Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:04 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 8:04 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, this Government have told us time and again that they have a long-term economic plan but they have been pretty silent on any environmental plan.

The issue I want to talk about is a big threat to our next generation—I think that is widely recognised—but it is also symptomatic of how economics have taken over from social and environmental issues. The issue I want to talk about is obesity and why the next generation are eating so badly that they are becoming either really obese or malnourished. We now have the worst overweight figures in the OECD. Why is that? I recognise that it is a long-term problem but it starts because the food system itself is broken.

Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s erstwhile adviser, was talking about this during the publicity for the publication of his book a couple of weeks ago. He says that taxpayer subsidies prop up an iniquitous structure rigidly set up in favour of “big food” and that those subsidies should be redirected to farmers and producers who are doing the right thing. I agree with him, but what a shame he did not say that when he was at the heart of government. The food sector is always siloed into one government department when actually it is a question of things that happen in Defra, the Department of Health and the Department for Education—it cuts across all departments. So what a shame he did not take advantage of his position while he had it.

The food system is broken. At one end we have the producers producing excellent meat, fruit and veg who cannot make a reasonable living. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, highlighted the dairy farmers. The noble Lord, Lord Curry, put it rather well, I thought, when he said that the farmers are those with whom the buck stops. Young, enterprising would-be growers cannot even afford the land upon which to start.

Of course, historically the choice was made to subsidise sugar production and not vegetables, and wheat but not fruit, and we have had to live with the results of that. But it is also a part of the system where manufacturers are creating processed foods that really have no nutritional value. Supermarkets are basically in a race to the bottom on cost and have found that the less nutritious food sells if you give it enough so-called mouth appeal—that is, sweet, salty foods. I am sure that noble Lords will be as shocked as I was by the Netmums finding that:

“Sugar is used in massive quantities by the food industry”.

The example given was Heinz Farley’s Rusks, which contain 29g of sugar per 100g. Those are for babies and nearly a third is sugar.

However, the answers are within our reach. One of the best moments for me of the coalition Government was when Nick Clegg, then Deputy Prime Minister, announced that the long-held Liberal Democrat policy of starting children off with a good nutritional input would become government policy so that proper school meals would be provided for every single infant school pupil for free. I hope that this Government will continue that drive to make sure that at least primary schoolchildren get that sort of start in life. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on the fact that while the Government are set on creating more academies and free schools, those children will be offered meals that do not have to measure up to any nutritional standards at all.

I was very saddened to read that the UK Government are now one of only three out of 28 in the EU to decline to take part in an EU scheme that makes the provision of affordable fruit and vegetables for schoolchildren a possibility. I wonder why the Government have declined to take part in that. We took part in the milk scheme that the EU ran and that has been amalgamated with the fruit and veg scheme. Of course, obesity is not just a UK problem and this is one example of the EU trying to give children a better start in life. Why would we not take part in that? We need a total overhaul of a broken food system which is ruining the health of our children and, at the same time, ruining countries far away.

I am sad, too, that the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, is to leave this House because he is one of the few to have championed biodiversity and what is happening to the rainforests. In countries far away, the impact of the vast quantities of soya grown to feed our cattle and pigs is massive, when our home-grown grass for cattle produces a far healthier diet and meat of a superior quality. Those countries far away are losing their varied habitats to a monoculture, so we will miss the examples from the noble Lord, Lord Eden, of that sort of destruction.

The Government are consulting on the Human Rights Act. They should bear in mind that a decent environment in which to live is one of the most basic rights of all. Environmental protection, whether here or abroad, must be considered as part of human rights. Although there was no protection of the environment in the original 1949 European Convention on Human Rights, many other countries have since recognised its importance of in their fundamental laws. Notably, Germany added that in 1994, while in France in 2004 an environmental charter was added to the French constitution. We are approaching the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest. We have talked a lot about Magna Carta, which was terrific for the barons, but the Charter of the Forest was what gave the person living on the land, and trying to make a living from it, some rights of their own against the encroachment of the King. It is time that we celebrated that 800th anniversary by thinking about environmental rights and putting them at the heart of what we regard as human rights.