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Baroness Cumberlege (Conservative)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will include obesity as a priority for primary care in the Quality and Outcomes Framework for general practitioners.

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Baroness Cumberlege (Conservative)

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interests as set out in the House of Lords register. Perhaps I ought to add another: I love my food.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, the Quality and Outcomes Framework already includes obesity. The process for reviewing clinical and public health indicators in that framework is overseen by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which recommends changes annually for consideration as part of the GP contract discussions. NICE will continue to lead on this process but from April 2013 priorities for public health indicators will be set by Public Health England in consultation with the devolved Administrations.

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Baroness Cumberlege (Conservative)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that full Answer. Does he agree that one of the successes in primary care has been the introduction of the Quality and Outcomes Framework, which incentivises GPs? Unfortunately, one of the incentives is to keep a register of obese patients-nothing else, just a register. In fact, that incentivises them to keep people fat. Does my noble friend also agree that obesity, which is forecast to cost the nation, or the NHS, £45 billion, needs prompt action? Will he assure me that under the new reforms that he just mentioned, Public Health England will prioritise the development of these indicators in the Quality and Outcomes Framework?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the Secretary of State will set the strategic objectives and policy priorities of Public Health England. It will have operational autonomy and operate transparently. Rates of obesity remain high across England and continue to have clear links to health inequalities. GPs can play a key role in making every contact count by raising the issue of obesity and providing advice or referral to appropriate services, so I do not necessarily accept the criticism that my noble friend levelled at the current QOF indicators. GPs have every reason to act when they see obesity in front of them. I cannot pre-empt exactly what Public Health England will wish to prioritise in the development of the QOF, but I fully expect that it will want to work with NICE to review the evidence base for building on the current QOF obesity indicator.

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour)

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl will agree that action on obesity is best taken when different government departments play their part. If he accepts that, does he regret the abolition of the Cabinet sub-committee on public health?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, the role of Public Health England will undoubtedly stretch across government departments, because it should and will involve energising the efforts of not just the Department of Health and at not just national level. However, I agree that there is no single magic bullet to solve the problem of obesity. The call to action on obesity published last year set out a range of actions in which government and individuals, as well as local organisations, need to engage if we are to beat this threat to public health.

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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (Crossbench)

Are the Government considering including in commissioning from health service employers a requirement to address obesity in their staff at all levels, given that the staff are often quite severely obese and act as a very poor role model for those patients whose obesity should be being addressed?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, this is a very important point. Dame Carol Black and I chair a network within the responsibility deal in the Department of Health which draws together employers from a range of sectors to address health in the workplace. It is a tremendously important opportunity if we can engage employers to realise that it is in their direct interest to ensure that their employees enjoy good health and lead healthy lifestyles.

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

I suggest that we hear from the noble Lord, Lord McColl.

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Lord McColl of Dulwich (Conservative)

I congratulate the Government on rejecting the misleading advice of that quango, NICE, which misled politicians by denying that the answer to the obesity epidemic was to eat less. What plans are there to prevent NICE making such serious mistakes in the future?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

I congratulate my noble friend, as ever, on his powerful advocacy in this area. He is absolutely right that NICE recognises in its guideline that dietary management, including calorie intake, is of predominant importance in battling obesity. It does, however, recognise that exercise is important. It emphasises that although an individual's ability to be physically active may be hampered by their level of fitness, recommendations can be built up gradually. It is a balance. NICE will continue to act as a source of advice for the medical profession. It is an independent organisation, as my noble friend understands, and Ministers consciously do not interfere with its operational integrity or independence. However, we expect it to take advice and evidence from a range of clinical sources.

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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)

My Lords, I, too, have an interest to declare; I think it is fairly obvious if you look at me. That is why I want to ask a serious question of the Minister. Will he say to medical practitioners and others that it does not help to be critical and condemnatory of those of us who are obese? It is important to give information and encouragement. Otherwise, there can be complications and people can end up with depression and other illnesses, so it is very important to give encouragement. I am glad to say that that is why I have been able to lose more than a stone in the past month.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

Not for the first time, the noble Lord is an example to us all. I agree with the point he makes about the way in which doctors engage with their patients on this often sensitive subject. That is why the previous Government very commendably put in place a suite of resources to guide GPs in this area. Those have since been supplemented by electronic training modules on the identification and management of obesity and supporting behaviour change in patients. NICE has produced a clinical guideline to supplement its advice on obesity and exercise to guide clinicians on exactly how they approach this topic.