Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Jan 2008 : Column 1498

The Prime Minister: In China, I was able to say that the marine centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency has very strong links with that country. We will do what we can to sign more agreements with China on scientific co-operation. My hon. Friend understands that under this Government the science budget has doubled. Science has never been better financed. That would not have happened under the policies of the Opposition. We will continue to support the science and technology of Britain.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): When the Prime Minister was in China, did he receive assurances that British journalists could visit Tibet, which is currently occupied by China?

The Prime Minister: On my visit to China, I made it clear to the Chinese Government that we believed that journalists should not only be free to move within China, but free to interview people during the Olympic games. I hope that the offer that the Chinese authorities have made will be sustained after the Olympics, and I hope that international pressure will back up our efforts to ensure that journalists have the right of free movement.

23 Jan 2008 : Column 1499


12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): The first ever cross-government strategy to tackle obesity is being published today. The House last discussed this subject in October, when the then chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, and his foresight team published the report “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices”—the result of two years’ work by some of our most eminent scientists and academics, seeking to determine how we can deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years.

I shall just remind the House of the challenges identified in that report. Foresight said that with 23 per cent. of men, 24 per cent. of women and 18 per cent. of children clinically obese, and with no expectation of any spontaneous reversal of obesity trends, those figures will rise to 60 per cent. of men, 50 per cent. of women and 25 per cent. of children by 2050. That will have a severe impact on the health of individuals, increasing the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart and liver disease. The cost will be felt in every part of society, not just in headline financial or health terms, but in personal ways, by affecting the lives and opportunities of millions of people.

The overall cost to society is forecast to reach £50 billion over the next 40 years based on current trends, including a sevenfold increase to the NHS. However, as foresight said, such outcomes are not inevitable, and if we take action now the trends can be reversed. Halting the obesity epidemic is primarily about individual behaviour and responsibility—how people choose to live their lives, what they eat and how much physical activity they take. It is also, as I shall outline, a matter of the commitment of the private and voluntary sectors. However, the Government have the most significant role in expanding people’s opportunities to make the right choices for themselves and their families, in ensuring that people have clear and effective information about food, exercise and individual well-being, and in ensuring that policies in a wide range of areas promote an environment that supports people in their desire to maintain a healthy weight.

The Government have set themselves a new ambition of being the first major country to reverse the rising tide of obesity in the population by ensuring that all individuals are able to maintain a healthy weight. Our initial focus is on children: by 2020, we intend to reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels. To help to fulfil that ambition, foresight suggested that the Government should focus their action on five main policy areas. I should like to set out the initiatives that the Government are announcing today in each of the five policy areas. They will be financed with £372 million of extra funding between 2008 and 2011.

The first initiative concerns the healthy growth and development of children. The strategy begins from the start of a child’s life, with early identification of at-risk families, and plans to make breastfeeding the default option for mothers. For school-age children, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, who has worked closely with me, set out
23 Jan 2008 : Column 1500
yesterday, the Government will continue to invest in healthy schools, including making cooking a compulsory part of the national curriculum. We will also take measures to increase participation in physical activity by the least active children, and develop policies to ensure that the lunches that children bring to school are as healthy as those now provided as school meals. To support and empower parents to make changes to their children’s diet and physical activity at all ages, we will invest £75 million in an integrated marketing campaign.

The second strategy is promoting healthier food choices. It sets out a healthy food code of good practice, which we will develop in partnership with the food and drink industry and other relevant stakeholders. The code will challenge the industry to adopt voluntary practices to reduce consumption of saturated fat, salt and sugar. We will also ask Ofcom to bring forward its review of the restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods to children and report early findings by September. On the broader environment, we will promote the flexibilities already contained in planning regulations, so that local authorities can limit the spread of fast food outlets in specific areas, such as those close to schools or parks.

The third policy is building physical activity into our lives. The initiatives range from those focused on the individual—for example, a Walking into Health campaign, which aims to get 30 per cent. of the population walking at least 1,000 more steps every day—to those directed at whole communities and businesses. For example, we will invest £30 million in Healthy Towns, which means working with selected towns and cities to learn from the successful EPODE model used in France through a whole-town approach to promoting physical activity.

We will also set up a working group with the entertainment technology industry to incorporate devices that allow parents to manage the time that their children spend watching TV or playing sedentary games online much more widely. We will review our overall approach to physical activity, including the role of Sport England to ensure a clear legacy of increased physical activity up to and beyond the 2012 Olympic games.

The fourth policy area is creating incentives for better health. Individuals, employers and the NHS need to have stronger incentives to prioritise the long-term work of improving health. In that strategy, we lay out plans for working with employers and employer organisations to explore the way in which companies can best promote good health among their staff and make healthy workplaces part of their core business model. We will pilot and evaluate a range of different approaches to using personal financial incentives to encourage healthy living.

The fifth and final strand is personalised advice and support. When people are overweight or obese, they need access to personalised services that are tailored to their needs and support them in achieving real and sustained weight loss. We will support the commissioning of more weight management services by providing increased funding in the next three years. Our intention is that people have easy access to highly personalised feedback and advice on their diet, weight, physical activity and health, providing them with the information to encourage healthy behaviour. We will explore the potential to develop further the NHS Choices website so that it provides advice on diet and activity, with clear and
23 Jan 2008 : Column 1501
consistent information on how to maintain a healthy weight.

The measures in those five policy areas are only the first steps towards our objectives. We will continue to examine not only the best emerging evidence of what works, but whether everyone in society—employers, communities and individuals—can participate fully in the programme. Our research will be part of wider efforts to develop our knowledge through the newly established obesity observatory. We will publish an annual assessment of the progress being made and use that to develop and intensify our policy focus as we acquire evidence on what works best.

Foresight pointed out that there was at that time no concerted strategy or policy model that adequately addressed the problem of obesity anywhere in the world. It added that the work assembled for the project gives the UK a platform from which to become a global leader in tackling a problem that is challenging policy makers across the world. The report has been produced with the full participation of the interim expert group of distinguished scientists and academics, which was created from the foresight project and contains many of the leading scientists and nutritionists who worked on it. The expert group will continue to guide us, placing science at the heart of our policy response, so that we are better able to grasp this opportunity to tackle the most profound public health risk that this country faces. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for supplying a copy of his statement during the past hour. I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who was already on a tour in the north of England when the Secretary of State said that he planned to make this statement.

Reversing the trend of rising obesity is a social responsibility in which everyone has a role to play. The UK now has more obesity than anywhere in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development except for Mexico and the US. England has a higher rate of obesity than anywhere else in the European Union, with a rate of 22.6 per cent. in the UK compared to 10 per cent. in France. Obesity could also cost £60 billion by 2050, on the Government’s own forecast figures.

With the rising tide of obesity, hospital treatments for the condition have spiralled on Labour’s watch, across all age groups and both sexes, with grave inequalities increasing among socio-economic groups. Most alarmingly, obesity among children is sharply on the increase, rising from 10 to 17 per cent. among children aged between two and 10 in the decade to 2005, with 31 per cent. of children in that age range in England now either overweight or obese. We therefore agree that there is a public health crisis in obesity, which is something that we have been urging the Government to prioritise for years.

The question is: how do we tackle it? Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot leave the problem to doctors, thus recognising what Dr. Colin Guthrie has said:

23 Jan 2008 : Column 1502

Does the Secretary of State also recognise what Dr. David Haslam, the medical director of the National Obesity Forum, has said:

by the quality and outcomes framework—

There is no question but that obesity is a crisis that needs tackling, but what needs to happen without more overweening, nanny state, maddening lifestyle diktats?

We certainly agree that the Government have a duty to ensure that people have the information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat. The Government have so far failed in that duty, and the information is simply not available. At last we now have a commitment to cross-party working—again, something for which we have called for years. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire wrote to the Secretary of State only yesterday, building on the many representations that he has made on the issue over the years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that current food labelling practices are fragmented and confusing, with different manufacturers using different systems and some using none at all? The traffic light labelling system, which the Government advocated in 2004, added to that confusion because it is based on the concept of good or bad food, when what matters is whether a person’s diet is good or bad. The system does not work in practice, either. If a wholemeal bread roll is low in sugar, moderate in fats and high in salt, would it merit a green, amber or red light? If fruit juices, cheese or fish have red traffic lights, how will people understand that they can form part of a healthy diet? How does a crude traffic light system deal with the major differences between the diets of adults and children?

Since 2004, we have been calling for food labelling that is based on information about food’s nutritional value and its contribution to a good diet. That means that people should be given information about the recommended daily amounts of calories, fats, sugar and salt. Such a system would be well understood by the public and would help people to put together a good diet. That is why for more than three years we have argued for a combined multiple traffic lights and guideline daily amounts system. In its food and health action plan in 2005, however, the Department of Health said that by early 2006 there would be

Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that little progress has been made?

Does the Secretary of State also accept that we should jointly advocate the traffic light GDA front-of-pack labelling system, making Britain a leader in the European debate on the issue? The matter has been handed over completely to the European Parliament to dictate directives on food labelling. As the Secretary of State well knows, I, on two occasions, and two of my colleagues, have introduced private Members’ Bills that would have given the Government the opportunity to pick up the issues of both country of origin labelling and standards of
23 Jan 2008 : Column 1503
production. The question now is whether we can lead in that debate and ensure a common European position, given that the trade in foods requires standards that are recognised across Europe.

In 2005, the Government promised that they would take simple steps to clarify food labelling. They have not delivered. The Food Standards Agency has been strongly pushing the traffic light model, which the Department of Health strongly supported. As the Secretary of State well knows, food labelling is only a matter of voluntary practice.

The Secretary of State’s statement is a series of repackaged announcements, which were in Labour’s last obesity strategy but have not been delivered. Labour did not even attempt to tackle obesity until 2004, with its public health White Paper “Choosing Health: Making Healthy Choices Easier”. A comparison between the 2005 report setting out delivery dates for the commitments in that White Paper, and today’s strategy, shows that little progress has been made.

What of cooking in schools? Who could object to increased teaching of cooking in schools? We do not. But at what point does the curriculum allow teachers the discretion to balance cooking with enough physical education and sport? It is not the fault of teachers, but sport has been squeezed out by an emphasis on the core curriculum, obsessive health and safety rules and a mass sell-off of playing fields under this Government, especially in the late 1990s.

On the issue of junk food—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has gone over the time allocated to the Opposition. In fact, I have given him a minute over. Rather than being overweight, he is over time. [Interruption.] I am watching the clock as well. Back Benchers must get a chance to speak.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman can be described as Confused of Eddisbury, because on the one hand we are castigated for introducing an overweening nanny state, while on the other we are told that we have not taken enough action in this regard. I listened to him saying that we have made a commitment to cross-government working on the issue. I have looked through the document carefully, and I find that I have made no such commitment. Given the response from Conservative Members, I think that it would be a bit futile.

Let us deal with the questions raised. The constructive part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was his recognition that the issue is a real public health threat, and his acceptance that everyone has a role to play. That was absolutely right. As for the reference to GPs, this country now has 18 per cent. more than it had in 1997, and it will have yet more—we are creating 250 GP-led health centres across the country. When I talk to GPs, they do not tell me that they have to be incentivised to deal with someone who is overweight. Given that an overweight person who loses half a stone becomes half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes, GPs need no incentivising. I also remind Conservative Members that GPs now spend on average 10 minutes more with every patient than they did in 2000, so there is more time being devoted to this issue at primary care level.

The hon. Gentleman spent a large part of his contribution talking about food labelling, which is one aspect of a very wide-ranging debate. Let me pick up
23 Jan 2008 : Column 1504
on the points that he raised. Yes, we have championed the traffic light system, and we have done so because consumers regularly tell the FSA that that is the system they prefer. It is clear, it requires no translation, and it is very accessible. However, we say in the report that we would like to move to a single system.

Incidentally, we are leading the world in that our food retailers and manufacturers have, to a large degree, accepted the need to put information on packets. We should congratulate them on that. The problem is that there are three different methods, and I think that we would all like a uniform system. Our view is that the expert independent group that we set up should look at the three systems and at all the evidence, and make a recommendation on which system we should adopt, whether it be the traffic lights, the monochrome system or the hybrid system. When we get that recommendation, we will work with the industry to try to establish a single system. That is the most constructive way forward.

The hon. Gentleman said that this strategy was a repackaging of old initiatives, and that there was nothing new in it. Let me remind Opposition Members that we are putting more than £100 million into cycling—

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Hear, hear!

Alan Johnson: To the huge admiration of my hon. Friend the Minister. Cycling England has received about £14 million, and it is now going to receive something like £120 million, which will do an enormous amount to increase cycling levels.

Cooking has never been a compulsory part of the national curriculum at key stage 3. For the very first time, in this strategy we are announcing that it will become compulsory, and we are recruiting 800 extra teachers to ensure that it is properly taught. That is an enormous step forward. I also want to mention Healthy Towns. When we debated the foresight report, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) rightly looked at what was happening in France and Finland to see whether we could reproduce the kind of model that exists in those countries. The Thames Gateway presents a perfect opportunity for us to do that, by taking a whole-town approach. Such approaches have had startling results in France, using the EPODE model. That is just one of many new, fully funded initiatives in this proposal.

I want to make a final point to the hon. Gentleman about school sports and the myth about playing fields being closed. Playing fields closed under the previous Conservative Government. To close a playing field now, a school has to get the authority of the Secretary of State and prove that it will put the money back into new resources for sports and physical activity. Twenty-two per cent. of children in this country were doing four hours of high-quality sport and physical activity each week when we first measured it after coming into government; now, the figure is 86 per cent. We have a good record on this, and if we are going to take a cross-government approach to tackling this issue, I would ask for a less miserablist approach from those on the Conservative Front Bench.

Next Section Index Home Page