Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Nov 2008 : Column 980

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to supporting POCA in the future, but one criticism of the scheme is that it is very difficult to open an account. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us a commitment that in future the POCA will be the easiest option rather than the last resort? If he can, there may be substance to his announcement today.

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to make opening an account as easy as possible. It is already easier than opening a bank account, but the new contract will make it even easier. Both the Post Office and the Government are committed to that, and will work together on it over the next few weeks and months.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his commitment to ensuring that it will be easier to open an account, but I hope that we will not have a repeat of what happened in 2003 with the complicated migration process. Will pensioners who have an account at present keep it automatically without having to go through a migration process? Also, will the right hon. Gentleman make a commitment that he will write to those pensioners who applied for an account in recent months but who were refused and told that, unless they supplied their bank account details, they would not get their pension? Will he write to them and offer them the opportunity to open a POCA?

James Purnell: We did not write to pensioners saying what the hon. Gentleman claims, and we have not asked any POCA holders for bank account details. One isolated letter was sent out by mistake, and we have apologised for that. However, I can give a commitment that we will ensure that people do not have to change their accounts. One of the virtues of this decision is that people already know how to use their POCA and are used to going to their post offices to do so. That is one of the reasons why we have taken this decision.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): This is clearly the right decision, although I suspect that Lord Mandelson has cast a long shadow over it—assuming that he casts a shadow. Is it not time to end the attrition against the Post Office network and to start building it up with new services? May I suggest that the Government start by using their impending shareholding in the Royal Bank of Scotland to instruct that bank to use the Post Office network and to allow its customers to do so as well?

James Purnell: The right hon. Gentleman made the same claim earlier this week, but actually the RBS already offers that through its accounts. [Interruption.] It does; I will happily write to him about it. One is a basic account, and the other is a current account. I am afraid that he was not in the Chamber when I wanted to make that point earlier this week. I am happy to be able to give him that information.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): This is the right decision, and the hundreds of residents in the Kettering constituency who sent in their campaign postcards will have played their part in changing the Secretary of State’s mind. Will he ensure that all the social security
13 Nov 2008 : Column 981
benefit and pension application forms that his Department issues highlight the Post Office card account as an attractive means of payment of those benefits, instead of mentioning it in the small print at the bottom of the page?

James Purnell: As I said earlier, we are looking at how we market the POCA. It is an important service, which is why we are renewing it. We have made exactly the change that the hon. Gentleman suggests in, for example, the leaflet that goes with our letters about cheque accounts. I hope that he will welcome that.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State clarify something about his statement? He said: “On the basis of the legal advice that we received at the time”—that is, in 2006—“we put the contract out to tender.” He has now decided that he can cancel the tendering process. Either the advice that he received was wrong, or the legal position has changed. Will he clarify which it is?

James Purnell: If I may dare to paraphrase Keynes, when the facts change, the legal advice becomes different. The facts have changed, as I explained in my statement. There has been a major change in people’s attitudes to financial services. There has been a significant increase in people’s concern about them. Given the vital social and financial importance of the Post Office, the legal advice is that we are taking the appropriate, legal way of proceeding. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the decision that we are taking.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Croydon residents will welcome this news. I am sorry to be churlish on a good news day, but they wait a very long time in queues that spill out of the very large post office
13 Nov 2008 : Column 982
in the centre of Croydon into High street, as so many post office branches have been closed. Bearing in mind that we are now taking a new, fresh, radical approach, would it be possible to spend just a fraction of the money spent on bailing out UK banks on post offices? As we have crossed the Rubicon and made a public sector investment in banking, surely this is the time to invest in post office branches, and to have a fresh, new bank, free of bad debts, and therefore better able to stimulate growth in our economy?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that part of the £1.7 billion that we will spend will be invested in the network and the post offices that are there to deliver services to his constituents and others. We have already said that we want to look at the other financial services that are provided, and indeed at other services that the Post Office could provide. He will be glad to know that access to 60 per cent. of bank accounts is available through the Post Office.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): It beggars belief that the Secretary of State can claim that his change of heart it is down to the credit crunch. All the so-called facts that have changed, which he identified in his statement, were known at the outset of the prolonged tendering process. So why did he put all sub-postmasters through the tortuous process, causing them concern about the viability of their business, and all their customers concern about whether they should continue to use the Post Office?

James Purnell: I will tell the hon. Gentleman where the contrast is: it is between the benefit card account that we had to cancel because it did not work, and because it was overrunning and over-budget, and the Post Office card account, which has been a great success, and which we are renewing.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 983

Point of Order

1.23 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his team are in the Chamber, may I ask whether you are aware that there was to be an oral statement this morning on the Buncefield situation? I understand that the Government will make a written statement today on the Government’s response to the terrible disaster that took place in my constituency three years ago. Even though I have had an opportunity to speak to the Minister in the other place, Lord McKenzie, neither I nor any other Member of this House will have an opportunity to question the Minister or his team on the Government’s response to the Buncefield inquiry. I wonder how we can get that issue discussed on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): There are many ways in which the hon. Gentleman might explore his concerns on the issue, but obviously it has nothing to do with the statement with which we have just dealt.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 984

Topical debate

Combating Obesity

1.24 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Dawn Primarolo): I beg to move,

It was almost a year ago today that the Foresight programme report served notice of the grave threat posed to health by obesity. That group of eminent scientists claimed that modern society had created an obesogenic environment, which, without radical action, would result in nine in 10 adults and two thirds of all children being overweight or obese by 2050. The prognosis is truly frightening. Within a generation, three in five cases of type 2 diabetes and a fifth of all heart disease cases will be caused by obesity, and for the first time in centuries we face the terrible spectre of some children living shorter lives than their parents unless we reverse current trends.

Yet the prescription, on paper at least, is simple: we all need to eat a little less and exercise a little more; we will then, hopefully, live a little longer. In practice, though, the challenge is rather more difficult. People live hectic lives. Time is at a premium, and so often, exercise or healthy food can be edged out by family commitments, work, a lack of good leisure facilities or a lack of shops that sell fresh food in the area. Fundamentally, making the big lifestyle changes is a question of access, opportunity and will. Those are the issues that we must address emphatically if we want to turn the tide on obesity. The Government have already taken important steps: for example, we have allocated £65 million to NHS primary care trusts to help them to identify, monitor and support obese patients. We have updated the child health promotion programme and expanded the new family nurse partnership programme. In partnership with the children’s plan introduced by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, that will help to support the health and well-being of children and young people.

Working with Ofcom, we have placed new restrictions on the broadcast advertising of unhealthy foods to children, and are continuing to work with industry on the healthy food code to reduce salt and fat content in manufactured foods. But—and it is a big but—changing behaviour is not something that we can do from the Department of Health, Whitehall or this House. We need a lifestyle revolution driven not from above but from below, and embracing all aspects of a person’s life. That means that everyone—schools, councils, local businesses, charities and community groups—must play a role in helping people to make space for the little things that can make a big difference.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The right hon. Lady is making an extremely good point about lifestyle choices and the link with being unhealthy. Does she agree that it is time for the Government and other bodies to once again encourage family meal times, as opposed to the increasing snack culture in which so many young people and adults participate? That is contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 985

Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I know that he follows the issue closely. In debate, we have to consider how we engender changes in lifestyle, because we cannot force families or individuals to make those changes. We must consider what sort of partnerships we need to create and sustain to deliver that. I want to go on to give some examples, because he makes an important point. As I am sure he will agree, those changes include taking part in important campaigns such as the “5 a day” campaign, kicking a ball around with the children, ditching the car on the school run, and sharing family meal times, as he said.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend turn, at some point, to the influence of commercialisation on food choices? Testing shows that even very young children are influenced by brands. Although young children know what is good for them, they are more likely to be influenced by familiarity, taste, and the visibility of the product in the environment in which they live than by other considerations. How can we reasonably tackle that while remaining relatively liberal, in terms of advertising?

Dawn Primarolo: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s instruction, and I shall come on to give an example of the way in which the Government’s leadership role, by providing the framework for action and creating the opportunities and infrastructures for healthy living in our communities, can address those problems. When I do so, and if he does not think that I have answered his question, I shall be happy to give way again.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con) rose—

Dawn Primarolo: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I should like to make progress.

Mr. Vara: The Minister is indeed generous, and is making some powerful points. She spoke about the need to encourage a change in lifestyle, but does she accept that we must ensure that when young people leave school they know how to cook? One of the greatest failings at the moment stems from the fact that people buy pre-cooked food because they do not know how to cook. Changing that would not only be cheaper but healthier.

Dawn Primarolo: I certainly agree, and each intervention has touched on the fact that there is not one, simple solution to the problem; it is about what we eat, where we eat, how the food is prepared, what our knowledge is, opportunities to exercise, the way we arrange our lives, and about making choices. The role of government is to create partnerships, offer choices, and provide information, then support individuals as they seek to make those choices. That is our strategy, and it means anything from improving parks to building more cycle routes; cookery classes in school; encouraging children to do more sport; and working with employers and retailers to make it easier and more practical for people to take more exercise and eat more healthily. What the Government are being told is that people understand what the choices are and want the opportunity to act on what they know, and that is what we have to provide.

13 Nov 2008 : Column 986

As we step back from the foresight report, we must give due prominence to local ideas and local actions—families, individuals and communities taking action. Ultimately, that means we must make sure that what is happening on the ground—in the family, in the parks and in shopping centres—contributes to a healthy lifestyle.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for her generosity in giving way. She will be aware of initiatives in Bristol such as the “Thank you for not driving” campaign, which aims to tackle the school run, and the healthy schools initiative. The other day, I presented an award to St Anne’s infants school, which has received a healthy schools certificate. Does she agree that children have a role to play as ambassadors to try to encourage their parents to adopt a healthier lifestyle?

Dawn Primarolo: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. As a constituency neighbour of hers, I know that Bristol is a cycling city: it is undertaking the “active Bristol” programme and considering how it can improve its parks, provide family-centred facilities and safe corridors for family activities, so that children can undertake that exercise. It is a small step, if the House will forgive the pun, and it also enables children to set an example to their parents.

Of course it is about money, and the Government have invested in such programmes, but it is also about creating a movement. At the centre of what we are doing is the Change4Life movement, which is a huge coalition for better health that brings together many different initiatives under one banner. Returning to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made, before I received notice of this debate I was supposed to be in Newcastle for the first Change4Life partnership with local convenience stores, which will help to break a simple barrier to good health: the fact, that in some parts of the country, local shops simply do not stock fresh fruit and veg. The project is about making that easier, by supporting retailers and working with them. The first step is the launch of 12 development stores, which will be provided with funding, so that they can offer such opportunities. By May next year, it is hoped that there will be 120 such stores across the north-east. Assuming that the scheme is successful, it will be rolled out across the country. We have every reason to believe that it will be successful, because similar projects have worked in Scotland.

This is not just one issue—we have to look at wider considerations and say which organisations and agencies must come together to develop and support a wide range of initiatives at community level. What is happening in the north-east is mirrored across England. The coalition is impressive, and 12,000 grassroots organisations are involved in Change4Life, working with leading charities and big high-street names such as Asda, Tesco, Kellogg’s and PepsiCo. It is about breakfast clubs, sponsoring sport and making sure that people can make those changes to their lifestyle. Fittingly, a year on from the foresight report, this week we have announced the nine areas chosen to become “healthy towns”, receiving a share of £30 million to pioneer approaches that will enhance choices for their local communities and their ability to live a healthy life. Manchester has seen the launch of the Points4Life loyalty card, which rewards
13 Nov 2008 : Column 987
people with free activities or healthy food when they visit the gym or take exercise. Tower Hamlets is running a scheme to persuade shops and restaurants on the main road to the Olympic park to push healthier options. In Tewkesbury, people are developing an urban garden programme which will help residents to keep fit, rebuild green space in the wake of last year’s floods, and make sure that they have access to such opportunities.

We must celebrate and encourage that diversity of approach, because obesity is not confined to one social group or area, and we know it is exacerbated by poverty. That also means getting the message across that Change4Life is for everyone: children, busy parents, health professionals, and even hon. Members and, dare I say, Ministers of State. We all need to get involved because we can all benefit. In challenging economic times, when family budgets are under pressure, we must spell out the message that healthy eating does not have to be expensive. In fact, as the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) said, healthy home-cooked food is often considerably cheaper than a takeaway burger or pizza.

This is not about interfering in people’s lives, or about creating a nanny state, but we are not prepared to neglect the issues that face us, or hide behind vague notions of nudging people to better health. Quite simply, the cost of inaction and neglect is too great. It is the human cost of 9,000 premature deaths a year because of obesity. It is the increasing economic damage from the causes of rising chronic disease, and it is the cost to our society, rising to £50 billion a year within two generations, if we do not tackle the problem. In the face of those dangers, we need concrete action, not platitudes. Our obesity strategy is a comprehensive, proactive agenda for change, delivered for communities, by local communities, in local communities. I am confident that that will help our nation to shed the pounds, and give us all the chance to lead healthier and more enjoyable lives.

1.38 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I am heartened by the Minister’s speech and her conclusions, not least because they were similar to those I arrived at, possibly with more detail attached to them.

The problem is known—we have increased levels of obesity; more overweight children; higher risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, infertility and early death—and, a bit like the credit crunch, it is worldwide. Most industrial nations, although they vary a little, depending on climate, demography and the national diet, suffer from that problem, and it appears to be concentrated among the urban poor.

The causes are almost universally understood, too, but they are numerous: the mechanisation of labour in the home and in the workplace, which is good and irreversible but has consequences; the availability of cheap, personal transport door-to-door, whether it is to school—the infamous school run—or to work; and the attractions—we should not deny them—of sedentary pursuits, because the computer offers a lot, the TV always did, and the TV with the remote control takes away the necessity of even getting up to change the channel.

Next Section Index Home Page