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Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this very constructive set of proposals. Experience shows that, provided we take the
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public along with us at a speed they are happy with, we shall make much better progress, especially in areas such as smoking and environmental issues, where the public can be educated in order to improve the situation for the future.

May I ask the Secretary of State to concentrate on two issues? One is that we need yet tougher regulations on advertising to children foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. I still believe that that is a major part of the problem. Secondly, will he see what he can do to help GPs to help people with weight problems by making more interventionist strategies available? At the moment, GPs can monitor people’s weight but there are not enough interventions available to them to help people to manage their weight and obesity problems.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right to raise those two issues. This month, we have introduced the first restrictions on advertising to children. Ofcom said that it would review the situation after a year, but it has now agreed, as part of this strategy, to use just six months’ information. We therefore have the prospect of having an evidence base for whether to move further by September. This is a delicate issue, and there are different views on all sides, but I think that that is the right way to proceed.

My hon. Friend asked about GPs. This is more than an obesity strategy; it is a public health strategy. The body set up to tackle obesity is very much a cross-government public health body. All the issues involved—from breastfeeding through to taking more exercise and having a healthy diet—apply right across the public health spectrum. We therefore need more interventions, and GPs need more resources for that. That is why we have announced £372 million over the next three years as part of this package.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of his statement. Last time we discussed this subject, I challenged him to join me in taking part in the 10 km London run. He has not come back to me on that yet. Perhaps the enthusiasm of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), for physical exercise in the form of cycling suggests that he might be more up for it. However, I am still waiting to hear from the Secretary of State and, indeed, from the Conservative spokesman.

We all agree about the scale of this problem. It is growing at a much faster rate than anyone anticipated, and this country has the worst rates of obesity anywhere in Europe. By 2010, there will be 1 million obese children, which is a pretty frightening statistic, and we are now seeing the onset of type 2 diabetes among children, which had previously not been the case. We must also consider the knock-on health consequences—including heart and liver disease, as well as the mental health problems and low self-esteem that go with obesity—as well as the cost to the NHS and the economy.

I welcome the statement’s commitment to placing science and evidence at the heart of policy making in this area. It is always welcome when the Government are prepared to change the habits of a lifetime by moving away from gimmicky, headline-driven policy making to policy making that is based on science. I also welcome the focus on physical activity.

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Is it not the case, however, that the Government are their own worst enemy? Their record so far has clearly been woeful. Of course it is absurd to suggest that they are responsible for all of these problems, but they over-promise and under-deliver. The 2004 White Paper made a grand spending commitment, but the Faculty of Public Health Medicine said today that only half the money that was promised has been put forward. Why should we believe the spending commitment that has been made today, when that previous commitment has not been met? Furthermore, the target of eradicating childhood obesity by 2010 has been quietly dropped in favour of a much vaguer commitment to achieving a target by 2020.

The main issue that I want to raise is the fact that the statement says absolutely nothing about growing health inequalities. That is more relevant in the area of obesity than in any other, and there is clear evidence of a growing divide in regard to weight. The foresight report was clear in raising that concern. Will resources be targeted at those disadvantaged groups in which the problem is the greatest? Low levels of breastfeeding are particularly prevalent in disadvantaged groups. Will resources be targeted at that problem as well, as there is a clear link with obesity?

The statement makes reference to tackling fast food premises, which hit the headlines over the weekend. What is the substance behind that proposal? The statement also talks a lot about the efforts to be made in schools, but the fact is that, since the Government’s introduction of the healthy eating strategy, 425,000 fewer children are eating school meals. What are the Government doing to address that concern and to encourage more children to eat school meals? The statement then lurched into nanny state mode, when it proposed to

How on earth are we going to do that? Will it involve the introduction of the lunch box police? How on earth can we dictate to people in that way?

The food industry clearly has a big part to play in all this, and it would be sensible to arrive at one system for food labelling. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that such a decision will be based on evidence? Different systems are being considered at the moment; will the decision be based on evidence—

Mr. Speaker: To be fair, I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman.

Alan Johnson: That was a bit confused as well. The hon. Gentleman is trying to have it all ways. On his first point, I am tempted to say that my comments on whether I enter the cycling marathon will be delivered through a spokes person—

Norman Lamb: It is a run, not a cycling marathon.

Alan Johnson: Yes, but that would not have made such a good joke.

At least we are agreed on the scale. I noticed that the Liberal Democrats very quietly dropped their commitment to free adult social care yesterday. If we had put resources into that, we would not have had enough money to invest properly in public health.

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to using the relevant science. Let me mention Professor Susan Jebb from Cambridge university, who played an exceptional role in the foresight review and is now the chair of our expert group. She has looked at all these proposals in great depth and approved them.

Let me deal with the more negative aspects—for example, the hon. Gentleman’s comment that the Government’s record was “woeful”. We can always have a knockabout and say that we have not done all that we should have done. I accept that, but woeful? Let me just clarify on school sport that when I mentioned four hours, I meant to say two hours of high-quality PE in schools— [Interruption.] Well, the record has been put straight. Back in 2002, the first time it was measured, the figure for such provision was 22 per cent., but it is now at 86 per cent.—a massive increase, well ahead of our target.

For the first time ever, we have introduced restrictions on advertising to children. I accept that some would have liked us to go further, but this is the first time that it has been done. We have introduced front-of-pack labelling. Yes, there is confusion about the different systems, but we are far ahead of the rest of Europe in that respect. Furthermore, an enormous revolution has taken place in school food. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) said a few moments ago, we need to take the public with us. Pictures of parents putting fish and chips through school gates are depressing, but we are moving forward on all those fronts.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) asks what we are doing to encourage take-up of healthy school meals, so let me remind him that Hull had three healthy school meal projects being run under a Labour administration; the incoming Liberal Democrat council cancelled them, setting us back in tackling obesity—yet here we have Liberal Democrat Members demanding to know what more we are doing to counter obesity.

The hon. Gentleman is also wrong to say that we have a more lax public service agreement target. In fact, we have a tighter target because instead of simply seeking to halt the increase, we want to reverse the trend in child obesity—a much more difficult task—by 2020.

The hon. Gentleman asked two further questions. On fast food outlets, there are restrictions, but there is flexibility in the current planning rules. We do not want to introduce unnecessary rules; we need to use existing regulations to allow local authorities to stem the increase in those outlets near schools and parks. As for lunch boxes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is not suggesting that we need lunch box police. What we are talking about are the sorts of ideas that we saw working in the Green Dragon school in Brentford today. The head teacher and other teaching staff take responsibility for looking in a child’s lunch box—it is much easier in a primary than in a secondary school—and if they find that the child has just a bag of crisps and a chocolate bar, they send a message back home. Some schools actually use a traffic light system, putting on a red, green or amber sticker to send an appropriate message to parents.

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The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about health inequalities—a crucial issue. Obesity is a health inequality issue, as well as a public health and prevention issue, so the most intense activity should be focused on the poorest areas. We announced a £72 million investment in a public information system that we will want to use throughout the country, but it will be targeted where the problems are the most serious. I accept that obesity is a health inequality issue, and I believe that we need to use this strategy to tackle the broader health inequality problems we face.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s positive statement, particularly his encouragement of breastfeeding and compulsory cooking lessons. How would he build on the very successful GP exercise on prescription programme, particularly its extension to younger patients? Also, how does he intend to build on the successful school cycling initiatives, which have done very well in some parts of the country but have not been taken up as enthusiastically as I would like in other parts?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend has hit on two really important aspects of the problem. Exercise on prescription is being looked into further as we speak; it is a very important part of our plans to encourage more exercise. On school cycling, we have a very good relationship with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Transport and have sought to increase the number of children participating through Bikeability. Some of the extra resources we are putting in will be invested in that.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is obviously sensible to try to bring together the different systems of nutritional labelling and I am sure that the Secretary of State would accept that, in view of the food trade, it makes sense to attempt to achieve that on a Europe-wide basis. Does he also accept, however, that if we want to guide people’s choice and help them to make informed decisions about what to eat, they need to know about the nutritional qualities of food as well as about its drawbacks? Should we not move towards a system of information that is about more than just deterrence, as that could make a contribution to people sustaining a healthy diet?

Alan Johnson: The right hon. Gentleman makes two important points, the first of which is the significance of European competency, which was, incidentally, given by the Conservative Government, who I believe took the right decision. Nestlé, for example, is based in Switzerland and distributes its goods across the world, not just in Europe, so we need an international approach to the issue. I would try to convince the Commission that we should have a derogation to do our own thing in this country rather than be held back by the slowest countries in the European Union—but that is a debate for another day.

The right hon. Gentleman’s other important point was about deterrence and how to secure the best system. I believe that we should be looking into not only how a system of food labelling gives information to consumers, but how it encourages changed habits, so we need to highlight healthy food options. When items are labelled red under a traffic light system, it is not saying that people should never eat them, but that they
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should take into account the fact that if they are to maintain a balanced diet, they should not eat items such as chips every day. I am sure that a system can be devised that the food industry will buy into and that will take account of the right hon. Gentleman’s very important points.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s statement was welcome, but does he agree that one thing that the Government can do to fight obesity, particularly in children, is to provide modern and inspiring sports facilities? Will he work with colleagues across Government to ensure that that happens so that an excellent school—albeit one that is some way down the list in Building Schools for the Future—such as Sir John Nelthorpe school in Brigg, that has no sports hall now, could gain funding for one? Government-inspired renaissance projects such as the one in Goole, which has an excellent sports village concept, could also gain funding. May I assure my right hon. Friend that should he be able to help with the Goole project—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are quite a few supplementary questions there.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is an expert in covert lobbying for schools in his constituency. I know from my experience in education and the work carried on by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that the school sport partnership is one of the Government’s great success stories. Although Building Schools for the Future is an important element in replenishing all school facilities, including sports, it is not as if there is inactivity in the meantime. The school sport partnership is already an important part of what has happened and will be an important part of what happens in the future. On the matter of the school in my hon. Friend’s constituency, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families suggests that my hon. Friend meet the Minister for Schools and Learners.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a sad reflection on this Government that one of their key objectives is to get the number of obese children by 2020 back to 2000 levels, yet they have been in power for 10 years and the problem has got progressively worse during this Labour Administration? Notwithstanding the importance of food inputs, is it not a fact that getting people to exercise every day is the most important issue? What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that schools provide compulsory physical training and that people are made aware of the different exercise options—the relative merits of cycling, walking 5,000 steps and running, for example? What is he doing to introduce advertising—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Alan Johnson: Obesity, as foresight pointed out, has trebled over 30 years. I am perfectly willing, representing the party of Government, to take whatever responsibility we have in that matter. However, as the hon. Gentleman seems to recognise, there is a much wider responsibility in society. In his final comments, he came close to expressing the overweening nanny state argument.

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We have made huge advances in the provision of high-quality sport and physical exercise. There will be two hours a week in 100 per cent. of schools by 2010, and we will then progress to five hours a week.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): As one who, 15 years ago, presented a Bill to introduce a harmonised system of nutritional labelling using the traffic light system, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the drive towards a single scheme. I am afraid my Bill received no support from the Government of the day, but it is good that it has received support from our Government. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that he puts the health of our children above the health of the advertising industry?

Alan Johnson: Yes, we will put the health of our children before the interests of any group that is acting in a way contrary to the health of our children, but the advertising industry has worked with us to introduce the system that Ofcom implemented this year. It is the first time that we have had any legislation at all. If we are to move further, we would like to do so with the full commitment and continued co-operation of the advertising industry, although obviously the health of our children comes first.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the Minister accept that in recent days, for good or ill, we have developed a celebrity culture, particularly among the youth of the nation? Would it not be appropriate for those in the public eye who have a particularly healthy and good lifestyle to offer their support, so that young people can look up to them as role models and take the exercise that they need?

Alan Johnson: We are considering using as role models people who had serious obesity problems when they were very young. At the weekend, there was a story in the papers about a male model who has shed about 10 stone and now appears in the kind of magazines that interest youngsters. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need such role models—including many Labour Members, I might add—as part of a national campaign to get the message home to young people.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but will he think again about the possibility of providing more space in the national curriculum? The progress made in providing two hours of sport a week is significant, but two hours in a whole week is not a huge amount. Should we not give sport the same status that we give to maths, English and science? Should schools not be assessed on achievements in running, swimming and cycling in exactly the same way as they are assessed on achievements at level 4 in key stage 2, or the gaining of five A-C grades at GCSE?

Alan Johnson: This is an important issue, but I remind my hon. Friend that we will progress from two hours in every school to four hours and then five. Furthermore, every school will be an extended school by 2010. That will provide huge opportunities for extra-curricular activities, not just in dance and drama but in sport.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about cycling. The extra money for Bikeablity will enable it to help us in a number of ways, as it has wished to do for many years, and I am sure that its contribution will be enormous.

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