Health Improvement and Food Production - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:42 pm on 7 July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Kirkham Lord Kirkham Conservative 4:42, 7 July 2022

Few subjects arouse stronger passions than the food that we consume. This should be no surprise given the well-attested evidence that we really are what we eat. In my home town of Doncaster—now, happily my home city—more than a decade ago, as some noble Lords may recall, a group of parents attained notoriety by defying Jamie Oliver’s well-intentioned efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. They famously pushed and levered burgers, pies, chips and fizzy pop through the school railings into the hands of their offspring to save them from the dreaded fate of a healthy salad or, God forbid, fresh fruit. To this day, there is a whole cohort of millennials who will never forgive Jamie for depriving them of the turkey twizzlers they loved so much.

Interviewed by the Daily Mirror five years after her intervention, one mother leading the Doncaster protest conceded that her children were indeed “technically” overweight but were healthy and, most important to her, happy. Happiness is a key performance indicator that is nowhere to be found in the extensive briefing notes prepared for this debate. Those notes offered a diet of almost unremitting gloom: war, climate change, labour shortages, soaring prices, growing obesity, ill-health and premature death.

I know from personal experience that eating more healthily over time has led to a substantial reduction in my own weight and produced a significant and sustained improvement in my sense of well-being and consequently my happiness. But I am conscious that I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to buy the finest, freshest, locally produced food at all times. Life will, without doubt, look very different for my fellow Doncastrians and others if they inhabit the minimum-wage economy, maybe rely on benefits, and perhaps are struggling to feed the whole family on £25 a week or less. For them, only budget supermarkets or food banks are the realistic options, and they will quite naturally tend to favour foodstuffs that keep hunger at bay and are cheap and easy to prepare.

It is a shocking fact of contemporary life that, in many cases, food banks struggle to give away potatoes and other fresh vegetables because their clients simply cannot afford the gas or electricity to boil them. In this very real cost of living crisis, the last thing that struggling families need is people such as us lecturing them on how they ought to eat more healthily to relieve the pressure on the NHS—they do not want to hear that.

I am regularly in contact with farmers and was for several years a major investor in a well-known budget supermarket chain. I can state with absolute confidence, from first-hand, personal knowledge, that no farmer or food retailer in this country that I have ever encountered wants to produce or sell anything other than good food—not only food that is high-quality and nutritious but food that is affordable and allows them to make a living from growing or selling it. Supermarkets do not develop products to make their customers fatter or sicker, but they do respond to market demands and provide what people like to eat and want to buy. In recent years, they have all significantly expanded their plant-based ranges, as flexitarian lifestyles have grown in popularity. That is good news for public health, of course, and for our planet, in terms of the reduction in carbon emissions.

The challenge for legislators is that the great British public do not like being lectured about what is good for them. If they did, they would have voted remain by an overwhelming majority in 2016. This is why I have considerable sympathy with the Government’s alleged dilution of Henry Dimbleby’s undoubtedly well-intended recommendations in the national food strategy. We can nudge people, as has been successfully achieved via the reformulation of many products after the introduction of a sugar tax, and the new rules on the display of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar will gently play their part too. We can tell people what is good for them and their families, but we must not tell them off if they feel that they cannot afford to take official advice or are simply disinclined to. In the long run, as Keynes famously remarked, we are all dead, whether we eat healthily and sparingly or gorge ourselves on fatty and sugary treats.

In my view, food is of such elemental concern to everysingle one of us that a wise Government will adopt the posture that Walter Bagehot saw as the proper role of the monarchy in the Victorian constitution; that is

“the right to encourage, and the right to warn”.

As the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, passionately stated in this Chamber in his 2018 debate on obesity, do not tell people what to do but

“tell them the truth—not in a patronising way”.—[Official Report, 18/7/18; col. 1263.]

Step beyond this and attempt to dictate what people should eat and feed to their children for their own good and we compromise the vital principle of the pursuit of happiness so fatally that we would swiftly find ourselves back in the realm of people pushing metaphorical pies and burgers through the railings of official guidance.