Food Labelling

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:01 pm on 5 May 2004.

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Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Conservative 9:01, 5 May 2004

My Lords, the House will not only be grateful, it will be delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, has returned to a theme that has, as he reminded us, come up from time to time throughout his long and distinguished political career. Most of us knew him in another place as the first Minister of the Disabled, a title that now—alas—has become politically incorrect. These days we have Ministers for disabled people and I learnt very early on in my career at the now defunct DHSS that the disabled are people first and disabled second.

Having—to mix my metaphors—got that red herring off my chest, I recall that the subject of nutrition interested the noble Lord long before he came to your Lordships' House. I agree with almost everything he said, but I cannot agree with either him or the noble Lord, Lord Brookman, that legislation will be of much use, at least in the immediate future. I will come to that point in a minute. I assume that because bad nutrition leads to obesity the noble Lord instigated a short debate on the subject on 8 January last year. Alas, he was unable to take part in a more specific debate on obesity introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, in October. However, I suppose that I must say that honours are even on that score because the noble Baroness is not in her place today.

Among a mass of interesting information, the noble Baroness told us that, in the United Kingdom, obesity has trebled in the past 20 years. Perhaps more relevant to today's debate, she said that more than 10 per cent of 10 year-olds and more than 17 per cent of 15 year-olds are obese. Obesity is defined as when the body mass index—weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared—is more than 30 grams per metre squared. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, did not dispute either of those facts. Neither did he say that the body mass index is little understood by anyone outside the medical profession. Even they, I note from yesterday's Evening Standard, are beginning to argue among themselves about whether it is the shape rather than the bulk of the body that causes the problems.

In both debates the conclusion was that increasing obesity, leading as the noble Lord, Lord Fyfe, reminded us, to massive increases in the incidence of diabetes, coronary disease and stroke, is a time bomb waiting to explode.

The noble Lord, Lord Warner, hoped to convince me on the last occasion that the Government had a strategy to deal with the problem. I am afraid that he failed. What he called a strategy, I would have to call some modest although hopefully effective tinkering round the edges. His noble friend Lord Morris called it "adhocracy". It included the cross-government food and health action plan. The thinking on that is so advanced that only tomorrow is the Secretary of State to launch it department-wide. Considering that the Chief Medical Officer raised the problem of obesity again last year, that we have known about it for at least five years and that the Government have been seven years in office, even the Prime Minister can hardly call that "speedy progress".

Another part of the strategy is the cross-government activity co-ordination team. The current manifestation of this is the "Summer of Sport" campaign led by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, and welcomed by the Secretary of State for Health. It is all very fine and dandy until one realises that of the £750 million commitment of lottery funds to school and community sport, only £8.5 million has been spent to date.

Noble Lords have commented on the amount of time children spend on sport. The Government's much vaunted two hours a week of in-school sport is still not universal, I am told. In any case, even if it were available in all schools, is two hours enough? Sweden, with a much lower average body mass index than ours, offers 10 hours. Is that not what we too should be aiming for?

A salt reduction plan for processed food manufacturers was highlighted by the Minister in the debate tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Granted, high levels do untold damage to arteries in particular, but what exactly has that to do with obesity? As has been pointed out by all speakers today, of much more relevance is the amount of sugar and fat, but they were to be tackled second. Why? Do the Government have a pecking order of government health priorities? If so, can we be let into the secret as to what principles set it?

This brings me on to food labelling, currently controlled by the Food Labelling Regulations 1996. Although I am a strong believer, and by it a financially rewarded believer, in the single market, it is noticeable that they were allowed by the European Union only because the Commission had no plans at that time to produce a directive on the subject. Now it has started the legislative process, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said. Unfortunately, since it has started, we cannot change our own legislation unilaterally. It is, quite simply, illegal. All the good ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and other noble Lords are thwarted unless the Government can get a voluntary agreement from the processed food industry.

Even then, it could cover only home produced or—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fyfe—home packaged or own-label food. No doubt the Minister will claim that the Government have made great strides in persuading the Commission of what is needed. I hope that he will be able to tell us the outcome of what is currently in the draft directive—which has come to a temporary, I hope, grinding halt because the European Parliament cannot discuss it until after the elections next month. Will the Government use their good offices to make sure that it finds a high place on the newly elected parliament's agenda?

Much as I approve, there could be a problem even with this legislation. America, as the Minister knows, has the strictest food labelling in the world. It also has the highest rate of obesity. Can anyone tell me why? I have asked all over the place for this information but no one seems to be able to produce the answer. Perhaps the Minister, with the resources at his command, can do so. He indicates not and I am not in the least surprised. Perhaps not tonight but at some time.

My particular bugbear is fat content. Many processed foods now state "90 per cent fat free". How wonderful. Claims like that should be banned. They are, in essence, stating a negative. What they should state is, "Contains 10 per cent fat". That would be much more useful to the consumer. Still, it is a heck of a lot when you consider that fat, whatever it is, will inevitably be only part of an individual's diet. It is the total diet, unmatched by physical activity, that leads to obesity at any age. Bluntly, if calories in equal calories out, there is no problem. More and more people are not using up calories, so more and more people are becoming obese. It is calories that count, not the amount of food. Going to school on a bowl of porridge is far better for your children than going to school on a Mars bar—sugar being just as damaging as fat.

When I am in London I live near a large comprehensive school surrounded by an absolute plethora of corner shops where I buy my newspaper in the morning. I have observed over the years how much their takings are increased in term time by children buying fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate bars. As an admitted chocoholic myself I can sympathise with these children. However, how can a responsible parent possibly control a child's intake of calories when they do not know what their children are eating away from home? I cannot imagine that the only solution that I can come up with—reducing their pocket money—would do much for family relations.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, what about schools? Are they teaching responsible food consumption in the same way as children have sex lessons? I doubt it, but I have no doubt that the Minister will correct me in his usual way if I am wrong.

Your Lordships may have been surprised by my mention of sex lessons in a debate such as this—as I have to say I was by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on nuts, and indeed by the response of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. I believe that on this the food industry can be congratulated. The most amazing products say, "may contain nuts". "May" contain nuts is a far better warning if one is allergic to nuts than "does" or "does not". Sooner or later something will slip in—an oil will have been used previously in cooking and the pan will not have been washed out properly—and the nuts will arrive in the wrong food. So I totally disagree with the noble Baroness; I praise the food industry for saying "may contain nuts".

However, back to sex—there is a logic. It seems to me that we have a very good template in how to tackle obesity in children. I became a junior health Minister in the mid-1980s, just after my noble friend Lord Fowler had devised a strategy for combating AIDS. Your Lordships will remember that exactly the same sort of warnings about sexually transmitted diseases were given then as there are about obesity today. Three things were done. First, an enormous amount was spent on public sector broadcasting. Secondly, sex lessons in schools were given an impetus to cover the subject. Thirdly, the private sector became involved. Your Lordships will remember that Richard Branson developed Mates condoms and the Government made sure that mention of condoms became acceptable. The net result was a gradual decline in the incidence of AIDS.

There is no reason why the same should not happen now: nutrition lessons in schools for every child regardless of sex; physical training—or PE, as I believe it is now called—as well as games in school, whether in an indoor playing area or on the playing fields, which, alas, as noble Lords have said, are declining, especially in our state schools; a greatly increased amount of public sector broadcasting on the subject; and, lastly, the involvement of the private sector.

I heard the other day of a local authority that had issued all the children in school with pedometers. Locals said it was throwing bad money after good. Not so. The whingers did not take account of the fact that children are distinctly competitive animals. "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours" took on a totally new meaning. The children started walking, jumping, skipping and playing games. The point is that today's school children are tomorrow's workforce. Cannot local firms be persuaded to adopt local schools and give the children pedometers?

These three things need drive and persuasion and someone must be in charge. Ministers have too many other things to do, as indeed does the Chief Medical Officer and his staff. The Government believe in health tsars—but they are isolated in the Department of Health. My party has a policy of having an interdepartmental equivalent, not just for obesity but for public health as a whole. We call him or her the public health commissioner. There is not even a smell of a similar idea from the Government; perhaps there will be tonight.

The Opposition cannot compel the Government to do anything. Their Back-Benchers are arguably in a slightly stronger position, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, pointed out—especially so when, as there have been tonight, there are four of them prodding the Minister from all sides and behind. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, by securing tonight's debate, is doing this country and his own Government a service. If only they would sit up and take notice. If they will not, my advice to him and to other noble Lords opposite is for goodness' sake to keep on prodding, because I am happy to join them any day of the week.