Soft Drinks Industry Levy: Funding for Sport in Schools — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:46 pm on 10th January 2017.

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Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash 2:46 pm, 10th January 2017

When I first heard about the sugar levy, I was naturally against it; I am against taxes and I am against extra levies. However, as a member of the Health Committee, I saw the evidence for myself, and I realised that the issue of obesity is too great to ignore. My hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson has already alluded to some of the data, which show that one in five children start primary school either overweight or obese—that doubles for children in the most deprived parts of the country—and that one third of children now start secondary school either overweight or obese. However, what is really frightening is that children are now being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which until recently was seen as a disease of older age.

Along with the Health Committee, I came to the conclusion that we must do whatever we can to combat this epidemic. Even though I am against taxes, this is part of a whole raft of measures that we need to take on board to protect the future health of our nation. We should not see the sugary drinks industry levy as a tax and as money that will always be there; we need to use it as part of a method of helping families to change the way they live and their current habits. As part of the plan is to encourage the industry to reduce the amount of sugar in drinks, the levy will decrease year on year, so we need to look at ways of ensuring that whatever uses for that money are set up now are sustainable, and that the young people do not fall off the cliff edge once the money is no longer there.

I am delighted that the money is going to be spent mainly in schools. Let us face it: children spend most of their time in the school environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon alluded to, they could spend even more time there and undertake some of the activities we have talked about. The school environment is perfect for creating new habits and for helping those habits to go to the home environment as well. We need to tackle obesity at every age. It is a huge problem in the adult population as well as in children. If we can change those habits in the children now, we will be changing those habits for life. That is really important.

There are two sides to how the levy can be spent. Today we are focusing on exercise, but it is also about nutritional education as well. That is why I am delighted that some of the money will be spent on extending breakfast clubs. I would like to see that not only for breakfast clubs, but for after-school clubs that can help children learn more about how to cook further meals, not just how to eat breakfast. We have a long way to go on that.

Let us focus more on how the money can be spent on activity within schools. As chair of the all-party group on adult and childhood obesity, this issue is very close to my heart. I have said before that the plan launched in August does not go far enough. It needs to be braver and bolder and to include more measurement. We can continue to have that argument. The plan set the ambition for children to have 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise a day at primary school age, and for at least 30 minutes of that to be in the school environment. It also recommended expanding breakfast clubs, which I mentioned, and for secondary schools to be open longer, with some of those extended hours including sports clubs and groups. As my hon. Friend said, that could extend to the school holidays and not just be at the end of the school day.

It is important we are able to measure the outcomes of anything we put in place, because we need to know what works and what is cost-effective. As I said, the levy will reduce over time, so we need to know what is and is not worth investing more money in. Whatever we do should have a tick box for sustainability.

I have come up with some ideas. We have heard in the past about the daily mile, whereby children run or walk a mile every day within school time. However, some schools do not have the right environment for that. Some have playing fields, but at this time of year they can be very muddy. Investment in all-weather paths would be useful for the future, so that children are not discouraged by getting very muddy; sometimes children do not like to get dirty, and at other times they do. If they had a good environment, they could get out there and be active. Once that surface is in place, the activity becomes free and sustainable, and it could be used after school and in the school holidays, not just during school time.

Only last week I visited one of my schools in Ilkeston, Hallam Fields Junior School, which is a very fortunate school. It is built on the hillside and its playing fields and grounds have fantastic views, so the kids love going out to play. Not far away is another school that is enclosed by houses. Its outdoor facilities are just not as good. We need to encourage kids in schools where facilities do not lend themselves as easily to exercise and help those schools. Perhaps we can look at schools joining together in some way.

We need to extend this debate to what children do outside school. They can form habits within the school environment, but if those habits are not continued once they get home, it is not good for the children, for the parents or—let us face it—for the taxpayer. A number of family activities can be done at very low cost and with little investment. Once again, we could look at using some of the levy from the sugary drinks tax for that. As I said, schools need to provide at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, but that means parents need to provide more exercise as well every day.

Improving some of our parks could be one answer. I know that parkruns are very popular. In fact, Long Eaton parkrun has just received an award for being a good community group for the whole of Derbyshire, which is really encouraging. It does not cost anything, and it caters for all abilities and ages. If we could encourage more voluntary groups such as that to provide activities, that would be really good and in keeping with what my hon. Friend is talking about.

We have seen some great successes within the senior school environment through the “This Girl Can” campaign. One of my other schools, Kirk Hallam Community Academy, has been very successful in encouraging more girls to get involved in exercise. That has now filtered down from the secondary school to the local primary school, which is really good. Local authorities have responsibility for maintaining parks, but they also have responsibility for public health. If they were encouraged to invest more in outdoor activities that helped the public health side of things, it would be a win-win situation. It is important that there is joined-up government to ensure that we tackle the problem of obesity head-on. If we just leave it to one Department or another, I am sure it will fall through the net.

Cycling is another activity that allows parents to lead their children by example and helps to form lifetime habits. My hon. Friend talked about barriers. The cost of a bike could be a barrier to many families. We are all familiar with the Boris bike, so why not use that concept and have community bikes? Schools could play their part by providing a hub for community bikes. Families could book bikes, go out for a 5-mile or 10-mile cycle and then return them. There could be a range of bikes for all abilities and ages, and children could get some exercise and continue a habit formed in the school environment. That would benefit children and adults as well. It has been estimated that in the first year the sugary drinks levy will raise £520 million. In this context, that is not a lot of money, so it must be invested wisely and effectively. We must also be able to measure the impact.

I want to finish by painting a picture, which hopefully will help people to understand just how important it is to do whatever we can to tackle the obesity crisis. The sugary drinks levy is just one way to tackle this. Cancer Research UK recently revealed that teenagers drink almost a bathtub full of sugary drinks on average every year. That is shocking, and it needs to be changed. The sugary drinks levy must be just one part of a whole raft of measures, to ensure that our young people stop drinking that bathtub full of sugary drinks annually. Whatever we think about the sugary drinks tax, the money must be spent wisely and in a sustainable and measurable way.