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25 Apr 2008 : Column 1638

We have more choice now. We go out to eat much more, and the built environment has changed. I well remember that when my children were small, we did a month’s house swap with a family in Sacramento. They had two cars and a wonderful swimming pool, but interestingly, they came to our inner-city house and had not realised that we walked to Sainsbury’s, the shops, the park or the tube station. They were used to getting into the car. We could see their completely different culture and the different way in which individuals used the built environment. We in the UK are moving further towards that American-style environment. We tend to get into our cars much more for simple journeys, which we would not have done in the past.

Mr. Evans: The Minister has just stated that we eat out more often, which is absolutely right. When we are preparing food for ourselves, we can go around the shops and look at the little tables on the cans, whether they use the traffic-light system or something more detailed. We can assess how many calories are in a food and what sort of portions we should have. When we eat out in restaurants, we are not given that same information. A lot of people are absolutely ignorant about how many calories are in what they buy. Would it not be useful to give people more information, particularly about children’s food, and therefore more power over how many calories they consume each day?

Margaret Hodge: I share that view, although the hon. Member for Christchurch, who is sitting behind the hon. Gentleman, might see it as involving yet further regulation and the nanny state. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that better information is important.

There is a role for parents in tackling obesity. There is also a role for the public services, whether schools or the health service, and a role for the industry in examining what it markets and how, and in considering the better nutritional profiling that we have just discussed. The industry can help us to promote healthy diets and proper exercise. The Government’s role is to give people information and opportunities that will help them to make good choices for themselves and their children, to ensure that people get clear and transparent information about food and exercise, and to put in place the right incentives and facilities to support people in making healthier choices.

I am proud of what the Government are doing to try to tackle obesity. We have a comprehensive cross-government approach. In January, we published our most recent strategy on ensuring that we tackle obesity in children. We are being extremely open by saying that we will report every year and use experts when possible to try to ensure that we take any steps that we can. There are good innovations in the strategy, not least of which is making cooking a compulsory subject for children at key stage 3.

The evidence base for the impact of advertising and promotion is contested—I think that that is the best that one can say. The Hastings Strathclyde review produced probably the most serious piece of evidence that we have. Its main finding was that a direct link between the prevalence of obesity and food advertising could not be proved, but it established that there was evidence that advertising had a 2 per cent. impact on children’s food
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preferences. We must remember that that, in itself, was based on a 1983 study that took place in Arizona, America, using the diaries of 262 children.

Everyone who is concerned about the issue should read Ofcom’s thorough review. When it asked about the role of parents through a NOP survey, the overwhelming majority of people—79 per cent.—said that parents had “a great deal” of responsibility for ensuring that their children had a proper diet. The survey showed that people thought that others—schools, food manufacturers, the media, the Government, supermarkets and broadcasters—had responsibility. However, when people were asked which group could do the most to ensure that children ate healthily, 55 per cent. of people named parents, while only a small minority—16 per cent.—named food manufacturers. Schools were named by only 14 per cent. of people, and very few named the media and the Government. Supermarkets were named by 3 per cent. and broadcasters by 1 per cent. The public’s view is that parents are key to this. Even with regard to the 2 per cent. figure that I cited, one cannot even determine whether that effect is due to television viewing itself, the snacking that tends to take place when watching television, or the impact of the advertising.

Many hon. Members talked about the regulations that Ofcom has instituted, and we want to see how they bed down. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, made a strong point about the possible loss of advertising revenue if we were to extend the watershed threshold. We must think about that seriously, which is why we would need much better research-based evidence if we were to take further steps.

We have had an interesting debate and I shall conclude my speech now.

Mr. Don Foster: I had rather hoped that the Minister would move on to the important non-broadcast points raised by the Bill before concluding her speech. Will she confirm that the Government are happy—for the time being, at least—with the self-regulatory approach, which appears to be working quite well? Will she comment on the sanctions proposed in the Bill, which I argue are perhaps not the right approach?

Margaret Hodge: I concur with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks; we believe that, for the non-broadcasting media, a self-regulatory approach is far more effective. We would intervene with regulation only if there was overwhelming evidence demonstrating that regulation could have a real impact on issues such as obesity.

I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South, and all those who supported him, as well as the voluntary organisations and communities that have worked hard to bring the issue to the attention of the House. I ask him to give us time. I hope that I have given him some comfort by saying that Ofcom will, on the Government’s behalf, monitor the newly implemented regulations closely. We need to wait to see what the review says, and what the work done by the Department of Health comes up with. If we are persuaded that further action is needed, we will take it, as and when it is necessary. The best laws are always based on real evidence, so let us wait for the evidence before taking any further action.

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1.41 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I have followed the debate with great interest, and I was particularly interested to hear what the Minister had to say. I am delighted that she made it clear to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), as politely and tactfully as possible, that the Government do not support the Bill. I imagine that even people who would like to support the Bill would consider it premature, given that Ofcom, which has been left in charge of the issue, has not had time to consider the restrictions that have already been put in place. No matter where one stands on the issue—whether one supports the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill or not—one would have to conclude that the Bill is totally premature, given that the evidence resulting from the initial restrictions has not even been considered.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman quite rightly repeats a point that a number of us made about the need to have research done by Ofcom. Does he think, as I do, that as a crucial part of the Bill is the definition of what constitutes “less healthy food”, it is vital that we hear the evidence from the research that is being conducted on the current definition and potential changes to it?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Bill opens up a huge array of issues, not just to do with the effect on broadcasters and on obesity, but to do with definitions. The scale of the impact that the Bill would have on the advertising industry needs to be considered, too. I praise him for his speech, which was particularly well-argued and proportionate, and which made some very sensible points about why the Bill is not the right way forward.

I did not come to Parliament to ban everybody from doing all the things that I do not happen to like. It strikes me that many Members, particularly Labour Members, have come into Parliament to do nothing else. It seems as though whenever we are here on a Friday, we are talking about whether to ban something. In fact, that happens not just on Fridays; the Government often do the job for Labour Members. I wonder where all this banning of things will end. The Bill is just another in a long line of attempts by Labour Members to ban something that they happen not to like. Above all else, it is the height of intolerance for them to want to ban everything that they do not like.

Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend accept that in this case and in others, there is an element of scapegoating? The Government want to draw attention away from their policy failures elsewhere, and so think that it would be better to legislate.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that we are conscious that the public have a low regard for politicians. One reason is that, when politicians are confronted with a specific problem about which people are concerned—there is no doubt that many people in this country are rightly worried about childhood obesity—their instinctive solution appears always to be to incorporate two ingredients. The first is to be seen to be doing something. I believe that that, more than anything else, brings politicians into disrepute. Whatever the problem,
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politicians never underestimate their ability to interfere, meddle and change something. I long for the day when more politicians say, “This has got nothing to do with us—it’s for other people to sort out their problems.”

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that opinion about whether a food or drink is healthy or unhealthy is highly subjective? Some foods go in and out of fashion. One wonders about the qualifications of those who make the decisions in, for example, the Food Standards Agency, and who would create policy if the Bill reached the statute book.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right. Foods that were once deemed unhealthy are later considered good for you before being thought bad again and so on. Research findings about what is good and bad for people change all the time. Introducing the Bill, which would write off specific foodstuffs, even though they may be perfectly good for people if eaten in moderation, is not only disproportionate but slightly crazy.

Politicians always have to be seen to be doing something. The Bill strikes me as an example of someone being given a problem and wanting to be seen to be taking action.

The second ingredient that politicians often use when faced with a problem is a proposal that does not offend anybody. The Bill is a prime example of the sort of action to which politicians will rush. It looks as if they are doing something and the proposal does not offend anybody. That calculation lies behind such responses.

Margaret Thatcher, in her days in opposition and early days in government, had a fantastic guru called Sir Alfred Sherman, who wrote a marvellous book entitled, “Paradoxes of Power”, which I urge people to read. In it, he referred to politicians always offering “painless panaceas”. He was right. Time and again, we discuss proposed legislation, which provides what could be described as a painless panacea—something that will sort out all the country’s ills with, lo and behold, no pain for anybody. Such solutions do not exist. Whenever we legislate, we should be clear about the proposed benefits—I doubt whether there are any in the Bill—and the costs. We must ask who will lose out. Even cursory scrutiny of the Bill shows that many people could lose out.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend knows that many large corporations, which manufacture what is encompassed by the umbrella term “fast food”, also make enormous donations under their corporate responsibility schemes to sport, environmental projects and so on. If their sales plummeted through a ban on advertising, those projects would suffer.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right. Others who spoke in the debate made it clear that some organisations, such as McDonald’s, spend millions of pounds on promoting sport. Those of us who believe that promoting sport and physical exercise is a far better tool for tackling childhood obesity find it perverse that the Bill would prevent a food manufacturer from spending millions of pounds on promoting sport for young people.

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Martin Horwood: At the risk of prolonging the unfortunate attempt to talk out the important measure, I want, as secretary of the all-party group on corporate responsibility, to make the opposite point to that raised by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). Valuable promotions, such as that which I mentioned by Kraft Foods, could easily be excluded from the Bill’s provisions because they encourage healthy eating and do not associate the promotion with an unhealthy product.

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman said at the start that he had come in for the second Bill on the Order Paper. His interventions are making that increasingly obvious, because he has clearly not read the Bill that we are discussing. Under clause 2(3), the Bill would prevent the promotion of a

That is perfectly unequivocal and means that the Bill would cover any company that sold or manufactured unhealthy food products. The exemption that the hon. Gentleman suggests, which may well be sensible, is not incorporated in the Bill that he supports, which is a blunt instrument that tries to catch everything and therefore has the unforeseen consequences that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) mentioned.

I mentioned in earlier interventions that I was surprised that it should be the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South who had brought forward the Bill, given his comments and his reputation when, as a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, he was a powerful champion of the Government’s better regulation agenda. The hon. Gentleman prefers better regulation; personally, I prefer less regulation.

Nigel Griffiths: I speak with quite a lot more experience than the hon. Member on this issue and can tell him that I view the Bill as being quite proportionate in terms of regulation. It is vital that we take steps to protect our children from obesity, and that requires us to have the regulations to do so. Is he suggesting that he would abandon the regulations that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already introduced and reverse the current ban on watersheds?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: he is far more knowledgeable about regulating than I am, because I do not believe in all that regulation, whereas he appears to believe in lots. I certainly bow to his superior knowledge on regulation, but that was not the agenda that he promoted when he was a Minister.

I should have thought that those who believe in regulation would allow the body that had been put in charge of accumulating and analysing the evidence— in this case Ofcom—to do so and to make its recommendations before the Government intervened. I would have expected that to be a rather basic element of good regulation, yet the hon. Gentleman appears to have ignored it. He wishes to pre-empt Ofcom’s conclusions on the restrictions on advertising, which cannot be seen by anybody as good regulation.

The hon. Gentleman invited me to say whether I supported the existing restrictions that have been placed on broadcasters. I am quite happy to confirm to
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him that I do not support them. In my view, the existing regulations were a sop and were based on no evidence whatever. Anyone who follows the workings of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport will have observed that I have always passionately argued against any restrictions on the advertising of such food products, for the simple reason given earlier: I have never believed that any such restrictions would make any difference to childhood obesity levels.

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is quite right to remind hon. Members of the valuable role that he has played on our Committee of raising the issue regularly with our witnesses, including this week, when he raised it with the chairman and the chief executive of Ofcom. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) said that he considered the measures in the Bill to be proportionate. I merely point out that Ofcom’s own document concluded that the measure that he has proposed is “disproportionate”.

Philip Davies: Indeed. Equally, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the Committee, which he chairs with great skill. Anybody who has heard Ofcom’s evidence will be left in no doubt that it, too, thinks that the Bill is rather premature at best and potentially misguided at worst.

Mr. Chope: Even the restrictions that have already been introduced have produced unforeseen consequences. For example, the advertising of food in cinemas has increased by some 50 per cent.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right, and he made a powerful speech about how the Bill is so badly flawed. In his introductory speech, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South was very reticent about his record as a Minister at the DTI and some of the things that he then believed in—not surprisingly, given the content of the Bill. Last year he told the House:

I presume that on that basis he is a supporter of food manufacturing, so I am surprised that he is promoting a Bill that will do a lot of damage to the food manufacturing industry.

Martin Horwood: Forgive me, but I thought that the hon. Gentleman argued earlier that the Bill would have no impact on market share.

Philip Davies: My point is that it would not make any difference to overall market size, but it could make a big difference to individual companies’ market share, and their ability to enter certain markets, so it would have a negative effect on some food manufacturing companies.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South said, when he was a Minister in 2001, that he believed that his goal as a Minister was

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