Opinion: Government must act to encourage healthier diets

Yesterday, Chris Rennard and John Sharkey raised the important and inter-connected issues of sugar consumption and childhood obesity, respectively, during Oral Questions in the Lords.

These related topics prompted fifteen minutes of debate from a packed Chamber, as the responding Minister – Earl Howe – spelt out what the Government is doing to encourage healthier eating and prevent the problems associated with poor diet and lack of exercise, from worsening.

John Sharkey began proceedings by pointing out that not one of the companies signed up to the responsibility deal for calorie reduction is a fast-food operator. He asked if this suggested ‘a failure of the voluntary approach and that we [might now] need regulation to make [fast]-food companies play their proper part in reducing obesity.’

Chris Rennard had already set out his concerns in a detailed article on the Lib Dem Lords blog before the debate. In it, he explained why the Government needs to offer greater information to consumers about how much sugar they’re consuming. He called on more manufacturers to implement the new front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme and also raised the urgent issues of the marketing of sugary food and drinks and the importance of school nutrition standards.

In the Chamber, Chris went on to ask the Minister whether ‘he agrees with the Secretary of State for Health, that legislation may be required in this area if other measures do not succeed.’ He also asked whether ‘consideration needs to be given to changing tax regimes so that the tax may be rather higher on very sugary soft drinks, and rather lower on drinks that are less full of sugar.’ This of course hit the headlines only very recently. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Chris also suggested ‘restrict[ing] the amount of sugar provided in some products, such as breakfast cereals targeted at children, so that parents (either as consumers or watching their children) can see how many spoons of sugar are going on to their cereal – rather than simply accepting the amount of sugar already produced by the manufacturers’.

The debate has made it abundantly clear that though there’s much to be done, there are multitudes of ways in which we can curb the UK’s appetite for sugar. The Government needs to act now to encourage healthier eating and prevent the health problems linked to unhealthy diets, (high in fat, salt and sugar) from evolving into a national crisis.

To watch yesterday’s Questions online, click here – and to read or download a written transcript of the proceedings, click here.

* Oliver Sidorczuk is a Liberal Democrat Research Assistant in the House of Lords

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21 Comments

  • Joseph Donnelly 7th Feb '13 - 5:00pm

    For a piece entitled ‘Government must act to encourage healthier diets’ I can’t find a single argument for why it must act?

    You just seem to be assuming it must act and then going on to list loads of ways it can. I’m really not sure we are at the stage of the debate yet where we’ve all accepted its necessary for the government to manage what I put into my mouth.

  • Illiberal codswallop

  • I’ll accept the government interfering with my diet, so long as I’m allowed to interfere with Lord Rennard’s.

    Deal?

  • David Allen 7th Feb '13 - 6:11pm

    “Illiberal codswallop”

    Ideological dogmatism. Liberal ideological dogmatism.

    Time was, when we rightly condemned the Socialists and the Thatcherites as being under the thrall of their ideological beliefs, unable to use common sense, or to seek evidence and act on it.

    Nowadays, our NuLiberals, with their Little Orange Book and the Thoughts of the Chairman, are as ideologically blinkered as anyone. So, we are all to get fatter and unhealthier, the NHS bill will have to rise, taxes will have to rise, but because of our NuLiberal ideology, we must do nothing about it.

  • Al McIntosh 7th Feb '13 - 6:16pm

    Have we abandoned evidence based policy making? There is no evidence cited to suggest that this Irn Bru tax would have any health benefits at all. We should instead be promoting exercise to burn off excess calories.

    Chris should stick to writing Focus leaflets. Perhaps he could burn off his calories by delivering them too!

  • As I always point out, are all the people who think a small tax on fizzy drinks is illiberal also opposed to criminalising users of possibly unhealthy drugs? The two responses are not even in the same league. We need to scrutinise current public health policies as much as new proposals, if not more.

    I think taxes that cover the ‘externalities’ of extra NHS costs are entirely justified in theory: the only issue is whether we can confidently enough link certain products to illness given that the impact may be completely different from person to person.

    And, looking through the list of zero-VAT items, I wonder if the question is not whether we should be adding special taxes on unhealthy food, but why we are actually subsidising things like Marshmallow teacakes, Caramel shortcake, Royal icing, bourbon biscuits, Cream gateaux and kitchen salt? They’re delicious, sure, but that’s hardly a good use of money (how about an extra subsidy for fruit and veg, NHS funding, boosting benefits, or cutting income taxes?). I look forward to Osborne announcing the ‘caramel shortcake tax’ next month!

  • “Are all the people who think a small tax on fizzy drinks is illiberal also opposed to criminalising users of possibly unhealthy drugs?”

    Obviously, yes.

    I’ve missed this place. Hi David!

  • Chris Rennard 7th Feb '13 - 7:48pm

    My points are mostly about giving power to consumers, not manufacturers so that people can see more clearly what they are buying/consuming for themselves and their children. This is not Government interference.

    The total costs of treating diabetes alone is thought to be about £10bn (acc to NHS Diabetes) so those who want to see lower taxes should see the economic case for helping people to be healthier (note helping them if they want to, not forcing them).

    Many parents complain about behavioural/dental & other health problems with their children but have no idea how much sugar they are feeding their children. But empowering them to spoon on as much or as little sugar as they want to (rather than just taking what manufacturers admit to putting in tiny print that most people don’t understand) is a perfectly liberal approach.

    @JulianHarris cheap

  • How is the food industry automatically illiberal by trying to protect itself from government interference? Don’t follow that…

    David Allen, perhaps you should reflect upon the point raised of whether government interference is necessary, if the evidence points towards an epidemic of obesity so severe that the only option is the state swinging its hammer of interfering (it isn’t), instead of whines about ‘nu-liberals’ (the correct term for ‘social’ liberals, surely?) and their little books. The Orange Book is over ten years old, perhaps you can find a new stick to beat party members who you disagree with with?

  • Z – don’t hold your breath …

  • Yellow Bill 8th Feb '13 - 1:05am

    Z

    Are you saying then that the Orange Bookers now distance themselves from what they wrote 10 years ago? That those essays do not influence how they now act in office.

    If opinions have not changed (and I do not think they have) then David Allen has every right to draw attention to such muscular ‘liberalism’

  • All this stuff about taxing certain foods and restricting the content of certain foods doesn’t sound much like just providing information to me.

    It’s difficult to say this without being personal, but is it a good idea for a politician who is (I would think) well above average weight to be proposing legal restrictions on what other people can eat, in order to cut their calorie intake?

  • Helen Dudden 8th Feb '13 - 2:42pm

    We have serious problems with what is actually called bee, and other meats, in certain products.

    I would voice concern about eating horse meat, and most certainly not feed my children or grandchild on these products. The government should wake to their responsibilities and make sure our food is what it should be.

  • Helen Dudden 8th Feb '13 - 2:43pm

    It should have read beef, for some reason it did not print it correctly on line.

  • Chris Rennard 8th Feb '13 - 4:07pm

    There are more comments on this issue on my Facebook page (for my Facebook friends to see!)

  • Mark Chivers 8th Feb '13 - 10:11pm

    We don’t think it is illiberal to hv seat belt laws or standards for food / toy / electrical equipment safety – they all act in the best interest of the population. There will always be some disagreement on how far we should go, from advise (like 5 a day), labelling, to mandatory standards but as long as the intent is good it should not be a problem.

  • Helen Dudden 10th Feb '13 - 11:58am

    There is also the question, where has this horse meat product come from? There are questions on the safety of this product that was under the label of beef. Surely, that was a trade description issue, is there further that has not yet come to surface on the beef or horse meat, this is a worrying issue for those who have consumed the product.

    I feel great disquiet on the latest revelations.

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