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Breastfeeding

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 26th May 2004.

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Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:00 am, 26th May 2004

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and endorse her comments about the worldwide situation. We are talking about 1.5 million children a year and a child dying every 30 seconds. Those are horrifying figures. There is also a great discrepancy between countries. At a reception here just a week or two ago, we heard that Brazil has introduced a strong law, which is well implemented, and what a difference that will make. I appeal to the Minister for the UK to show leadership. We should have stronger laws and better implementation of them, which I am sure would provide a model for the rest of the world. I shall leave my comments on the workplace until the end, because that is perhaps the more controversial point.

It is now more than 20 years since the inception of the code. That leads us to ask what is happening. The early-day motion tabled by Lynne Jones was very good and comprehensive. I shall not read it all out today, because it picks out the points that we have just covered, but it rightly says that something needs to be done.

Of course, international companies will find ways around the legislation and regulations that we have had for a long time because their profits are bound to be enormous. Just imagine the profits that might be had by international companies promoting their wares in countries such as China, where 20 million babies are born each year. It is big money, which is why we need changes here.

What I found quite surprising in the work of IBFAN and, indeed, local reports is that the problem is not simply a matter of not having strong enough legislation; it is also the extent to which the code is violated. A local supermarket had a particular promotion—I cannot remember whether it involved a two-for-one offer or extra reward points—but fortunately local members of the National Childbirth Trust took swift action, reported the matter to trading standards officers and action was taken. The work of trading standards officers, who enforce the narrow UK law, is to be commended, but they need more law to work with.

Another problem is that, in hospital or soon afterwards, many mothers receive gift packs that contain samples of complementary foods, breast milk substitutes and follow-on milks, or vouchers. Leaflets for mothers are sometimes found in clinic waiting rooms. Companies often give branded gifts to health workers, ignoring the explicit ban on direct and indirect contact with pregnant women and mothers of infants and young children. Telephone care lines and websites compete with those of the NHS and mother support groups, which are in turn promoted to mothers in leaflets, parenting magazines, direct mail and on product labels. Companies use the same brand name for a range of products. Infant formula is labelled "for use from birth" and one or more follow-on formulas are labelled

"for use with older infants".

Follow-on formula did not exist when the code was adopted and has been described by the World Health Assembly as "not necessary". Companies can widely advertise follow-on formula in the UK. It serves to promote infant formula with the same brand name and clever packaging, which tends to idealise artificial feeding. There is also a problem with complementary foods, labelled

"for use before six months of age", which we desperately need to address.

Returning to obesity, my hon. Friend Mr. Stunell recently tabled parliamentary questions on the link between the high-sugar content of baby foods and obesity in children, and asked what information is available on baby foods and sugar. We must highlight the facts about fat, salt, sugar and other substances contained in complementary foods.

The Minister should respond positively to IBFAN's well rehearsed call for action. It suggests three strategies: a change in Government policy, which would include the prohibition of materials on infant and child care that are produced or sponsored by companies with an interest in infant feeding; new legislation implementing the code's provisions for feeding bottles and teats, including a ban on promotion; and revised legislation that would fully introduce all the revised EU directives.

On education, in the process of preparing questions I discovered that GCSE syllabuses on child care do not even cover the international code on the marketing of breast milk. That is appalling. Through my parliamentary questions, and having pursued the matter with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, I have received a commitment that the syllabuses will be amended when they are revised. That action will be implemented at the earliest opportunity. So that was a success, although it has opened up how much more must be done in education.

Will the Minister liaise with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, because teaching about breast feeding versus bottle feeding should ideally involve bringing a professional into the classroom? There is a lot of scope in personal, social and health education for sensibly promoting breastfeeding, which means tackling the matter from the beginning. There is much more that can be done, but, incredibly, text books do not cover the 1981 code.

I have left the subject of the workplace until last, because I thought that that might bring some of my colleagues into the debate. There have been splendid initiatives on child care and on making it easier for mothers to return to work, but those sometimes introduce a third factor of having to give up breastfeeding. It is a tragedy when Government policies, in effect, work against each other. I am the last person in the world to want to introduce bureaucracy and put difficulties in the way of businesses, especially small businesses, but what surveys have been conducted on what would make it easier for mothers to continue to breastfeed when they return to work? I would not want to pronounce on the solutions to that, but surveys should be conducted.

We should think outside the box a little. Greater flexibility is probably needed, such as the ability to take a longer lunch hour. I would hope that larger companies provide suitable places for breastfeeding. If we are to have a holistic policy that is about the health of children, that policy must be examined from all angles and take into account the concerns of the Department of Trade and Industry, the DFES and the Department of Health. I hope that the Minister will take a lead across the Departments on those important issues, to help us to succeed in bringing our breast-feeding levels at least up to those of other European countries.