Obesity Strategy 2020

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 27th May 2021.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 4:42 pm, 27th May 2021

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate. The funny thing about opening and closing this debate for the Opposition is that I have already posed 10-minutes’ worth of questions to the Minister and now I am back for another round. I do want to hear the answers to my questions and to the many good questions posed by Members from all parties, so I shall not speak for long. I am not sure whether that is a kindness to the Minister, but we are keen to hear the answers.

I want to reflect on some of the contributions, because it has been a really great debate. I hope that the people watching—there is a lot of interest in this subject—will have seen the quality of the discussions. There have of course been differences of view, but that is a good thing, and I hope people will have seen the House at its best this afternoon.

I have worked a lot with Andrew Selous on modern slavery, and he always works with such compassion. The tone that he set on having a non-stigmatising debate was a very good one. Jim Shannon picked up that theme too and I think we have managed to have such a debate. It is important that we continue that.

My hon. Friend Dan Carden made some points on alcohol labelling, following his recent debate on the subject. It would be helpful to hear clearly from the Minister that the briefing that such labelling was to be dropped is wrong. I think that is what we heard from her, but it would be helpful is she was very clear that that briefing is inaccurate. Will she pick up on the idea of having a national alcohol strategy and say how she feels about bringing together some of the existing strategies to attack many of the commonalities—for example, in relation to mental health services?

I spoke about mental health services earlier, as did others, including my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, whose points about treatment services for children were very well made. After a decade of real famine in this police area and the continued failures in CAMHS, there is a commitment in the strategy on investment in healthy-weight services; I am keen to hear from the Minister some extra detail about what form that is going to take. If she does not have those details today, will she say when we are going to start to hear some and when we will have a chance to debate what form that is going to take? My hon. Friend Olivia Blake and Wera Hobhouse picked up on a point I raised in my opening remarks about eating disorders and they strongly displayed just how people feel, certainly those who are working and active in supporting people with eating orders. We are very lucky to have those people still making that case after such a challenging year for their support services. I hope the Minister has heard that, because I strongly believe that the impact assessment does not pay prominent enough regard to it. I hope she will confirm that she is still in listening mode and perhaps give us a date for when we can hear about and debate that secondary legislation, now that it has been published. I hope she will use this time to seek to meet some of those concerns.

Let me turn to contributions from Conservative Members. I was struck by the one from Alun Cairns on knowledge and skills, because the cruelty in all this is that scratch cooking is not only better for us, but cheaper. It is one of the few things where doing the right thing really rewards us. If my wife was watching this—let’s face it, she’s not—she would roll her eyes and say, “It tastes better if you do it right.” She has tasted my cooking and scrutinised my app-based ordering late at night, so she might say that I am in danger of a bit of hypocrisy there, but nevertheless it is true that scratch cooking is cheaper and healthier.

The hon. Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore) and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) picked up on the idea of education programmes. Whether or not we characterise them, as he did, as a recommitment to home economics, these sorts of programmes are effective. It is not making a particularly aggressively partisan point to say that a decade of cutting the public health grant has meant that, in essence, these services have disappeared across the country, but they did exist and can do so again. I hope that we will see a reinstatement of them, and I do not think it is nannying to do that. When this is done intergenerationally as well, it can have a great social benefit. The evidence behind it was good, and I would love to see a report on it.

The point made by Jo Gideon about public opinion was very important, as that issue has not been covered much. There has been a lot of talk about personal choice, to which I will turn shortly, but the public are ahead of us on this. On the vast majority of the interventions, even the ones I am most sceptical about, the public are more bullish than I am, so it is important that we do not lose that from the debate.

We heard contributions from the hon. Members for Woking (Mr Lord) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter) about the ad ban, which is not a silver bullet, as the Minister has said, although it is impactful. I might argue that the vigour with which those who oppose it say it is a bad idea shows why it might be a good one. Nevertheless, I hope the Minister will again demonstrate that she is in listening mode. When the industry comes together with proposals that meet the Government’s stated aims, I hope they will be given a fair hearing—that is entirely reasonable.

Mr Harper made very good points about reformulation, which is the big goal here; whatever we do with menus, what we have seen from the sugar tax is that once firms really put their shoulder to the wheel on this, we can do some incredible things. The progress made in the past decade or so, certainly in the soft drinks industry on reformulation, is a really good sign. I did not quite agree with the point he made on demonising products, as I do not think that that is the purpose. For me, the goal here should be informed choice, which all Members have talked about, and our knowing what is in those products. I do not think manufacturers would fear that, and they should not either. The point about informed choice was also raised by Greg Smith, who talked about “overreaching”. I would think the proposal we are talking about is quite modest; there are no bans in here, certainly not of products—it is just about ensuring clarity of what is in them, and we should do that.

I want to come to the point about free choice, as it was made by many Members, including the hon. Members for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). If this is genuinely a matter of free choice—this is the thing I just cannot get past on this issue—why does obesity happen disproportionately on the same streets and estates, year after year, generation after generation, even though the people in those houses change? If this was purely a matter of free choice it would not happen that way and would be much more evenly distributed across the country, but all the evidence tells us that that is not the case, so I cannot quite accept that point, I am afraid.

I was not going to do this, but I thought the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire was a bit unkind to me by suggesting I had offered “breathless” support to the Government. I might have been breathless but was trying to get a lot in and wanted colleagues to have a chance to contribute too, and I think there was balance in what I said. I know the hon. Gentleman now differentiates what is being proposed today from the sugar tax, but I remember even though I was not a Member at the time that he was very publicly and prominently against the sugar tax, saying it would not work. I do not think that has been borne out by the facts since then, and I gently say I think he is wrong again in the same way today.

I have now given a quick canter around all the contributions, which were very good, even the ones that perhaps I would not agree with and that were made by Members who might not have agreed with my contribution. We have got the strategy—we have had it since July—and what I want to hear from the Minister now is a real emphasis on delivery and implementation and on recognising the concerns raised by Members and those outside this place, and a real sense of how we will work together to implement it. As I have said, where that is done in an evidence-based way, we will be supportive, because this is a very big prize indeed.