Select Committee on Public Accounts Eighth Report

3  Influencing organisations

17. Apart from the planned obesity social marketing campaign there is no additional funding or any specific set of initiatives aimed directly at child obesity. Instead, the Departments are seeking to tackle the issue through influence over the activities of a wide range of organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors whose work bears on the diet and lifestyle of children. These include NHS primary care trusts, local authorities, schools, children's charities, and sports providers. The four main programmes which will have an impact on child obesity are School Meals, the School Sport Strategy, the Healthy Schools Programme and the Children's Play Initiative (the latter being funded by the Big Lottery Fund).[32]

18. Tackling child obesity at a local level involves many different agencies and bodies, all with different funding streams and performance monitoring arrangements. Local Strategic Partnerships and emerging Local Area Agreements are bringing together different funding streams to tackle issues such as child obesity and have the potential to provide a basis by which agencies can pool resources around agreed priorities.[33] Children's trusts have been established to bring together the wider activities of local authorities and primary care trusts. They are still at an early stage so it remains to be seen how effectively they can bring focus to the work of local agencies to tackle the specific problem of child obesity.[34]

19. The Department for Education and Skills has established new nutritional standards for all school meals (including the food sold through vending machines in schools).[35] Food-based standards for lunches were introduced in September 2006 and nutrient-based standards will be mandatory in all primary and secondary schools by September 2009. In March 2005, the Department made £220 million available to schools and local authorities over a three year period from 2005-06 as transitional money to enable them to meet these new standards. In September 2006 the Department announced that a further £240 million would be made available over the three years from 2008-09. Further investment in school kitchen and dining areas is to come from established capital funding for schools which will rise from the £5.5 billion available in 2006-07 to £8.0 billion by 2010-11.[36] The Department has only limited arrangements in place to assess how well the transitional money is being used by schools and local authorities or how effectively existing capital budgets will be used to improve school food provision.[37]

20. In 2004 there was an overall increase of 11% in the level of sports and activities undertaken by children in England.[38] In 2003-04 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 (including the closure of a number of lidos which provide popular public facilities for families).[39]

21. As part of the Healthy Schools Programme and the School Sport Strategy, there is a target to increase the percentage of school children in England who spend at least two hours each week on physical education and school sport.[40] This was set at 25% in 2002, rising to 75% in 2006 and 85% by 2008. In 2004-05 the Department for Education and Skills reported that 69% of pupils were spending at least two hours or more on sport.[41]

22. In September 2003 the Food Standards Agency published a comprehensive review of research examining the way foods are promoted to children and the possible link between promotional activity and children's eating patterns. The review concluded that advertising to children does have an effect on their preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption.[42]

23. Despite working alongside the food industry for a number of years, the Departments have yet to demonstrate much concrete action to change the way foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar are marketed.[43] Such foods are still marketed at times when children are watching television and some leading retailers have chosen to opt out of the voluntary food labelling scheme promoted by the Food Standards Agency.[44] The Government stated in its White Paper, Choosing Health, that if the industry had not acted appropriately by 2007, it would look to introduce legislation to control the marketing of unhealthy foods.[45] The Departments also recognise that healthiness is becoming a point of competitive advantage within the food industry but have yet to take steps to fully exploit the opportunities that this presents.[46]

24. During May and June 2006 the Office of Communications (Ofcom) ran a consultation on options for new restrictions on the television advertising of food and drink products to children. In a note requested by the Committee following the hearing, Ofcom outlined their attitude and policy towards the advertising of food and drink to children.[47] In particular Ofcom provided details about their consultation on three options for further restrictions on the advertising of food and drink to children. These were:

  • timing restrictions on specific food and drink products;
  • timing restrictions on all food and drink products; and
  • volume based restrictions on all food and drink products.

25. Ofcom did not, however, include in the consultation an option for a total ban on the advertising of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar before 9pm. The decision not to include this option was criticised by a number of bodies, including the Food Standards Agency, the National Consumer Council, Which? and the National Heart Forum.[48]

26. In November 2006 Ofcom announced new restrictions on the television advertising of food and drink products to children. The restrictions include a total ban on advertisements for foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar "in and around programmes of particular appeal to children". The new restrictions will take effect by the end of January 2007. In addition Ofcom have also launched a further consultation to seek views on extending the restrictions to protect all children under the age of sixteen as opposed to just under-9s, which will close by the end of December 2006.[49]

32   C&AG's Report, Tackling Obesity: First Steps, HC (2005-06) 801, Fig. 2, page 13 Back

33   ibid, para 35c, page 21, paras 22-25, pages 15-16 Back

34   ibid Back

35   Q 14; Ev 18 Back

36   Ev 18; The Department for Education and Skills guidance on capital programmes states that priority should be given to improving school food provision through better kitchens and dining areas. Back

37   C&AG's Report, Smarter food procurement in the public sector: Case Studies, HC (2005-06) 963-II, fig. 4, page 6 Back

38   Q 122 Back

39   Q 32 Back

40   C&AG's Report, Tackling Obesity: First Steps, HC (2005-06) 801, fig. 1, page 10 Back

41   Department for Education and Skills, The Results of the 2004/05 School Sport Survey 2005, para 35, page 8  Back

42   Committee of Public Accounts, Forty-fifth Report of Session 2002-03, Protecting public health and consumer interests in relation to food: the Food Standards Agency, HC 708, para 32, page 16 Back

43   Qq 19, 20 Back

44   Qq 19, 153 Back

45   Qq 20, 52 Back

46   Q 20 Back

47   Ev 24-29 Back

48   Qq 49-55, 145-146; Office of Communications, Television Advertising of Food and Drink to Children: Options for new restrictions. Update to Consultation Document of March 28, 2006, 8 June 2006 Back

49   Office of Communications, Television Advertising of Food and Drink Products to Children, Statement and Further Consultation, November 2006 Back

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