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Physical Activity, Diet and Healthy Weight

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 15th November 2018.

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Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

On days such as this, when there are tectonic shifts in politics, both at Westminster and across Europe, it is possible that outside observers might see debates like this one as somewhat prosaic. However, the debate is not at all prosaic. It is right that we come back to such topics, which are almost seasonal fixtures. We are all charged with obtaining progress on obesity.

I am grateful to the Government for lodging such a conciliatory motion and I will be happy to support all the parties’ amendments at decision time.

It is right that we return to the issue, because it offers us common ground. We share the same aims and objectives and we will not lose sight of the challenge that lies ahead. That challenge visits us in our constituency surgeries every week when we hear of health or ability complaints.

Large swathes of our population are locked into a trajectory—a vicious cycle—that reduces the orbit of people’s social universe, harms their mental health and, ultimately, cuts short their life expectancy.

Debates such as this one can be acts of contrition. Since this Parliament was first convened, we have sought to end the reality that people here eat more and are less active than those in most other countries. Whether through the confluence of our culture or through particular brands of social inequality, that is a nut that we are yet to crack.

I do not seek to ascribe any blame to any Administration or political viewpoint for the situation. I recognise that, for a multiplicity of reasons, an unhealthy lifestyle is woven into the fabric of our country’s make-up. How we unpick that will define the measure of our efforts in this area for years to come.

The challenge is huge. We know that, after cancer, being overweight is the second-biggest risk to health and cause of early death. Despite that reality, only a quarter of our fellow Scots are aware of the link. The scale is eye watering. If 65 per cent of adults and 29 per cent of children contracted a potentially fatal virus, that would trigger the emergency mobilisation of the World Health Organization and an international aid response.

The costs of obesity and inactivity to our society are equally large. Those costs are estimated to be upwards of £4 billion. As the minister said, our response has to be to find whole-nation and whole-place solutions. That could be by reducing the 110 tonnes of sugar that our population ingests every day through reformulation, product awareness and information.

The debate is about promoting activity, including active travel. I am very happy to support Alison Johnstone’s amendment, which I will speak to again during my closing speech. It is also about how we teach our children and make them aware of what a healthy, adequate lifestyle looks like.

The debate is also about recognising the links—they have been drawn several times—between obesity and inactivity, social isolation and social exclusion, and between obesity, inactivity, poverty and social deprivation. That is very much the thrust of my amendment.

Again, it seems prosaic to talk about a falls strategy, but the fear of falling reduces the orbit of people’s social universe. We need to recognise that and, collectively, do something to address it.

Social isolation and inactivity are definitely bedfellows. This year, 65,000 Scots will spend Christmas alone, and 200,000 Scots go four days or more without contact with another human being. That has an undeniable impact on physical and mental health. The 19th century French writer Balzac said:

“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”

We cannot magic social connections for those people out of thin air, but we can reduce the barriers to their doing that for themselves.

In 2017, I chaired a meeting of the Scottish older people’s assembly in this very room. At one point, I asked assembly members what they were most frightened of. I expected them to mention criminality, disease or frailty, but, universally, the number 1 thing that frightened them the most was falling. That is because they know that a fall could reduce the size of their social universe and that life expectancy after a hip fracture is dramatically reduced.

I am sure that, day in and day out, every member has people who come to their surgery and say that they have no confidence in the pavements or the street corners in their communities—the accident hotspots that we all know something about. My amendment calls on the Scottish Government to build on the 2014 falls framework, which looks at falls reduction and early intervention in medical settings; to expand that work in our local communities; and to work with sport and leisure trusts and local authorities to identify accident blackspots. As the nights draw in and the frost starts to bite, it is at this time of year, more than at any other, that people elect to stay at home rather than take the risk of going out and falling in their communities. If we can get the right approach, we can get them back out into their communities and social networks, and into opportunities for physical activity, which we have heard about this afternoon.

I take great pleasure in moving my amendment, and I look forward to supporting all the other amendments. I move amendment S5M-14749.2, to insert at end:

“, and reaffirms the call, which the Parliament agreed in the debate on motion S5M-04324 on 2 March 2017, for the Scottish Government to bring forward a national falls strategy, which it believes will help give people confidence in the physical landscape around them to enable a more active lifestyle.”