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23 Jan 2008 : Column 1511

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State recognise that the Treasury is a key ally in his Department’s campaign to improve the nation’s health through, for example, the taxation of alcohol and tobacco? In the context of his statement about obesity, will he contact his colleagues in the Treasury and find out why those who join fitness centres in order to reduce their weight must now pay VAT on their membership fees?

Alan Johnson: I am sure that the Treasury will be aware of points made by Members throughout the House about how we can use the taxation system in our drive to tackle obesity. The Budget traditionally deals with that, and I think that the example given to the rest of us by the right hon. Gentleman—a distinguished cyclist in the House—will be taken into account when it is presented in a few weeks’ time.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he join me in commending head teachers such as Anthony Edkins of Harrop Fold school in my constituency? He has focused on the three issues of obesity, under-age drinking and teenage pregnancy among his pupils. As part of the focus on obesity, he has brought in a celebrity chef to teach young people about food values and to make the subject enjoyable. Is that not a great example?

Alan Johnson: I agree, and there are other great examples throughout the country. We have picked up some of that best practice. Only this morning I was with young Lizzy Butler, a 14-year-old from Leeds. In her school, the Watch It campaign has been remarkably sensitive in dealing with youngsters who have Lizzy’s problem of being overweight, and changing their lives completely. That initiative was launched jointly by the NHS and the school, and we can spread it much more widely with the resources that we are investing in the programme.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I commend the expansion of cycling through a very successful network in Bedfordshire. May I also draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the work of the Kids’ Cookery School, a charity based in west London which for some years has been working with children from a variety of backgrounds to introduce them to cooking and eating healthy food? Will he assure me that the work of charities of that sort will be made available across Government, so that their expertise and success in bringing good food to the notice of children will not be lost in what might otherwise be a top-down state-run scheme?

Alan Johnson: I will give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Minister of State responsible for public health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), visited the Kids’ Cookery School recently, and tells me that the Department learnt an awful lot from what is happening there. Indeed, organisations across large swathes of the voluntary sector are crucial allies in our strategy.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I welcome the statement, but may I pursue the point about taxation? Given that incentives will be needed to get couch potatoes to the gym, is there not a case for tax relief on gym membership?

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Alan Johnson: If I may, I will leave such questions to the Treasury. We have a Budget coming up. Representations can be made and questions can be asked of Treasury Ministers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend is as adept as any on these Benches at putting his view across.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that healthy minds are as important as healthy bodies, and that access to high-quality United Kingdom-produced children’s programmes contributes to that? Will he bear in mind the damaging impact that restrictions on advertising have already had on the UK children’s programming sector, and will he resist any moves to extend the advertising ban further? That would do little to tackle obesity, and would do more damage to an important part of the broadcasting landscape.

Alan Johnson: What we have there is the balance of the argument. The covert point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who has now left the Chamber, is that whatever the effect on the advertising industry, we should plough on regardless in the interests of children’s health. Now, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) has made a point about the effect on the industry. We do not believe that there is currently any proof of such dire effects, but we must listen to the industry. We do not want there to be fewer high-quality children’s programmes because we have taken certain measures. In that event, children might watch programmes made overseas and tune into channels on which there are no restrictions.

I understand the argument entirely, and so does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He is part of the ministerial team examining the issue, and will remain part of it. The voice of the DCMS will be an essential element of where we go next, after we have had the review in the summer.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I warmly welcome the determination to increase the promotion of breastfeeding. Evidence is becoming stronger all the time that babies who are breastfed are not just healthier, but protected from harmful weight gain in childhood and from obesity in later life. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of the Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition, and will he consider implementing the seven points in the manifesto, which are consistent with his strategy?

Alan Johnson: As my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for public health mentioned at a meeting last week, we are considering that seven-point manifesto. There is no difference between us on the importance of encouraging breastfeeding. We introduced the 26-week period of maternity leave so that we could be consistent with the World Health Organisation’s drive in favour of six months of breastfeeding. Whatever we decide in relation to the manifesto, the coalition is crucial in helping us to implement the strategy. Breastfeeding is an essential part of beginning the process of good, healthy nutrition and tackling the problems of obesity.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): The Secretary of State’s third action point was to build physical activity into our lives, and I entirely endorse
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that; it is one of the crucial planks of the strategy. Why then did the Minister for Schools and Learners confirm in a written answer that this Government are cutting the number of places for physical education teachers from 1,450 in 2005-06 to 1,180 in 2007-08—a cut of 25 per cent. in the very people needed to tackle the problem?

Alan Johnson: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, let me say that he can ask that question when he has the relevant Secretary of State in front of him. My recollection from when I was doing that job is that we had a large increase in the number of PE teachers. [Interruption.] Well, I would have to look at that in detail. I will not take it as read from the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I mean no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Secretary of State reply. The hon. Gentleman might not be satisfied with the reply, but it is the reply he is going to get.

Alan Johnson: My recollection is that we had increased the number of PE teachers and people dealing with sports in our schools, although I do no know whether they come under the heading of “PE teacher”. The situation might be similar to that in public health, where we have a huge increase in the number of people dealing with that but they are not categorised in our staff census in the same way as they were before. I think that the hon. Gentleman might be usefully be present for Department for Children, Schools and Families questions.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement, especially as there is currently a debate about the role of Sport England, and therefore probably about the role of primary care trusts and others working with the county sports partnerships. In view of the fact that there is a tight timeline for that—it is expected to have a broad strategy very soon and to have its business plan in place by April—can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the policy review he mentioned in his statement will be implemented in parallel with it rather than at a later stage, especially as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recognises that physical activity is one of the most cost-effective ways of tackling the obesity problem?

Alan Johnson: We will try to do it in parallel, but there is some work to do. The basic discussion we are having is about whether Sport England should focus on sport alone. We could use its network and, importantly, its reach into local communities to focus on activity that might not be sport-related, such as more walking and healthier lifestyles. There is a lengthy debate to be had and many issues for us to address, such as finance. If we can go through that process in time to introduce the policies in parallel, it would obviously make sense to do so.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): We have already heard how, sadly, the Jamie Oliver revolution has resulted in an exodus from school dinner tables, as children either bring in unhealthy pack-ups or leave the school premises to buy their favourite food: chips. In an effort to reverse this trend, will the Secretary of State discuss with Ministers responsible for school menus whether the status of oven chips in school meals should be reviewed? Although Scarborough’s most famous product qualifies for three green traffic lights and is less
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than 5 per cent. fat, it is lumped into the same category as the unhealthy deep-fried alternative, which is why it is not served up more regularly in school meals.

Alan Johnson: It is chips with everything in this debate. That is a matter for the School Food Trust to look at. On the point about declining numbers, that always happens: in such circumstances, there is always an initial decline in the number of children eating school dinners. The SFT believes that although schools must pay more attention to whether their menus are attractive, the figures will gradually increase and things will eventually improve. That is certainly our experience in Hull, where we introduced the policy on school meals pre-Jamie Oliver. There should not be a counsel of despair because of the initial reaction of some children and some parents. If we keep at it, we can turn things around. I was at Green Dragon primary school in Brentford this morning. One big issue is that primary school children are much more receptive to these messages, and we need to ensure that the good habits continue when they go on to secondary school.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Those of us who are overweight already get enough stick at home without having to come to work for another beating. What we need are some carrots and some incentives. If the Secretary of State will give an undertaking to come to Banbury to listen to concerns about the future of local NHS services, I will give an undertaking to lose a couple of stone by Easter.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman draws attention to the importance of carrots in this policy. The five-a-day campaign is important. He has started with carrots; there are another four to go. I am sure we will see a svelte Member for Banbury very soon.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), because the last time I dared to mention having lost a stone and a half, I was taken to task by one of the more delectable parliamentary sketchwriters, who disputed that at great length in her column. Having said that, I am a little puzzled by the idea of inspecting children’s lunch boxes to remove forbidden fruits—or, rather, forbidden chocolates. Given that children, for good reasons, now have more disposable income than 30 years ago, how will that solve the problem of them simply going out afterwards and buying whatever unsuitable food they wish to purchase?

Alan Johnson: I am afraid that that suggests that if we cannot do everything, we should do nothing. Schools across the country are already doing what we seek to do on school lunch boxes: work with parents to ensure that they have information and advice. The hon. Gentleman will have seen what children in his constituency have in their lunch boxes. Some of them come to school, probably having had no breakfast, with only a packet of Hula Hoops and a chocolate bar in their lunch box. Irrespective of what they might eat outside the school, our responsibility is what happens inside the school. Having put, with all-party support, a lot of effort into getting school meals right, we should use—without introducing the lunch box police or being heavy-handed—the initiatives that teachers themselves are introducing and spread best practice. At all stages, we should work with parents rather than against them.

23 Jan 2008 : Column 1515

Points of Order

1.26 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Next week, we begin our consideration of the treaty of Lisbon. Some Members are strongly in favour, others are passionately hostile and the majority may well descend into a narcoleptic trance. Whatever our attitude, however, we need to know what we will debate on Tuesday. At present, no programme motion has been tabled. We do not know what is going to be debated and we cannot table amendments. Will you reprimand the Government, Mr. Speaker, for yet again being so blatantly disregardful of this House, and ask if we can have that information so that, whatever our attitude, at least we have something to debate?

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend has said, but not only from the perspective of Members of Parliament? It is important that outside interest groups know what we are debating on particular days, so that they can make representations to Members. At present, both Members and outside interest groups are entirely unaware of the programme.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I endorse what my right hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend have said—that the fact that the Government have not tabled this programme motion is leaving perilously little time to table amendments that could be selected. In fact, the situation is worse than that: I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury has distributed to the Labour party a schedule of what he
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proposes for the debate, and yet Opposition Members have not had the opportunity to have that information.

Mr. Speaker: Let me say in reply to the points that have been made that, as I understand it, the situation is that there is to be a full debate on Monday on how we proceed in this matter. I do not know if that is of any help, and of course I am not a Government manager, but that is my understanding. Tomorrow, there is business questions and if Members catch my eye they are entitled to raise this matter with the Leader of the House.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman should let me finish. The Government will have heard the concerns Members have expressed through this point of order. I hope that this is of assistance to them. Members will understand that I have certain limitations in these matters, but these concerns will be heard.

Bob Spink: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for interrupting earlier; I thought that you had finished speaking. On Monday, at 11.45 am, the Government placed Command Papers 3710 and 3711 in the Vote Office for Members. Those Command Papers were central to the debate that started that afternoon and they were 356 pages long, so Members could not properly address that Second Reading debate. Will you, through your normal offices, make the Government aware that whatever we are going to debate on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, we need to receive the relevant papers and information in good time, so that we can have a meaningful and informed debate?

Mr. Speaker: The point was well made by the hon. Gentleman that all relevant papers should be available for hon. Members before any debate in this House starts, and I am sure that it will also be taken up.

23 Jan 2008 : Column 1517

Christmas Savings Schemes (Regulation)

1.30 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I beg to move,

I am introducing this Bill as a result of the Farepak collapse, which in 2006 wiped out the Christmas savings of at least 122,000 small savers in this country. I am pressing for light-touch regulation for similar schemes, so that in future all savers’ money is protected by law. Currently, the only bodies that do not regard as savers those who use Christmas savings schemes are this House, the Government and the financial services regulators in this country. In contrast, the people who offer the schemes market them as saving for Christmas, and crucially, the people who put their money in them regard themselves as savers just as much as those who save with building societies such as Northern Rock do. It flies in the face of social justice that this House should protect one set of savers and not the other.

In my first Adjournment debate, on 7 November 2006, I set out three complementary principles for the future of former Farepak savers. The first was to work for immediate relief for the savers. The second was to secure an explanation and justice for the savers. The third was to get better regulation of the voucher industry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) introduced a voluntary regulation scheme, and it is to his credit that that was in place to protect savers for Christmas 2007. However, as memory fades and we move further away from the Farepak collapse—already 18 months have passed—the likelihood increases of new schemes that decline to join the voluntary scheme, or of existing schemes withdrawing from it. It is therefore the right time to move forward with proper long-term regulation, and I am very grateful for being granted the opportunity to present this ten-minute Bill.

At the time of the crisis, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, in his role as a Minister at the then Department of Trade and Industry, set up a charity fund that paid £6.8 million to savers at the national level. I was very pleased to be able to co-ordinate action to help savers in my constituency at the community level; many hon. Members on both sides of the House did the same in their areas. People in Swindon will always remember the success of that collective action as a reminder of how people get together when the going gets tough.

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