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19 Jun 2007 : Column 412WH—continued

The World Health Organisation report did not directly link sugar with weight gain, but did suggest that a high
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intake of free sugars in soft drinks possibly promotes weight gain; I made that point earlier. The physiological effect of energy intake on satiation and satiety from sugar in fluids was found to be different from that from sugar in solids. Sugar in fluids was found to be less well detected by the body, leading to incomplete compensation of energy at subsequent meals.

A systematic review of sugar-sweetened drinks, weight gain and obesity, published by Malik et al. in 2006, has also been helpful. It assessed 30 studies and concluded that, in general, greater consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with weight gain and obesity. However, several of the epidemiological studies reviewed had inherent problems, including small sample size and short follow-up, and were confounded by other dietary factors.

With the possible exception of some fruit juices, sugar-sweetened drinks provide little nutritional benefit, and their consumption should be discouraged in favour of healthier options such as water and milk. We need to take greater note of the emerging evidence as the strategy and debate continue.

Dr. Murrison: The Minister has just cited advice from experts about milk. What are we to make of the fact that, according to nutrient profiling, milk would get a red light under the traffic light system. What are we to do about that?

Mr. Lewis: We have to consider the evidence that is emerging. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said, there can be inconsistencies and unintended consequences. We need to try to align policy and strategy and ensure that they are based on evidence. All the time we are collecting more and more evidence that will influence, shape and refocus policy. That is the only answer that I can give the hon. Gentleman at this stage.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) mentioned his concern about teenagers, and that is important. Obviously, we share a responsibility with parents, schools, role models and others for the influences on teenagers. The hon. Gentleman also rightly referred to the importance of exercise. We live in a society of the internet and iPods; many activities in which young people want to participate do not necessarily involve exercise. Young people’s behaviour, attitudes and how they choose to spend their leisure lives are changing. We need to consider the implications and impact of that and make sure that there are other influences.

The issue is often about making a direct link between what teenagers care about and aspire to and their behaviour. If we simply hector and lecture young people about why exercise and healthy eating are good, it is unlikely that we will get through to many of them. If we make the link between young people’s ambitions, aspirations and hopes for their lives and the potential damage that obesity and excess weight can cause them, we are more likely to make progress.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of advertising in cinemas, magazines and the internet. The rules announced—in April, I think—will apply to all food and drink, except fruit and vegetables, and they will come into effect on 1 July; he wanted a specific answer
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on that. As a Department, we will monitor their impact with reference to Ofcom rules.

Norman Lamb: Will the Minister clarify whether that will apply to the whole range—cinema, internet, magazines and so on?

Mr. Lewis: Yes, I can confirm that.

I move on to the comments made by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who seems to blame the European Union for obesity. It seems that the lunatics remain in charge of the asylum—the faces may be new and smiling, but the same ideological lunacy remains, with the belief that the European Union is somehow evil and responsible for the obesity problems of our society and our world.

I shall try to take the hon. Gentleman’s other points a little more seriously. He asked about “Choosing Activity”, and I shall update him on that. By January 2007, 57 of the 99 commitments set out in the plan had been achieved. For example, every school in England is now part of a school sports partnership, and 80 per cent. of pupils now take part in at least two hours of high-quality physical education and sport a week. As I said, that exceeds the 75 per cent. target that we originally set. The Government are clear that the root cause of obesity is calories in and calories out; the hon. Gentleman himself mentioned that in his speech. We have a comprehensive strategy on physical activity and diet. There is good evidence that “Choosing Activity” is beginning to make a real difference.

Dr. Murrison: With all due respect, the Minister has made some silly and fatuous statements in this debate; this is his chance to redeem himself. He will, of course, be aware of the Plymouth EarlyBird programme and the Bristol university cross-sectional study on obesity—at least, I hope that he is. How does he reconcile those with the school sport strategy, which, I assume, will be updated or reviewed to incorporate that research? If my assumption is correct, will the Minister outline how that will be taken forward?

Mr. Lewis: Of course we will take account of that research and consider its implications for the school sport strategy. Most people would say that we are making significant progress on changing the culture around school sports. There was a period in our history as a country when competitive sports, certainly in the state system, were downgraded and not encouraged. We had a problem with teachers’ ability and willingness to work outside the school day, but we are seeing a significant step change. Extended schools will make a tremendous difference to the range of opportunities for children and young people to participate in sporting activities and a whole range of extra-curricular activities that have been taken for granted in the private sector through the generations. Of course we will reflect on the implications of those studies, but we are firm on the benefits and progress of the school sport strategy.

The hon. Gentleman referred to dehydration. The FSA has not undertaken a specific research project on the issue, but other evidence supports the notion that hydration is important for good health and concentration. We do not have hard evidence on that, but the anecdotal
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evidence is there. The hon. Gentleman raised the school fruit and vegetable scheme. He said that it cost £77 million, but it actually cost about £38 million. The first evaluation showed that children on the scheme increased their consumption, but that that dropped off when they left the scheme. Further evaluation is to be published by the end of this month, and at this stage the Government have no plans to change the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman, as well as other hon. Members, raised the question of artificial sweeteners. The Government recognise that low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame have the potential to help to reduce some people’s energy intake, particularly if the food or drink that contains them replaces products that contain sugar. That is a clear position. Did the hon. Gentleman want any further clarification?

Dr. Murrison indicated dissent.

Mr. Lewis: Clearly not.

We have evidence that we have a robust national strategy. We also have evidence that the issue is incredibly difficult to tackle effectively. It will require a long-term sustained commitment from all stakeholders. There needs to be an acceptance that, although the Government have major responsibilities, so do the private sector and families, as well as the community through the status that it gives the issue and the importance that it places on it. There is no doubt that obesity undermines individuals’ quality of life, length of life and life chances. There is no doubt that it places massive pressure on our public services. Equally, it undermines our economy in a global era when we need the full talents of all our citizens to be used to maximum potential if we are to compete with the Indias and Chinas of this world. Obesity should not be seen as a stand-alone or marginal issue. It is right at the heart of social and economic policy and of the health and well-being of individuals and our population. We have done a lot, but there is still a long way to go.

12.22 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Village Halls

12.26 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to press a little subject about which I have been nagging for some time.

It is my contention that the Government overtax us and, in particular, that they over-regulate our everyday way of life. However, today I am considering rural villages and specifically village halls. The White Paper of April 2000, on which the Licensing Act 2003 is based, sounded quite hopeful. It started with a few interesting points. It stated that the key aims of the proposals were

The White Paper also set out

That was too good to be true.

Geographically, I have the largest Surrey constituency. It is predominantly rural, with two market towns and about 32 villages. Under this Government, many of them feel under threat. Although they are not far from major roads, many are reclusive and some even feel remote. All have telephones and electricity except during some storms, when the supply may be disrupted. Not all of them have the internet, and many do not have broadband. Perhaps it is a virtue, but a number are so situated that even mobile phones cannot be used. Most have post offices, village stores, delightful pubs—after the last debate, perhaps we ought to re-emphasise the presence of gastro-pubs—and village halls. Some also have small village sports grounds, such as cricket clubs, bowls clubs and so forth, that have halls attached.

The halls are almost all, if not all, run as charities, and they are used for village functions by the village repertory society and local dancers, and for birthday parties, wedding functions, photographic society showings and so on. Many, if not all, of those events—except perhaps for the children’s parties—provide bars, or at least they used to. Two of the halls are substantial in size, and are sufficiently large to employ caretakers. All of them, including those large halls, are run by a volunteer committee, generally a local residents’ or village association. Most are small and some are tiny. Some are so small that one could fit three on to the floor of this Chamber. Some are close to homes in the village, many are more remote and at least one is up a long narrow lane and in the clearing of a small forest. That is hardly an area where there is going to be a riot.

Not one village hall in my constituency is renowned for crime, disorder or drunkenness. If they are known to the police, it is generally because the policemen and women live in those villages and use the facility as members of the village community. The halls are a functional part of the village communities, which should have welcomed the sweet sound of

However, the effect of the wretched 2003 Act on village halls has been a nightmare for the local people who manage them. They volunteer to do so for the sake of the village. They do not expect a bureaucratic nightmare of plans, forms and teachings on legislation.
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The halls are run on the traditional shoestring, and money is raised for their operation by hiring them out to village groups, which in turn make a tiny profit on nibbles, cakes, wine and so forth sold at their functions. Added to that, on many occasions the Act creates the problem of finding some poor soul who has to agree to be the responsible individual or designated licence holder for the hall. There is the problem, too, of the annual restriction of 12 temporary event notices. As the halls have found, a TEN can be obtained without giving notice to the hall committee, thus depleting that already meagre dozen.

Then there is the cost of notices in the local papers, of licences, of TENs and of plans. Understandably, that cost is substantial for larger halls, but the relative cost for tiny halls is huge. I remind the Minister of a quotation from the website of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport:

That applies even to tiny halls.

I hope that the Minister can picture a small group of perhaps three villagers sitting in a tiny hall, maybe 15 ft by 30 ft, with a loo at one end and a kitchen sink at the other. It has two external doors and even a coat rack. The people running the hall have to follow those regulations, obtaining competent scale drawings at some cost, filling in pages of forms and paying fees, all for a system that is likely to reduce the use of their tiny little village hall. What would happen if they were to change the layout and put the kitchen sink at the end where the loo is and vice versa, or any such tiny thing? Would there be more drawings and more cost?

When the Licensing Act came into force in 2005, I surveyed all my village halls by sending them a questionnaire, and I did so again this year. In 2005, there were vigorous complaints, especially from the smaller halls, about the cost, bureaucracy and time wasted, and the fact that there were not enough TENs. Mostly they asked, “Why?” and “Why us?” Hon. Members, including myself, asked questions in the House, in sessions held by the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and in Westminster Hall. I asked the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), whether he would receive a small deputation to explain the problems. He agreed, and with a considerable amount of to-ing and
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fro-ing a time was set, then cancelled. I tried again on several other occasions, but it never happened and he moved on.

The present Minister and others, from the Prime Minister right the way down, have agreed to examine the problem in the past few years. They told us that there will soon be a review, but there is no sign of one so far. Interestingly, my recent survey showed that the changes have not been straightforward, thus confirming my suspicions about bureaucracy and cost. A tiny hall, for example, was given a quote of £766 for a registration certificate and £180 for annual renewal, against the £10 that it previously paid every 10 years. There are fewer functions at the hall because it has only 12 TENs, which cost £21 each. Its representatives have told me that they have restricted the number of hirings and either have to find ways to accommodate alcohol or have to refuse to allow even the odd glass of wine.

If the law is used with a light touch, people happily comply with it. If it is heavy-handed, people find ways around it. They are doing so, and have contrived ways around the legislation to try to keep their halls alive. Alcohol is paid for indirectly, and plans are published, not in the paper, which has to be paid for, but in the free parish magazine, which would probably be seen by more people. As one nameless returnee of the form replied:

As I have asked the Minister before, will he consider dramatic changes in his review? Perhaps that means freeing small halls from the requirements of the legislation by specifying a reasonable de minimis size, or freeing the charities that run halls. There could be a safety net so that if there is aggravation or problems the police or local council could bring the hall back into the network. The licensing committee could step in. Will the Minister consider dramatically increasing the number of TENs? Allowing 12 is derisory; there should be 30, 40, 50 or more, even for little halls. In addition, will he—I remember being a Minister and doing this myself—collect a copy of all the forms, sit down quietly with a glass of wine as he is not covered by TENs, go through them, see how unnecessarily complex and wordy they are and consider whether he can reduce their size and complexity? Above all, will he, unlike his predecessor, come out of his inner-city surroundings and meet some of the villagers affected and the people who run the halls, perhaps in the tiny halls themselves, and see what damage the Act is doing to village life and the communities that use them?

12.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing the debate. He may self-deprecatingly refer to himself as having nagged on about it, and he may be good at nagging, but he does it for an honourable reason. I hope that I can deal with some of the things that he raised, and I wish to put on the record the fact that there are genuine issues that we need to continue to examine and, when appropriate, revise.

The things that can affect rural villages and village halls are serious, as they are important parts of our
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community. It will be helpful if I say at the outset that the Government’s objective is to make life better for people, not otherwise. I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s points, and I will try to deal with some of them. Some will remain outstanding, and I am sure that at the end of the debate there will still be some disagreement, but I am always happy to enter into dialogue. I represent a constituency that can hardly be described as inner city in the London sense, and St. Helens does have some of the problems that he raised. I have also had the opportunity to examine the matter in my former constituency of Witney, where I happened to be for part of this weekend.

While I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes his points, he did not give an entirely balanced picture. It is none the less the picture that he perceives, which is why I want to deal with some of his points. I would of course be happy to come and join him, whether over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and examine in practice the problems that he has raised. I would also be happy for him to bring to me a delegation of people who have had difficulties with the forms. Without prejudice, I would be happy to sit down and discuss the problems that groups are facing. It is not the wish of the Government to make people’s lives more difficult. The implicit and explicit purpose of the 2003 Act was to modernise and produce a 21st-century system of regulation. I hope that that is what we are doing, but there is more work to be done.

It might help if I remind hon. Members of the objectives for licensing village and community halls. We wanted to introduce a system that encouraged village halls—including the small and tiny ones that the hon. Gentleman referred to—and similar premises to offer a wide range of activities under a single licence, but it had to be balanced with the need to ensure proper protection of the public. Safety, public nuisance, crime and disorder, and the protection of children had to be taken into account.

There was general agreement that the old regime was no longer perfect for village and community halls. They had to apply for separate licences if they wished to allow alcohol sales, music and dancing, or films and plays. Committees had additional form-filling to renew the licences every year or every three years, and separate fees, which could run into many hundreds of pounds, were payable for most of the licences. Furthermore, disproportionate standard conditions that were more suited to a large nightclub than a village hall were often applied. The old system was not perfect.

Sometimes when we have these discussions one could be forgiven for thinking that somehow the Government had departed from a perfect system and produced something completely different that was not workable. The old system did not work, and it was absolutely right that we changed it.

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