the right eating and lifestyle habits in early childhood. Good nutrition and physical activity are essential for a developing child and are fundamental to energy balance and weight control. Families need to be educated and empowered through guidance that recognises the effects of poor eating and activity habits on their children’s health.

The complex, multi-factorial nature of obesity is the reason why our strategy to tackle childhood obesity is shared across the Government. Our PSA target to halt the year-on-year rise in obesity in children under the age of 11 by 2010 is led by the Department of Health, but is a shared responsibility with the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government. That cross-departmental approach is essential to ensure that we have the widest possible engagement with the issue and that we join our resources and actions to halt the childhood obesity epidemic by working across many fronts simultaneously.

The issue also involves antenatal and postnatal services and Sure Start, which my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned. Sure Start and children’s centres are important in getting children off to a healthy start in life, not least by establishing patterns of healthy eating and exercise as a foundation for the future. Parents and parents-to-be are being made aware of the crucial role that they play in determining the health and well-being of their child. Children’s centres have practice guidance that includes ideas on combating obesity. Those ideas will be further developed when the practice guidance is updated later this year.

Our aim is that by 2009 all schools will have healthy school status and be focusing on healthy eating, PE, sport, emotional health and well-being and personal, social and health education. The healthy school initiative has been hugely popular with schools. Three-quarters of schools have started working towards healthy school status on a voluntary basis.

Full-service extended schools are expanding the provision of health and fitness activities outside normal school hours for pupils, their families and the whole community. That can mean opening sports halls and playing fields to wider use, running fitness clubs, cookery skills courses and food co-ops to encourage healthy eating, with services tailored to the demands and needs of local communities. We have also come a long way in a relatively short time on play, with the Big Lottery Fund’s £155 million strategic play programme.

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