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17 Oct 2007 : Column 698

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I always expect my noble friend to be absolutely on the point. I cannot accept the charge that we gold-plate. We try to deal fairly and I think that that is right. It is plainly daft that only one freight train goes through the Channel Tunnel each day. We know that. That is why we are working hard with SNCF, the operators, Eurotunnel and so on to ensure that much better use is made of the tunnel for rail freight.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that some of this friction, which undoubtedly exists across the system, is due to the fact that this country’s network is virtually the only one that is not state owned? Does he not accept that there is at least a case for saying that we should look again at privatisation?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is not a question that I particularly want to open up. We have had a decade of continued growth on our rail network with the current system. I recognise that any system will develop some problems, but we have had a very good record—I was about to say “track record”—in railway growth over the past decade. I think that many of our European partners would like to equal that growth.

Royal Mail: Dispute

3.22 pm

Baroness Wilcox asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government believe that the dispute has been damaging for the public, for business and for Royal Mail. That is why we have urged the management and the union to reach an agreement and why we have said that we do not want to see strikes continuing.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for that Answer. I am rather sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, is not here to answer as our Trade Minister. I understand that he is off with Mr Miliband looking for new business, whereas I would have thought that sorting this out was far more important to the country at this time. Small businesses, as noble Lords know, are 95 per cent dependent on the Royal Mail for delivering their invoices and getting their cheques in. This is a very bad business. I hope that the Minister accepts that the Government sat on the fence for far too long, allowing the dispute to do lasting damage to the Royal Mail. What will they do next?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness may know, as the rest of the House will, that the Government do not run Royal Mail, which is a private company.

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A noble Lord: They own it.

Lord Davies of Oldham: They may own it, my Lords, but it is set up as a private company with its own responsibilities for management to reach appropriate industrial relations and deals with the trade unions. The negotiations are at a most delicate stage. The negotiators reached an agreement before the weekend. They have gone back to the union executive, which has sent them back on limited points to carry out further negotiations with the Royal Mail. Those discussions took place this morning. They are to be continued tomorrow morning. I do not think that it is helpful at this very delicate stage in the dispute for us to extend the issues too far.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, would my noble friend care to consider the root problem in the Post Office finances, which stems from the Postal Services Bill, as it was? He will remember my forecast of what would happen; tragically, it has happened. The Government may not want to run the Post Office, but they own it and appoint people who would not be allowed to hand out the pencils in any decent organisation. Does my noble friend have the cost of the final mile of delivery? Lying behind this dispute is the fact that, for 90 per cent of people who collect mail and dump it into the Royal Mail system, the Post Office loses 5p per item. Does he agree that that situation must be brought to an end to allow the Post Office to be run on proper commercial lines?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is very knowledgeable on these issues and he has raised important points. However, having been present at such negotiations in the past, he will know how restricted I am in commenting on the situation. He will recognise that the environment in which Royal Mail operates today is very different from the one in which it operated a decade ago. Royal Mail is open to extensive, well resourced and technologically advanced competition. It, too, has to change with the times. Effecting that change produces tensions, but we are hopeful that this dispute will end very shortly.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, the Minister did not answer my noble friend’s Question. She asked what the effect was on small businesses, which means the financial effect. Surely he has some estimate of that.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, in my original Answer I indicated that of course the Government are concerned about the impact on small businesses. Royal Mail has been able to preserve its special service—not next-day delivery, which is what the special service is designed to do, but still delivery within the second or third day. There is concern about small businesses. We make no bones about the fact that the dispute is damaging to them. There is no doubt about that whatever, which is why we want to see an end to the dispute as rapidly as possible.

Lord Cotter: My Lords, as the Minister will know, many hundreds of thousands of pounds have been incurred by small businesses in bank charges and the

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like. Will he have discussions with the British Bankers’ Association to ask the banks to be more understanding and take a softer approach to small businesses in this situation, which is affecting them very badly?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the banks are not unaware of the impact of the dispute, which affects their business, too. The noble Lord is right that, at a time when small businesses are struggling with regard to payments, a sympathetic response from the banks is necessary in many cases. I am not sure whether the Government should intervene in those terms, but we all recognise what I think is the burden of the representation from the opposition Benches—the impact on small businesses. Small businesses are not the only ones affected; a great deal of our economy has been adversely affected, because of the crucial role played by Royal Mail. There is no doubt that small businesses are suffering short-term and potentially catastrophic difficulties, and that should be taken into account.

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords—

Lord Dearing: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we have time for both contributions if they are reasonably brief.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I have great concern about the points made on all sides of the House. Does the Minister agree that the imperative is now to shut up and enable this dispute to be settled and then to debate the profound issues that have been raised?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree.

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there are concerns for small businesses because they both want money in and have to pay money out? In that respect, it probably balances out. However, at the end of the dispute, the only body that will provide a comprehensive service for small businesses will be the Royal Mail. No one else is prepared to go to the obscure, distant areas of the country where little money is to be made from providing services and delivering parcels and the like. The tragedy is that Royal Mail has been unable to communicate to CWU the critical character of the problems that its business now faces. In the ongoing negotiations, we might be able to get something done, but this is not the time to start putting blame on one side against the other.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on the last point. On his earlier points, that is why the nation values the Royal Mail and needs it to be efficient and effective. To be efficient and effective requires change in changing times, which is the basis of the present difficulty. I hasten to add that we may be on the brink of an agreement even at this moment, and we should do nothing that jeopardises that.

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3.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement on obesity made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Statement is as follows:

“The Chief Scientific Adviser and his Foresight team have today published the report, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, which pulls together the latest evidence and expertise on this vital issue and seeks to answer the question: how can we deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years? Foresight exists to challenge existing policy and this report is nothing if not challenging. The report predicts that, on current trends, by 2050, 60 per cent of men, 50 per cent of women and 26 per cent of children and young people will be obese. Incidents of type 2 diabetes are set to rise by 70 per cent; attacks of stroke by 30 per cent; and cases of coronary heart disease by 20 per cent. Obesity-related diseases will cost the nation an extra £45.5 billion a year. “The implications for those individuals who are directly affected are profound. An obese young man who remains obese, as most are likely to do, will, on average, die 13 years younger than his peer group. However, this report is based on current trends. Our destiny need not be pre-ordained, and we can buck these trends provided that we are all prepared to take the necessary steps. Indeed, the work assembled for this project gives the UK a platform to become a global leader in tackling a problem that is challenging policy-makers across the world. “In recent years, we have focused on child obesity. Sure Start children’s centres provide parents with high quality health advice in the crucial pre-school years. We now intend to start earlier still with the proposed nutritional grants for pregnant mothers. Over the past three years, the share of children on the school fruit and vegetable scheme who are eating five a day has increased from just over a quarter to just under a half. We have introduced tough new nutritional standards, are investing almost £100 million a year to improve school food and have added an entitlement to cooking lessons on the national curriculum. We have established the National Child Measurement Programme, which will provide the largest database of its kind in the world on children’s weight. “In 2004, only half of all pupils did two hours of high-quality PE and sport every week; today it is 86 per cent. We are now raising our sights so that every child has the chance of five hours of sport every week, backed by a further £100 million of additional investment. Working with the Food Standards Agency and the food industry, we have introduced front of pack labelling. We have worked with Ofcom to prohibit during children’s programmes television advertising of foods which

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are high in fat, salt and sugar. This was a bold measure, but we are determined to go further if the evidence supports the need to do so. We will therefore be reviewing the impact of the restrictions on the nature and balance of food promotion to all children, across all media.“The Foresight report endorses interventions such as these, but argues for an even bolder approach. The report says that although personal responsibility is a crucial determinant of our body weight, our environment also plays a vital role. The chilling reality is that modern life makes us overweight. As Sir David King said: Modern transport systems, sedentary jobs and convenience food make life more comfortable, but also lie at the heart of this dilemma. In a sense, we are victims of our economic success. The pace of technological revolution outstrips human evolution. Tackling this problem calls for a fundamental shift in approach. Although the report projects us forward 50 years, it does of course require action today. And many of the areas identified in the report cannot be tackled successfully by the Government alone. I hope this report will trigger the national debate that is essential if we are to rise to the challenge. “The report highlights the responsibilities of employers to look after their employees’ health, which is not just in the interests of their staff, but is also in the interests of the business: enhancing performance and improving productivity. The report also shows how small changes to everyday routines can make a real difference. Employers might look at providing loans for bikes, not just season tickets; subsidising gym membership, not just canteens—even putting out fruit at meetings, rather than biscuits. But the report also points to more substantial measures; for instance, with the built environment. Local authorities must ensure that healthy living is built into the infrastructure of our towns and cities so that planning systems improve our health and well-being. “The report examines the availability of and exposure to obesogenic food and drinks. Front of pack labelling is now increasingly prevalent, but industry has yet fully to embrace the colour coding system. There is emerging evidence that the FSA’s labelling system is more effective at informing consumers and I want to work with the industry to see this adopted, but this report underlines the expectation for change. I have also asked the Food Standards Agency to conduct an immediate investigation into the use of trans-fats to examine whether there is more we should ask the food industry to do in this area. “The report talks about the importance of targeted public health interventions. There are regional disparities in the prevalence of obesity and I hope that primary care trusts will look at what more can be done to help obese people to achieve sustainable reductions in their weight

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through advice and training in health consumption and activity. Underpinning all of this is an acknowledgment that the Government must do more. We will develop a comprehensive cross-government strategy on obesity to respond to the evidence in this report. Because of the need for concerted action on a number of fronts, I will convene a cross-government ministerial group to guide our approach. We will continue to focus particularly on children. Over 80 per cent of obese 10 to 14 year-olds remain obese into adulthood. As part of the spending review, we have already set our ambition to reverse the growth in obesity so that by 2020 we reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to the levels of 2000. “Ensuring that our health service is as focused on prevention as it is on treatment is already a priority, and obesity epitomises the need for that change. In the past, tackling obesity has always been regarded as a matter of personal willpower but, as this report starkly demonstrates, people in the UK are not more gluttonous than previous generations and individual action alone will not be sufficient. “Obesity is a consequence of abundance, convenience and underlying biology. Solutions will not be found in exhortations for greater individual responsibility or in what the report calls the futility of isolated initiatives. Let us begin the national debate here in Parliament today and let us use this report to forge the consensus that will allow the UK to pioneer the new long-term integrated approach that this issue requires. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.40 pm

Earl Howe: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. My first reaction is that it is a Statement that contains more hope value than realism. We all appreciate that obesity is a societal problem, but government have a major role to play and the Government’s record on obesity is, frankly, not inspiring.

In 1999, they abandoned the targets set by the previous Conservative Government. Nothing then happened until 2004, when the PSA target was set following two scathing reports from the CMO and the Health Committee on the costs of obesity. Even then, it was a further two years before a letter went out in September 2006 admitting that the local delivery plans by strategic health authorities to tackle obesity had still not been finalised.

The target set in 2004 was to halt the year-on-year rise in obesity among children under 11 by 2010, yet the Government have repeatedly failed to provide figures to show whether or not progress has been made. The evidence we have suggests that we are moving in the wrong direction, and this latest Foresight report bears this out. The Government’s new target is therefore incredibly ambitious given that, up to now, they have not yet managed to stall obesity levels, let alone reverse them.

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Their failure on that front is perhaps less surprising when looked at alongside the numbers of staff working in NHS public health. Those numbers, if we exclude consultants, have more than halved in the 10 years the Government have been in power. What plans are there to reverse that position, given that none of these initiatives can be rolled out without people to do the work on the ground?

On school sport, an enormous amount of hot air is being blasted out. In July the Prime Minister announced £100 million to give every child the chance of five hours sport every week. Yet it turns out that only two hours out of the five are going to be built into the school curriculum; the other three hours will have to be funded by community sports clubs. The amount of lottery money going into sport has fallen by 50 per cent since 1998, and we now know that the Olympics overspend will remove another £70 million. The pledges made in 2000 by Tony Blair to give £750 million to school sport and to create 30 sport action zones are so far just words; six years on, only half the money had been spent and only 12 action zones set up. So we have been here before. I ask the Minister: what is different now?

The Minister mentioned trans-fats. Does this announcement represent a change of policy from that set out by Caroline Flint in a Written Answer in January? After explaining that there was limited information on the amount of trans-fats in fast foods, she stated that the FSA had,

Is that statement still accurate?

On school food, the Government spent £66 million in two years on the school fruit and vegetable scheme, yet found that this had done nothing to encourage consumption of fruit and vegetables outside the scope of the scheme. In fact, consumption at home was reported as having gone down.

On food labelling, the FSA finally published proposals for a traffic light system in 2006. With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who is in his place, that was 20 months after it was first asked to do so and the proposals were immediately rejected outright by six of the leading food manufacturers and retailers. When the White Paper was launched in 2004, we argued that it would be better to have a system linked to guideline daily amounts. The Government have now accepted that proposition, abandoning what they said in 2004, but so much time has gone by that we now have a situation in which competing systems of labelling, introduced by retailers and manufacturers, are well entrenched. It is therefore likely to be a considerable time before there is any resolution of the two differing approaches. Can the Minister give the House any idea of the timescale for that?

The words “hope” and “expect” rather jump from the page when one reads the Statement. If I can follow suit, I hope the Minister will use his personal influence

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to ensure that the messages from this significant report are translated into sustainable public health initiatives across the country.

3.45 pm

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, for repeating the Statement. The Government are launching a new cross-departmental strategy for obesity—again. They did exactly that in 2004 as part of the public health White Paper. As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, intimated in his response, while the report is interesting and contains much that the House will wish to see followed up, it is an indictment of the Government’s lack of action on the recommendations made in 2004. Yet again we have an announcement of a strategy but no action plan.

Sir Derek Wanless, in his recent review of the 2004 report, has made clear that the Department of Health promised that when that report came out the CSR would address issues of lifestyle, and yet we see nothing specifically about that in the recent CSR. As a newspaper points out today, the Government have in fact changed the targets they agreed in 2004; as the noble Earl said, they have changed their targets on child obesity from 2010 to 2020.

The noble Earl is also right that since 1997 public health budgets have been raided to tackle deficits. Non-public health consultants and registrars have increased in the NHS by 60 per cent since 1997, but the number of public health consultants and registrars has gone down. I too wish to know what the department intends to do to reverse that trend so that there are enough informed officials working in public health to ensure that whatever strategy the Government finally decide to fund is implemented.

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