Select Committee on Public Accounts Eighth Report

Conclusions and Recommendations

1.  The 2004 Health Survey for England showed an overall rise in obesity amongst children aged 2-10 from 9.9 % in 1995 to 13.4% in 2004. Despite the introduction of a specific PSA target in July 2004 aimed at tackling the growing problem of child obesity, the Departments have been slow to react and have still not published key sections of the Delivery Plan. The Departments need to increase the pace of their response and improve their leadership by, for example, appointing a senior, high profile champion, to lead and galvanise activity.

2.  The three Departments have set up a complex delivery chain for tackling child obesity involving 26 different bodies or groups of bodies. Our predecessors' report on obesity identified confusion over roles and responsibilities both between different departments and others charged with tackling the problem.[2] This confusion still exists. The Departments need to clarify responsibilities throughout the delivery chain and introduce measures to judge the performance and contribution of the respective parties, perhaps similar to those under development for Local Area Agreements.

3.  Parents have not been engaged; the only initiative planned by the Departments that will directly target parents and children is a social marketing campaign which will not be launched until 2007. The campaign should be started as soon as possible. It should present some simple but high profile messages and advice to parents, children and teachers, outlining the risks of obesity and show simple ways in which children can make a difference to their lifestyles: for example, the message that consuming one less chocolate biscuit per day can help lead a child out of obesity (the Departments' own example).

4.  Despite embarking on a national programme to measure children in all primary schools in England the Department of Health is still not clear about whether parents should be informed if their child is overweight or obese. The Departments decided originally that to protect children from stigmatisation and bullying, parents should not be informed. Reflecting the Committee's concerns, however, the Department is now considering how and when parents could be informed. The Department should move quickly to disclose the information in ways that will help parents to address the dietary and exercise needs of their children.

5.  There is a delay of up to two years between the Health Survey for England and publication of results, so Departments do not currently know what progress is being made towards halting the rise in child obesity. The Departments should use the annual data from weighing and measuring in schools as an interim measure of overall performance, determining where most and least progress is being made and using this data to identify factors which contribute to performance.

6.  The Departments' strategy of working alongside the food industry to influence its approach to the marketing of foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar has not been successful in changing the way the majority of unhealthy foods are marketed. The Departments should encourage the growth in the market for healthy food and drink for children. For example, they could introduce an accreditation scheme with readily identifiable badging and publicity material which highlights those companies who are doing most to tackle this issue.

7.  Advertising for food high in fat, salt and sugar accounts for 80-90% of all food advertising on television. In November 2006 the Office of Communications (Ofcom) announced new restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy foods. These include a ban on advertisements for unhealthy foods "in and around all programmes of particular appeal to children". Ofcom should make arrangements with the Departments concerned to monitor and assess the impact of the new restrictions and tighten the restrictions if those now planned are found to be ineffective.

8.  In 2003-2004, 72 new playing fields were created against 52 lost and during the same period 131 swimming pools were opened against the 27 that were closed. Departments have made progress in encouraging children to lead more active lifestyles, but there is scope for better targeting at children's preferences and at localities and social groupings with fewer opportunities. The Departments for Education and Skills and for Culture, Media and Sport should encourage local authorities, schools and other providers to develop more public facilities such as lidos, and identify and prioritise those competitive and other sports and physical activities that children are most likely to take up.

2   Committee of Public Accounts, Ninth Report of Session 2001-02, Department of Health: Tackling Obesity in England, HC 421; C&AG's Report, Tackling Obesity in England, HC (2000-01) 220 Back

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Prepared 25 January 2007