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2.31 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a pleasure to respond to this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. This debate is important, but it is difficult to call it topical on a day when BT has announced 10,000 job losses and at a time when 2,000 jobs a day are being lost in the British economy. Even the Minister was surprised to find herself here this afternoon responding to a debate that she did not know was going to be called.

On the serious issue of obesity, however, many figures have been cited but probably the most worrying is the one from 2006, which is that one third of all children then were classed as technically obese. That means, on the Government’s own statistics, that unless we all do something, 60 per cent. of the British population will be obese by 2050. That is why this is such an important debate.

The Minister said in her opening remarks that we are not talking about a social group, the working class or anything like that; we are talking about a major issue that affects people across the board. As many hon. Members have said, obesity dramatically affects the
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lower socio-economic groups in our society—I will come to that—but it dramatically affects certain ethnic groups, too. As we become a more diverse population, some ethnic groups, particularly certain Asian groups, suffer disproportionately from obesity and the medical problems associated with it. I am aware that the Bengali community is particularly worried about type 2 diabetes, which is affecting it so much and which seems to be becoming a genetic problem.

There were reports in the press this morning that having fat in certain parts of the body affects a person’s likelihood of contracting cancer. One report said that having “love handles”—that is, fat in the abdomen area, round the body more generally—makes a person more likely to get cancer. I am worried by such research and the way that it is reported in the press. As other hon. Members have said, the issue should not be about a stigma, but about helping people to live healthier lives. We are all different shapes and sizes, so we should not worry people by saying that if they have the odd extra pound around their abdomen they are more likely to get cancer; rather, we should address the issue of obesity.

I pay tribute to hon. Members who have talked about the push by the fashion industry and others for size zero, and about those who say that only sizes eight and 10 are acceptable. That is abhorrent, and we should treat it with the contempt that it deserves. I only wish that my daughters would do so. They are absolutely paranoid about their weight—even though they are very sporty, they worry a great deal about what they eat. That worries me as a father, and I am sure that other parents in the House are similarly worried.

In August, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Health Secretary, said that the Conservative party’s proposals for a response to the problem will deal with the industry. It cannot be right that legislation alone is the answer; there must be a partnership between the community, businesses and Government. I was conscious that the Minister did not refer to food labelling. I hope that she has time to do so towards the end of the debate. I know that it is difficult for her to talk about that, because legislating is difficult.

Dawn Primarolo indicated dissent.

Mike Penning: The Minister is indicating that it is not a problem, so perhaps she will explain later why she did not mention it once in her 10-minute speech, even though it is one of the most controversial food issues at the moment.

As I understand it, one reason why the Health Committee report recommendation on traffic lights was not implemented—it is also why the Conservative party is not saying that it should be implemented—is that under European law it cannot be implemented. That is the issue that is at stake. Unless our European partners agree that traffic lights are the way forward, we cannot introduce them.

Dr. Stoate: I asked the Food Standards Agency about that this morning. It told me that European law was not an obstacle and that, in fact, the current recommendations from Europe made it perfectly possible to have a traffic light system if we choose to do so.

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Mike Penning: I look forward to looking at the Health Committee’s evidence. I had the honour of being a member of that Committee. I too had meetings with officials of the FSA recently, but they indicated to me that European law was a concern. If there is a concern, we need to go for the best possible option. I agree that the guideline daily allowance system is not perfect, but at least it means that information for people who are willing to look for it is on the front rather than the back of packs. Perhaps a voluntary traffic light code would be the way forward.

I should like to comment on some of the excellent comments that have been made in the debate. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) referred in an intervention to the fact that it would be much better if fewer of our constituents drove their pupils to school. I agree with him. There were some excellent community-based ideas, such as walking buses and so on. When I ask my constituents why they drive their children to school, they say, “Fear.” They do not feel that it is safe to let their youngsters walk to school any more, either with a friend or with another parent. We must address that. People in all parties are worried about that, and rightly so.

Before the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) was cut short—I am sure that he will learn from that crisis—he was absolutely right to say that interaction with youth is very important. I am conscious of the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, when school facilities are not being used, when schools are closed in the evenings, clubs and other sporting people should have the opportunity to use them.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I apologise for my earlier absence—I was at a sitting of the Home Affairs Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree with comments made by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who has indicated his support for encouraging more boxing in schools, as a sport that can do a great deal to tackle obesity?

Mike Penning: I declare an interest as someone who boxed for some 30 years. I cannot think of a better way of keeping fit than boxing, and it should be brought back into schools. It is about the fitness regime, not the bouts. If the calories are going in, one can certainly burn them off with a decent boxing trainer. Parents should not fear allowing their children to participate in amateur boxing—the protection these days is very good.

On some of the other points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, personal responsibility is crucial to any Government proposals to move the issue forward. We cannot be a nanny state—an issue that the Select Committee has considered previously—because the public will reject it and look the other way. At the same time, we need to protect. I am concerned about the poorest groups in the community using more and more ready-made meals, which are getting cheaper and cheaper in our supermarkets but, because of the salt, fat and sugar contents, are the most damaging to our constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) referred to his time on the Select Committee. I had the honour of serving on it after the report he
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mentioned was published—prior to the 2005 election. I agree that it was one of the greatest reports, although the report on smoking was also remarkable for its cross-party basis and for the legislation that it prompted, perhaps in a way that the House and country might never have believed could happen. It showed how we could protect so many people in our communities.

In my remaining time, let me say that it is not possible for any Government simply to drive legislation through. Any action we take has to be cross-departmental and based on joined-up thinking with businesses, schools and parents. I hope that this morning Jamie Oliver did not use some of the colourful language he often uses in his TV programmes. He and other chefs have undoubtedly driven forward the whole concept of cooking. My own daughters now cook on a regular basis, which I would never have dreamed of a few years ago. The debate needs to continue. It is shame that the Government have not adopted more recommendations from the 2004 Health Committee report. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how many of those recommendations we can hope to see introduced in the future.

2.41 pm

Dawn Primarolo: With the leave of the House, I would like to respond to the issues raised in this interesting and well-informed debate. Let me start with the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), whose comments were echoed by a number of Members, including the hon. Members for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

Crucial points were made about balance, and it is important that none of us implies that there is a single answer to the problem; it is far more complex than that. The hon. Member for Southport highlighted the importance of activity, food labelling, cooking healthy food, planning, urban design, advertising, reformulation of foods, using pester power to generate pressure for healthy foods, calories on menus, portion sizes and so forth—all matters of great importance that we are taking forward. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of self-image; the way in which we conduct the debate is crucial for us all—whether it be the Government, non-governmental organisations, local authorities, health service bodies, local communities or whatever. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire touched on that, as did the hon. Member for Croydon, Central.

The information we convey about maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle must not just be about what we eat or how much exercise we take. Nor is it just about making people in our society so obsessed with their diet that they do not eat enough; we have seen the difficulties people get into with eating disorders. As the Minister responsible for public health over the last year and a half, I have sought to be careful with the language that I use and to stress the importance of a healthy lifestyle and living healthier and longer lives rather than going for a one-size-fits-all solution. I endorse all the points that Members have raised in the debate.

The contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was helpfully divided into four parts. He made international comparisons, which were absolutely
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valid, and he spoke about the luxury of food and eating what is necessary. The Government can play a role, as highlighted in the Select Committee report, in the matter of portion size, as it takes us into labelling, how much we are eating and what our food contains.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the need for reliable information. We are bombarded with reports and research from all over the world, but what people need is reliable, simple, accurate information, and that is what Change4Life seeks to provide. The hon. Gentleman also perceived a lack of interest. The results of surveys suggest that while people consider obesity to be an important problem, they do not feel that it applies to them. Therein lies the real issue: it is always someone else’s problem. Even the parents of obese children do not recognise it.

The way in which we are conducting the debate on this subject allows us to polarise the issue. We think of it as applying to the person who weighs 50 stone, 20 stone or 30 stone, but once our body mass index rises above 25, we should all be wary of the health implications. We need to ensure that the information is there, that it is accessible and that people perceive it as relevant rather than accusatory or polarising, or paving the way for unintended consequences. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central made the connection with mental health.

Following the Health Committee’s excellent report, the Government acted on all its recommendations. We gave funds to primary care trusts to enable them to produce the necessary information, we updated the child health promotion programmes, we put more funds into the family-nurse partnership, and we changed the national child measurement programme so that parents can be informed of their children’s weight and height and told whether the statistics fall within a healthy range. We worked with Ofcom to change the advertising rules, particularly those applying to children.

The Food Standards Agency has worked relentlessly on reformulations of foods. It has worked relentlessly on salt and sugar, and huge steps have been made, but more needs to be done. The question that I would put to the food industry is, “If some changes can be made by some manufacturers, why cannot all the changes be made by all the manufacturers?” My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) asked that question as well.

A great deal of work is being done to build on those successes. Following the Health Committee’s report, we commissioned the Foresight report. We asked scientists to look critically at all the elements that were contributing to a substantial public health challenge. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) felt that he did not have all the information that he ought to have in connection with the Health Committee’s report. I should be happy to send the details to him, and I hope he is now satisfied that the Government acted on its recommendations.

As for the healthy towns initiative, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have a conversation with his local council. There were 160-odd expressions of interest in the initiative. Councils had to make specific proposals related to what their communities said they needed, and a selection process finally reduced the number to nine. Those nine councils will be monitored, and the measures that are found to work will form the basis of programmes for the future and funding to help all the councils implement their plans.

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That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central. This is about partnership across Government. It is about what can be done by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, by the Department for Transport and by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Of course it is about the Department of Health, but it is also about the Department for Work and Pensions and what we can do with employers to ensure that there are healthy workplaces. We must work with the Food Standards Agency and local authorities through local area agreements and make this issue a high priority. I look forward to that annual report and I hope that Members will welcome the progress that we are making.

I fear that we will need to return to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford on food labelling. The Government have been clear that the best and swiftest agreements to achieve with the industry are those of a voluntary nature, but we have made it clear that if progress cannot be made, we will consider other methods. He is right in terms of comparing ourselves with other countries; there is a great deal of information on food labelling and the traffic light system is very clear, but there is still not one system. That is why the FSA is undertaking research to settle once and for all the best, simplest and most straightforward information that needs to be available on food. It will be based on the traffic light system and will ensure that one of the building blocks—but only one—is in place as the Government work with local government, communities, the health service, NGOs and community activists in partnership to deal with the biggest public health challenge that has faced this country in a very long time.

Question put and agreed to.


Royal assent

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her royal assent to the following Acts:

Planning and Energy Act 2008

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008

Children and Young Persons Act 2008

Employment Act 2008

13 Nov 2008 : Column 1006

International Aid Transparency

2.52 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move,

Some argue that in this time of financial turbulence we should put on hold our ambition to achieve the millennium development goals and turn back from the promises we have made to tackle poverty in developing countries, but as the Prime Minister argued at the United Nations in September, now would be the worst time to turn back. For, as he has stated many times, the global problems we face require global solutions. We cannot tackle dangerous climate change without involving Africa and developing countries. We cannot address pressure on resources and energy without involving Africa and developing countries. We cannot hope to feed the world without involving Africa and developing countries.

Economic history has shown us that, given the reliance that many such countries have on exports, remittances and aid flows, global downturns can have a devastating and potentially long-term impact on the world's poorest countries. Caribbean and central American countries are already seeing a decline in remittances because of a fall in employment in the United States of America. As such sources of financing begin to decline, spending on essential services such as health, education and water supply can suffer quickly.

For that reason, the international community must keep its promises to help deliver the millennium development goals. We must keep our pledges on the quantity and quality of aid we provide to the developing world and we must ensure that policies to stabilise the global economy are effective in helping developing countries both to tackle short-term crises and to meet long-term development needs.

To those ends, I wish to update the House on the United Kingdom’s role in launching a new international aid transparency initiative that aims substantially to increase the transparency of information on global aid flows; in securing an ambitious outcome at the recent high-level forum on aid effectiveness in Accra; and in securing global commitments to reinvigorate efforts to meet the millennium development goals at the recent United Nations high-level event in New York. I also wish to inform the House of this Government’s ambitions for the financing for development conference, which will take place later this month in Doha.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My constituents are very supportive of international aid, because there is a real need for it, but they are hugely concerned that this country is giving hundred of millions of pounds-worth of aid to countries that have nuclear weapons programmes and international space programmes—in particular, India and China. Why is the UK giving £72 million this year to China and £370 million to India, given that those countries spend billions of pounds on nuclear weapons and international space research?

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