I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the allocation of funding from the soft drinks industry levy for sport in schools.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? This is a subject that I am passionate about. Since becoming an MP, I have spoken in a number of debates on the power of sport to influence good behaviour, create opportunities and provide enjoyment. I must stress that the purpose of the debate is to focus not on whether we are right or wrong to have a sugar tax, but on how we should spend the levy, now that the decision has been taken. With a £500 million pot, that is a significant amount of money that can make a genuine difference.
I must thank all the organisations that have contacted me in recent days ahead of the debate, including: the Sports and Recreation Alliance, which is understandably keen to see sporting opportunities increase; Sustrans, which wants to see more funding for walking and cycling programmes to and from school; Youth Sport Trust, which has also focused on the sports element and the link between greater physical activity and greater academic performance, which I know the Minister for School Standards will welcome; and ukactive, which has done a huge amount of research, highlighting in particular the cliff edge fall in activity during school holidays, which I will come back to. I was also contacted by health organisations such as: Diabetes UK, which is obviously in favour of reducing the amount of sugar being used; Cancer Research UK, on the same principle; and the Royal College of Surgeons, on behalf of dental surgeons, obviously to reduce tooth decay.
This is an important subject, because one third of children are obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school. To me, that was a staggering statistic to read. When I was growing up, it seemed that all of us were active and charging around, so I was staggered by the figure of one third—one in three. That is not only an alarming figure; social norms start to be created. If an increasing number of children are overweight or obese, that becomes acceptable and therefore it starts to increase. On a topical level, through the NHS we currently spend £6 billion a year helping people with illnesses linked to being either overweight or obese. How we could better spend that money if there were fewer obese people. And an obese child is five times more likely to be an obese adult than an adult who was not obese as a child.
The Youth Sport Trust highlights that only 21% of boys and 16% of girls meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity. I recognise that we are competing with video games, shrinking gardens—back gardens are now one third smaller than they were in the 1960s—and cautious parents. When I was growing up, parents did not think anything of children disappearing on long bike rides, playing in distant parks and going to their friends’ houses far afield, whereas nowadays parents are understandably worried if their children are out of sight. Again, that limits the opportunity to be active.
The Government recognise that we have to do something. In August 2016 they published “Childhood obesity: a plan for action” with the aim of reducing significantly the rate of childhood obesity. The plan included the soft drinks levy, which is worth £520 million a year, and clearer food labelling—something I pushed for in the previous Parliament through my work with the British Heart Foundation—because we have a duty to allow consumers to make informed decisions. Another fact that surprised me—I say this as someone who does enjoy drinking sugar-laced fizzy drinks but who wishes to be informed—was that a five-year-old should take in no more than 19 grams of sugar a day, yet one can of Coke contains 35 grams. How many consumers actually know that? If they did, would they change their habits?
Crucially, the plan was announced as part of a nudge policy, where we gave the industry two years to make changes. I recognise that many of the leading manufacturers and retailers are already making changes—as I said, I am not focusing on whether the levy was right or wrong, but clearly part of the strategy is to influence behaviour—but, as we have recognised that physical activity is good for health and good for improving academic performance, I welcomed that the money would be ring-fenced to spend on activities connected to schools. If we are to have a tax and get extra money, let us ensure that that money is spent in the right way. The best way to do that for children is through schools.