Tackling Obesity — [Peter Dowd in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 4:26 pm on 27 February 2024.

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[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford 4:30, 27 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of tackling obesity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I am incredibly grateful to be able to raise the important subject of tackling obesity, which I believe is vital to our country’s future. I am grateful to see colleagues here from both sides of the House, as tackling obesity requires a cross-party approach. I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is also a personal friend. I have worked closely with her in the past, and I know how interested in and concerned about this issue she is.

Obesity is a major public health problem and a global concern. According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. Most of the world’s population live in countries where issues associated with being overweight or obese kill more people than issues associated with being underweight, and 39 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2020. These are quite shocking statistics. However, the problem is of particular concern in the United Kingdom, where we have the third highest obesity rates in Europe, behind only Malta and Turkey, and where we have the third highest in the G7, behind only Canada and the US. Almost one in three adults here is now classified as obese, a dramatic increase from the one in 10 adults in 1970. The increase in this country has been much greater than in other western European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy.

The health survey for England monitors trends in our national health and care. It found that a higher proportion of men than women were either overweight or obese—69%, compared with 59%. The highest rates of obesity were found among the lowest socioeconomic groups. Almost 70% of people in the most deprived quintile of English localities are classed as living with obesity or being overweight, compared with 59% of those in the richest.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and apologise to him in advance: but for an AGM that I am attending at five o’clock, I would have participated in the whole debate.

According to the Department of Health back home, 65% of adults in Northern Ireland are obese, which is quite a shocking figure. There are now plans for a consultation, which highlights the need to make healthier food more affordable. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this must be a priority for every region of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that that must be done in partnership with our own agrifood sector? It has a role to play—maybe a financial role, as much as a role in guidance. When it comes to the Minister’s reply, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that partnership with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs might be advantageous?

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us that information from Northern Ireland. Of course, this is something that we need to work on across all four of our countries that make up the United Kingdom. I am sure that co-operation is the best way forward.

Behind these statistics are real people—our people, not just statistics: parents, grandparents, children, friends and neighbours. Overweight people are more likely to experience other health issues as a result of excess weight. There are real consequences, too, for the quality of life of our people. People who are obese are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Some 11% of obese adults reported in the health survey for England that they had a diagnosis of diabetes from a doctor. The figure was less than half that among overweight adults, at 5%, and it was just 3% among those who were neither overweight nor obese.

People with obesity are two to three times more likely to have high blood pressure and other consequential health issues. Obesity is a risk factor for depression and is associated with social isolation and less physical activity, contributing to an increased risk of dementia. Obesity between the ages of 35 and 65 can actually increase dementia risk in later life by some 30%. Of course, excess weight puts strain on joints, increasing the risk of musculoskeletal conditions. Other health problems from excess weight include cardiovascular disease, liver disease and many common cancers. Obesity is actually the second biggest preventable cause of cancer.

As well as the costs to individuals’ health and wellbeing, there is the real cost to the economy, businesses, jobs and communities. The Times reported yesterday that 60 senior health experts—including the heads of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal Society for Public Health, and dozens of health charities—have written to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging him to put tackling obesity and other public health issues at the heart of his Budget next month, for the sake of the economy. The plea is not just about healthcare, but about the economic vitality and future of our country. That coalition of doctors, scientists, charity bosses and food campaigners say that

“poor health is one of the greatest…threats” facing Britain today and warn that it is damaging the economy in ways ranging from

“the size and strength of our labour market;
to productivity;
to growth and GDP.”

They also say that

“the vast majority of health conditions contributing to…economic problems are driven by poor diets, alcohol and tobacco.”

They cite the work of the independent Times Health Commission, a year-long inquiry that called for stronger Government intervention to tackle the growing obesity crisis and that recommended a number of interventions to combat obesity, including expansion of the sugar tax, curbs on cartoons on packaging and a pre-watershed ban on junk food advertising on television. The experts urge the Chancellor to issue a formal call for evidence on

“financial and non-financial health policy options that…make it easier for everyone to lead healthy lives—by shaping the environments they grow, learn, work and play in.”

They conclude by advising:

“The public overwhelmingly believe the government should have a stronger role in acting to create healthy lives and to take pressure off the NHS.”

The Times editorial of yesterday, under the heading “Body Politic”, gives a convincing account of the issues and the need for action. It also notes that merely increasing taxes on already hard-pressed consumers is not the way forward; we should be encouraging the switch to healthier products. I agree with that assessment and find it increasingly worrying that Frontier Economics estimates that in 2023 the total economic impact of obesity was £98 billion, accounting for the costs to the NHS and social care, lost productivity, work inactivity and welfare payments.

Obesity-related ill health does reduce workforce productivity. People living with obesity are estimated to have four extra sick days a year. That is approximately equivalent to an extra 37 million sick days across the UK working population. Estimates put the annual cost of obesity at 1% to 2% of GDP. With obesity rates continuing to soar, that is only likely to increase. Obesity places a heavy burden on the NHS. It contributes to high workloads in GP surgeries, hospitals and social care, adding to the pressures that we are already experiencing.

Tackling obesity has actually been on the political agenda for many years. In 1991, the then Conservative Government recognised that obesity was a sufficient threat to the health of the nation to warrant specific action. The first target for reducing obesity rates in England was set and was to achieve a return by 2005 to the 1980 level of 7%. Sadly, that target was missed. Over the last three decades, there have been various strategies, countless policies and many reforms, with key agencies and teams created and abolished. Despite that, and as highlighted in the statistics that I have mentioned, the issue is still very prevalent.

In my own borough of Bexley, the issue of obesity is one where, statistically, we are performing relatively badly—unlike in other areas, where Bexley performs extremely well. Last month, Bexley was dubbed the fattest borough in south-east London, after the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities published information on the percentage of adults over 18 who are classified as obese. According to the report, Bexley has the worst obesity rate in south-east London at 28% of the population, yet in recent years we have been successful in my area on health issues. The stop smoking campaign was a great success, and I was privileged to be involved in it. The number of smokers in our borough has considerably reduced because of campaigns by the NHS and the council, as well as people like me adding to those campaigns.

We have real issues with childhood obesity, and Bexley council has endeavoured to be proactive in improving the health of people across the borough, as well as implementing an obesity strategy in 2020. Despite that, childhood obesity rates in Bexley have worsened following the coronavirus pandemic. Figures by NHS Digital show that 745 of 3,095 year 6 pupils measured in Bexley were classed as obese or severely obese in 2022-23. Across England, 13.9% of year 6 pupils were overweight and a staggering 22.7% were obese or severely obese. That was slightly down on the previous year, but still higher than pre-pandemic figures.

That is extremely worrying, and childhood obesity is a major public health concern in its own right. Children who are obese are five times more likely to become obese as adults, and that puts them at higher risk of the conditions previously highlighted, as well as shortening their life expectancy. As the majority of obese children will remain obese as adults, early intervention is essential. We have to act early in their lives before they suffer complications later on due to something that was avoidable.

The Government have taken some action on childhood obesity. In 2018, they set a target of halving childhood obesity in England by 2030 and reducing the gap in obesity between children from the most and least deprived areas. While it is necessary, meeting that target unfortunately does not seem possible at this time. Despite all the health problems, the impact on lives and the cost to the economy, we must remember that obesity is preventable in many cases. Action is required by individuals, parents, schools, the Government, media and the food and drink manufacturers.

What can and should be done? Basically, as a nation, we are simply consuming too many calories each day. According to Public Health England, many adults consume an extra 200 to 300 calories a day over what they need, while children who are overweight or obese often consume an additional 500 calories a day. The NHS needs to do more, as public health improvement will ease the pressures on GPs and hospitals.

Of course, there needs to be an emphasis on the individual in tackling obesity. At an individual level, people can limit their energy intake from fats and sugars, increase their consumption of healthy food, particularly fruit and vegetables, and engage in regular physical activity. People who are overweight or obese may also benefit from joining a local weight loss group, or even from receiving support and counselling from trained healthcare professionals to help them to better their relationship with food and develop different eating habits. More publicity, promotion and education on food, nutrition and the consequences of a bad diet are absolutely essential.

Although that is important, tackling obesity is not just about individual effort; we need to see cultural and environmental changes too, while ensuring that everybody is given the necessary information to make healthy choices. Because of our fast-paced lives, our eating habits have changed in recent decades. There is a huge increase in people eating fast food, and more people are eating out, eating higher-calorie foods and buying hot food from takeaways that is high in fat, salt and often sugar. While it is good to see businesses thriving, it is incredibly worrying that some are exacerbating the problem and increasing the sugar and calorie intake of our nation. Treats are fine, and we should not be Job’s comforter on these sorts of things, but they should be for special occasions, rather than the mainstay of an individual’s diet.

Our food environment affects our behaviour and has a significant part to play in reducing obesity. Parents are crucial in this as the primary educators, and education is vital. It can be difficult to make healthy choices if someone is blissfully unaware of the content of the food they are eating. I know from personal experience that, when we do the weekly shop, identifying the healthiest products is not always easy. That is why we have to ensure the labelling of products in shops, cafés, restaurants, coffee shops, fast-food outlets and the rest, so that individuals can make an informed choice. Essentially, the healthy option should also be the easier option on the menus for everyone. Research shows that when Governments act on this issue, they have a positive effect. Our own Government have done excellent work in this area. The voluntary traffic-light scheme, which was introduced jointly by the UK Government and devolved Administrations in 2013, has been incredibly successful. Restrictions on the placement of unhealthy foods in supermarkets and shops have been hugely popular, and they stop shops using children and pester power to hassle adults into buying those items. The soft drinks industry levy has had an impact by encouraging reformulation and decreasing the volume of sugar in soft drinks.

However, more needs to be done, and advertising on television is still a real concern. Restrictions before 9 o’clock are due to come into effect in October 2025, having been originally planned for 1 January 2023. That delay is disappointing but understandable. These actions need to be taken, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take them on board in the dynamic way that she does in her role.

In conclusion, serious action is needed, and tackling the obesity epidemic is a responsibility for all of us—the Government, schools, families, industry, and politicians—whether local, regional, national or whatever. Everyone has a part to play. It is also something that I think we can unite on across this House, because it is an issue that affects everyone’s constituents and every person in the country. I know that the Opposition and Government would want to work together with the Scottish nationalists, and others in the Chamber, to ensure that we do this. If we do not, it will cost our NHS billions of pounds a year and have a huge detrimental economic impact. Most importantly of all, it affects our constituents, and particularly our children.

With strategic policy interventions, we have an opportunity to turn the tide against obesity, improve our nations’ health, enhance people’s quality of life, prevent needless early deaths and secure the economic future of our nation. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will carefully consider what I have said, and that colleagues on both sides of the House will endorse the fact that action is required.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 4:48, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate. Whenever possible, I like to talk about the accomplishments of my constituents. One constituent of mine made an outstanding contribution to tackling obesity eight years ago, and I am glad that the hon. Member has recognised their efforts, because that constituent is the former Chancellor, who introduced the soft drinks levy in 2016.

That policy has meant a 46% fall in average sugar levels per soft drink product since 2015. Sales have not been affected; actually, they have increased by 14.9% over 4 years. That levy has been a remarkable success. The Medical Research Council estimates that it has prevented about 5,000 cases of obesity in year 6 girls, and 5,500 hospital admissions for children with tooth decay within five years. This is unambiguous and indisputable. Interventionist health policies are the only way to solve our obesity crisis, because the food system in this country is rigged against us.

This is not just a crisis. In Somerset, 34.6% of children leave primary school overweight or obese, but 21.8% of five-year-old children start primary school overweight or obese. In 2021, 60% of adults in Somerset were overweight or obese. We should be one of the healthiest countries in the world—we have an NHS that covers every citizen, a mild climate and a high level of economic development—but we are not. Thirty years of failed Government obesity policies tell us that we must change. A University of Cambridge team analysed 30 years of Government obesity policies in England—14 obesity strategies with 689 individual actions. Eight per cent fulfilled seven criteria identified by researchers as necessary for successful implementation, and 29% did not meet a single criterion.

We have tried blaming the individual, and it has not worked. It is not just remiss; it is wrong. The charity Beat reported that

“strategies harmful to people with eating disorders appear…to be ineffective at reducing obesity.”

By refusing to change the system and telling people that they are to blame, we are killing people who are already vulnerable, and there is a consensus. Polling last September from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and More in Common showed that 77% of participants wanted Government to put health standards over cost, and 67% thought that the Government were not doing enough to safeguard children against unhealthy food and drinks. The status quo simply cannot continue. Our farmers are underpaid, undervalued and underused in a food system that does not prioritise healthy local food of high standard. Small and medium UK agrifood businesses cannot compete with cheap, ultra-processed food. Our NHS staff are so overwhelmed in dealing with the results of obesity that they have little time or budget to deal with the causes.

We Liberal Democrats want a robust, thorough obesity and food strategy that meets all seven standards specified by Cambridge. We want junk food advertising restricted on TV and online, as the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford has mentioned. We want public sector food procurement strategies that benefit the farmers and local businesses producing the food. We want to extend the “polluter pays” principle that we have for water companies. We want to make junk food giants either change their ways or pay their way.

As a serving Somerset councillor, I know how vital it is to empower local authorities to develop and manage tailored strategies in their areas. We should give local authorities more power over planning to prevent high streets being clogged up with cheap fast food outlets, and to restrict junk food advertising. Let them develop food partnerships with farmers and agrifood businesses. We must have a new, interventionist approach to our food system. All other approaches have failed. It makes economic sense, environmental sense and moral sense. Let us make a better food future.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

I am going to give Members five minutes each. The Opposition spokespersons will have five, and the Minister will have ten.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner, The Second Church Estates Commissioner 4:53, 27 February 2024

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett, and I agree with pretty much everything that Sarah Dyke has just said as well. In July 2020, the House of Lords produced an excellent Select Committee report, “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food”, which is pretty shocking. We are one of the most overweight nations in Europe, and that is not an accident, because our diet is pretty appalling. Page 19 of that report says:

“In the UK, more than half (50.7%) of all total dietary energy from purchases came from highly processed foods, compared to only 10.2% in Portugal and 13.4% in Italy.”

Our diets are so much worse than those of our fellow European nations. We are bombarded with advertising for unhealthy food. In 2017, £300 million was spent on the advertising of less healthy foods, compared with only £16 million a day on fruit and vegetables. We are doing really badly at even getting our five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Only 31% of adults, and only 8% of teenagers, are achieving that; parents in the room will recognise that challenge.

All these figures are worst for the poorest members of our society. I commend The Times on its excellent health commission report and on some of its recommendations. It thinks it is outrageous that some of these highly processed foods can have “natural” and “organic” on the front of the packaging. That is deceptive and misleading, and many of the big food producers have a lot to answer for. The Times says that all children should learn to cook properly and that those lessons should be inspected by Ofsted with as much rigour as maths and English. This matters. If people turn up to university able only to open a packet and put it in the microwave, they are probably not set for the most healthy life and it will probably cost them more as well.

Children are bombarded with these images. Bite Back, with which I have worked very closely, wants to get rid of the use of cartoon characters and other tactics that appeal to children, which hook our young people into unhealthy food. The Times also says that we should not have just environmental, social and governance for our businesses; it should be environmental, social, governance and health because employers can do their bit as well.

How do we know how many calories we are eating each day? I, as a man, am supposed to eat no more than 2,500 calories a day. For women, it is 2,000. How do we know? The signs in some of the restaurants are tiny. Let us make it easy for people to do the right thing. That is a generally quite a good strapline: make the right thing the easy and affordable thing to do. I salute my local markets in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, which provide fresh fruit and veg and often at very good prices; I have to say that my supermarkets do so as well. We all know that exercise is important, but I have a little caveat on that: you cannot outrun a bad diet, but exercise is always brilliant for all of us and we should all do more of it.

It was great to hear the speech from the Liberal Democrats because this is not a nanny state, entirely private matter. This is why: children don’t get to choose what they eat. They get fed what their parents give them; what we feed our children really matters. We have to be honest; there is limited supply in the NHS for all of us, so if other people eat really bad food, that means that NHS capacity is being taken up with dealing with type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart problems and other issues. We all have a stake in us all eating well, and I hope we can combine on that issue.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 4:58, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate. As he said, it affects all MPs because it affects all our constituencies. It affects families across the country.

I am here because I recently visited Putneymead Group Medical Practice in my constituency. It is a really large surgery, which serves 25,500 people and employs 23 GPs. They know what they are talking about; it is an excellent facility. I asked the doctors what the main issues were they were facing, and they said that the main issue was childhood obesity. They were worried that the current state of the NHS meant that it was unable to provide services to combat childhood obesity, and they were also worried about the lack of services for primary school children. Early intervention is very important in tackling childhood obesity, but they were also concerned about secondary education. They mentioned Wandsworth Borough Council provision for primary school children, but that ends at year 6. In secondary school, there is even less provision and support for tackling obesity, and they identified that as a key issue.

Today, two in every five children in England are overweight or obese by the time they finish primary school. That has lasting consequences for their physical and mental health and for their quality of life. The national child measurement programme found that in 2021-22, 10% of reception-age children in England were obese. The proportions were higher among year 6 children, with 23.4% being obese. Something is going wrong in our provision and support programmes for primary school children.

Childhood obesity is a significant concern in my borough of Wandsworth, where more than one fifth of children in reception are overweight or living with obesity. In year 6, that figure rises to 37.7%, which is higher than in the rest of the country. Wandsworth Council has several programmes to tackle the issue. The Health4Life team runs the Mums, Minis and KickStart programmes for primary school-age children and their families. The children’s school food strategy and the campaign targeting takeaways near secondary schools are also having an impact, but that needs to be amplified and supported by having the same programmes across the country. As I said, this support needs to be maintained and to continue through secondary education, as well as through primary. In the United Kingdom, the prevalence of obesity among year 10 children is still 23.4%, so one in four children are still classified as obese—in London, the figure is still 37.4%.

It is essential to continue promoting healthy lifestyles, but there are also significant infrastructure issues. There is an issue around planning and having shops with healthy produce in the right places so that they are easier to access for people who do not have the same transport options as others. We also need to tackle takeaways near secondary schools, which Wandsworth Council is starting to do, and there are elements of good practice that can be learned. In addition, we need to tackle inactivity in schools. Many playing fields have been sold off, which has reduced access to physical education classes in school. I have seen that with my own children, who have gone through secondary school with significantly less access to PE lessons than I had when I was going through school.

There is also the issue of healthy eating and teaching cookery. I pay tribute to a great community organisation in my constituency called Bags of Taste, which teaches people how to eat better for less. It has a really high take-up, and people really enjoy making the kind of food they would get from a takeaway but can cook for less money in their own homes. That is to be applauded and supported.

There could also be much more action taken by supermarkets, and action on advertising unhealthy food. Another excellent programme that I have seen really working, but that is not taken up comprehensively enough, is the Daily Mile. Having started off with a school in Stirling in Scotland, it has been taken up by many primary schools around the country. It is tackling this issue and making a difference.

To conclude, Labour will tackle childhood obesity through a range of measures, including by implementing the 9 pm watershed for junk food advertising, getting kids moving through a mandatory national curriculum with a wider range of physical activities, providing free breakfast clubs in every primary school and taking action to end the promotion of junk foods targeted at children. We will take action. The current obesity figures are a damning indictment of 14 years of Tory rule that have not worked. It is time for Labour.

Photo of Maggie Throup Maggie Throup Conservative, Erewash 5:03, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on securing this debate. Tackling obesity is preventing ill health; I want to make it very clear that it is not nanny state, because good health provides choices.

We are already looking at these issues through the way we are tackling smoking, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for her proposed actions on that. Smoking is an addiction, and obesity is becoming an addiction—an addiction to food high in fat, salt or sugar. We need similar, world-leading action to tackle obesity. The Obesity Health Alliance has said that obesity is the new smoking.

We have already heard that 30% of adults are obese, and 25% of children starting school are either obese or overweight, so we need to take serious action. The food giants are making us addicted to food that is high in fat, salt and sugar, so we need to tackle that in the same way we are tackling smoking.

Obesity causes cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The reason the food giants are spending huge amounts on advertising chocolate, crisps, biscuits and ice cream—much of which is marketed at children—is that those products make them huge amounts of profit. I am not against profit, but I am when it comes at the expense of people’s health, and particularly the health of our children.

A recent study by the University of Oxford shows that, for seven of the top 10 global food manufacturers, two thirds of their food and drink sales in Britain came from unhealthy foods. In 2022, it was estimated that the biggest manufacturers spent £55 million on online adverts for food and drink products associated with childhood obesity. I have no doubt that that did not decrease in 2023, and I do not think it will decrease this year either.

In addition to the marketing, the packaging of unhealthy food is designed to appeal to children, as my hon. Friend Andrew Selous implied. In a way, the issue is similar to the way disposable vapes are marketed to children. That is another issue my right hon. Friend the Minister is tackling, but we need to sort out the way unhealthy foods are marketed to children too. Children and young people do not ask to be bombarded with the ads they see time and time again, yet they are being bombarded—they cannot escape them at all. That is why Government action is needed, and needed now. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to update the House on the progress being made to implement the measures in section 172 of, and schedule 18 to, the Health and Care Act 2022 on the advertising of less healthy food and drink and to ensure that we are on schedule to deliver those messages.

Going back a number of years, as Sarah Dyke mentioned, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced the soft drinks industry levy. People at the time said it would not work, but it has; it has cut huge amounts of sugar out of soft drinks across the board. We need to look at how we replicate that measure for other foodstuffs. I am proud that I was a member of the Health and Social Care Committee when it asked for it to be put in place. It is one of the Committee’s great achievements, and we can do even more. We need to apply that type of measure across food and drink production to incentivise healthier food and drink. Manufacturers and retailers want a level playing field, so it is important that we do that.

In conclusion, we need to tackle obesity, which the Government first identified as a priority in the early 1990s in the “Health of the Nation” White Paper. Over 30 years on, we are still only talking about tackling obesity. The health of our nation is running out of time. We need action, and we need it now.

Photo of Amy Callaghan Amy Callaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 5:08, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate Sir David Evennett on securing this debate. In the context of the ongoing Tory cost of living crisis and an increasingly unhealthy population, it is important that it takes place, so I welcome his bringing it to the Chamber. Huge financial pressure and high food prices are forcing families to eat less healthily, getting cheaper calories from unhealthy foods. There is a clear link between deprivation and obesity, which is why tackling health inequalities and poverty are top priorities for the SNP Scottish Government.

We have heard lots of interesting contributions. The right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford touched on junk food advertising, and I discussed that exact issue with the University of Glasgow earlier this afternoon. We need to be incredibly mindful of where, what and when we are advertising; otherwise, we will have an often detrimental impact on health inequalities.

Sarah Dyke spoke a great deal about child obesity, which I will come on to. I very much agree with her on that point, but I would welcome an intervention from her on how the Liberal Democrat party’s abandonment of free tuition is impacting household budgets, and thus people’s ability to access healthy foods.

It was hugely welcome that Fleur Anderson mentioned the Daily Mile, which originated in Stirling. It was nice to hear a non-Scottish Member cast light on a project that originated in Scotland, so I certainly welcome that comment.

Obesity is a problem that is escalating on a global scale, but sadly the effects are being felt severely in Scotland. According to a survey, 67% of adults are deemed overweight and a third of children are at risk of becoming overweight. That same survey found that obesity was more common in households with lower incomes—a correlation we know and recognise all too well. That is why I and my SNP colleagues are consistently calling on the UK Government to take action to tackle the cost of living crisis, improve universal credit and reverse their policies that deny families crucial support.

The Scottish Government do not have the levers to be able to do those things at the moment. They therefore mitigate the bad political decisions made in this place, reducing family household costs by providing free prescriptions, free school meals, free childcare, free period products, free university education and free bus travel for those under 22 and over 60; freezing council tax; providing the young carer grant, the Scottish child payment, and both adult and child disability payments; and mitigating the bedroom tax, the rape clause, the benefits cap and real-terms cuts to social security.

Earlier today I met Professor Iain McInnes of the University of Glasgow, whose project, “Creating Healthier Places: A Place-Based Approach to Research & Partnership”, factors access to healthy foods into its research on 20-minute neighbourhoods. It is a fascinating project, and I urge the Minister to have a look at it—I think she would be just as impressed as I am.

Through the best start grant and best start foods applications, the Scottish Government have also provided over £180 million to low-income families to help with expenses during their children’s early years. The eligibility for best start foods will be expanding so that a further 20,000 people can access support to buy healthy food. Such steps are essential to ensure that support is there for the least well-off families to be able to make healthy food choices.

In my constituency, new data from Cancer Research has shown that 22.5% of four to five-year-olds are overweight or obese—that is four to five-year-olds who are already increasing their risk of serious illnesses. That is not a choice by those children or their parents, but a symptom of families not having the resources to provide healthy options. It is a symptom of 14 years of austerity. It is a symptom of being tied to this broken Westminster system.

I know that the Minister cares deeply about these issues and will give a compassionate and considerate response. I simply urge her to mirror some of the policies the Scottish Government are taking on tackling health inequalities. That is why in Scotland, all pupils in primaries 1 to 5, all children in additional support needs schools, and eligible pupils in primary 6 through to S6 can benefit from free school meals—the most generous free school meals offer anywhere in these isles, saving families—

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health) 5:13, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I thank Sir David Evennett for securing this debate. He has been a strong campaigner for tackling childhood obesity over many years, and I thank him for his remarks today.

As many colleagues have rightly highlighted, the obesity epidemic is a genuine crisis. It will be the next big public health issue that we will all be talking about in a few years. Some 60% of us are now overweight. One in four children in England are now obese by the time they leave primary school. That means that those children are five times more likely to go on to develop serious and life-limiting diet-related conditions in adulthood, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and certain forms of cancer. Of course, that means more pressure on the NHS, which, as we know, is already buckling under the weight of demand after years of mismanagement by this Government. It is a disaster for the taxpayer: Frontier Economics estimates the impact of obesity to be £98 billion a year in NHS and social care costs, lost productivity, workforce inactivity and welfare payments.

I thank many Members for rightly focusing their remarks today on the poor food environments in which children are growing up, and what we as policymakers can do about that. In recent decades, action on obesity has overwhelmingly focused on measures to get people to change their behaviours without tackling the structural factors that influence them. We know that that is not enough. For example, 99.9% of us know that it is important to get our five a day, most of us can tell each other what a healthy diet looks like, and every week there seems to be some new fad diet. The bottom line is the nation’s waistline: Britain is getting fatter.

It is therefore disappointing to see the Secretary of State say that she believes the priority for preventing obesity is to give people information about nutrition with no measures to fix the food environment. It appears to be at odds with her views on tobacco, where the Government have rightly taken up measures to further protect children from tobacco harm. She does not believe that measures to inform children about the dangers of tobacco are alone sufficient to solve that issue, so why does she believe this for obesity? If giving people more information is the solution, can the Minister explain why obesity rates are twice as high in our poorest areas than the richest?

Labour believes that every community in the UK should be a healthy place for children to grow up, learn and play. Businesses need a healthy workforce to drive economic productivity and sustainable growth. It is the Government’s job to make the healthy choice the easy choice. There was a moment in 2020 when it looked like every party across the House believed this. The Government brought forward the 2020 obesity strategy, welcomed by doctors, parents and health charities, and as the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said, it received cross-party support.

The strategy contained evidence-based measures to begin to fix the food system by stopping our children from being bombarded with junk food adverts as part of a major commitment to halve childhood obesity by 2030. I would like to ask the Government today what has happened to that commitment, since they kicked that flagship policy into the long grass, delaying the policy for the next Government to deal with in October 2025. Are the Government still committed to halving childhood obesity by 2030, and what have they done since delaying the junk food advertising policies?

The need for action has not gone away, as we have heard today. The health of our children is in a dire state, and it is getting worse. It was once thought that it was essentially impossible for children to develop type 2 diabetes so early in life as a result of their diet, but as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, we are now seeing thousands of cases of children developing the condition, with more every year. Nearly four in 10 children with obesity are estimated to have early stage fatty liver disease, and tooth decay remains the single largest cause of hospitalisations for young children in England.

The Government assure us that the regulations on junk food advertising were delayed merely to give industry more time to prepare. If this is the case, why have the Government refused to bring out the supporting secondary legislation for these regulations, which are now months overdue? Surely the Minister agrees that it would help the industry prepare for these regulations to have this detail available to them now. Industry will want to tackle the structural drivers of ill health and be led by evidence, not ideology. That starts with delivering the measures the Government have failed to implement to protect children from junk food.

We will restrict adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt in favour of healthier options. We will improve children’s diets by finally implementing the 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on television and ban paid-for advertising of less healthy foods in online media. Tackling health inequalities is a central part of Labour’s health mission. We will not resort to the tired excuses that would blame families in Blackpool for having poorer health than someone in Banbury. Instead, we need to focus on making healthy food more affordable and accessible. Schools will have a role and responsibility within that, which is why our fully funded breakfast clubs in every primary school in England will serve healthy and balanced food to embed healthy habits and boost children’s concentration and development.

The Government undertook some assessments of the health impacts of the national school breakfast programme when it was running. It would be really good to hear what some of the evidence was. We heard from schools that it improved pupil behaviour, their readiness to learn, social skills and their eating habits. To conclude, I want to leave Members with a statistic to reflect just how stark this issue is. Not only are our children fatter than their peers in other European countries, but they are actually shorter than their European peers.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:18, 27 February 2024

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on raising this important issue. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. There is no doubt that this country faces an obesity challenge. I am reassured by the contributions from everybody that none of us underestimate the scale of the task ahead.

As others have said, two thirds of adults in this country are overweight or living with obesity, increasing their risk of many serious diseases. Tackling it head on is not just the right thing for patients but makes good economic sense too. Obesity-related conditions cost our NHS £6.5 billion directly every year and the cost to wider society is a staggering £57 billion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford said, some estimates put it at over £90 billion.

My great passion is for giving every baby the best start for life. There is no doubt that prevention is not only kinder but much cheaper than cure. Food given to babies and young children helps establish food preferences at an early age, so it is vital that we build healthy eating patterns as soon as possible.

Nearly one in 10 children starting primary school are already living with obesity, doubling to nearly one in five by the time they leave. Growing numbers of children with excess weight are, as hon. Members have said, developing health conditions once rarely seen in childhood such as high blood pressure. Every child needs an environment that helps them to thrive and reach their full potential. Of course, that is easier said than done. There is no single solution, no magic bullet to solve the problem. That is why we are delivering an ambitious programme with four strands: first, we are supporting families to make healthier choices through more advice and better information. That starts at the very beginning of life with our national breastfeeding helpline for parents who need support. The Start for Life website is a rich source of helpful advice.

We are backing family hubs with £300 million so that new mums and dads have the best advice, including on children’s nutrition, with one-stop shops across England. Weaning is a critical time for establishing healthy eating, so we are working on voluntary industry guidelines to reduce levels of sugar and salt in commercial food and drink aimed at children up to 36 months. We have begun a four-week period of engaging with industry to make sure we get that right.

For older children, families and adults, we provide a range of materials, tools and apps to encourage eating better and moving more. That can all be found on our Better Health website. I encourage all hon. Members to recommend it to their constituents.

I am proud of action that we have taken to mandate calorie labelling on websites and delivery apps for all large restaurants, cafés and takeaways. We have prohibited the promotion of less healthy products at key selling locations to help people stave off impulse buys, because we all know that people are not making those choices consciously. They are unconscious choices being hugely promoted by incredibly strong advertising and marketing. We know it can be very challenging for some families to make healthier choices, so we are investing over £200 million a year on three health food schemes: healthy start, the nursery milk scheme and the school fruit and vegetable scheme.

Secondly, we are promoting more physical activity, which helps people maintain a healthier weight. The Government are investing over £600 million in school sports over the next two years via the PE and sport premium and School Games Organiser network so that children can get more active. We also have the Couch to 5K and Active 10 apps to promote everyone getting more active.

The third measure is supporting those already overweight or obese to achieve and maintain a healthier weight. We have delivered a free NHS weight loss app, and local authorities are funding local weight loss services from their public health grants. The NHS provides a digital weight management programme and many specialist services. We are now exploring ways to increase access to the newest weight loss drugs for more people who are eligible.

Fourthly—a really critical point, as lots of right hon. and hon. Members have raised—is our work with the food industry itself. Sadly, there has been a long-term trend towards producing and marketing foods high in calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar—a race to the bottom. We will reverse that trend. Our soft drinks industry levy has already made huge strides in bringing down the sugar content of soft drinks by almost half between 2015 and 2020, removing a staggering 46,000 tonnes of sugar. Our voluntary reformulation programme requires all sectors of industry to reduce levels of sugar, calories and salt in the everyday food and drink that people buy. If we can see this through, consumers will have many fewer calories in their diet without them having to consciously change what they eat.

Although the salt and sugar reduction programmes have brought some progress, there is much more to be done. The calorie reduction progress report published this month showed little change in calorie levels between 2017 and 2021. I have asked industry to meet the reduction targets for calories and sugar by the end of 2025. We will leave no stone unturned if they do not live up to our expectations.

I am pleased to assure the House and my hon. Friend Maggie Throup that we remain committed to introducing further advertising restrictions to reduce the marketing of less healthy foods to children. We will also bring in restrictions on volume price promotions, such as three for the price of two, on less healthy foods in October next year, and we will back local government in using its powers to support a healthy local food environment.

Obesity is a significant challenge, not just in the UK but globally. We all have our part to play. I have personally been engaging with industry throughout my career, from the Treasury, to the then Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Business people say they want a brighter future for all our children. I plan to make sure that they deliver on that.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford 5:26, 27 February 2024

I thank everyone who has participated today in a very constructive way. That is the way we should all be addressing such an important issue. I particularly thank the Minister for her excellent response. We have had some really good issues raised by colleagues on all sides, and by the Minister.

I look forward to us all doing something to make sure that the crisis of obesity is overcome. It is so important, particularly for our children, but also for adults, and for quality of life. I am grateful for Members’ participation and for the ideas that have come forward, which we will look at and consider. I know the Minister will take them away, and I particularly thank her.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered tackling obesity.

Sitting adjourned.