Robert Halfon: Dealing with child hunger isn’t a left-wing issue. The Government must, and can, do more.

15 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Today I hope to be speaking in a Westminster Hall Debate on the National Food Strategy organised by my friend and colleague, Jo Gideon MP.

Yet as the country once again grapples with a Covid-Christmas dilemma, many families and schools face a starker challenge of food hunger.

Lockdowns and school closures following the outbreak of the pandemic have had a devastating impact on children’s learning, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ofsted’s latest annual report shows that pupils lost 33 million days of learning. Indeed, at a recent hearing of the Education Select Committee, which I chair, the Education Policy Institute confirmed that for the most disadvantaged secondary school-aged pupils, they had gone from being 1.9 months behind in their reading to 2.4 months over the course of the year.

The Government is rightly boosting support for schools with nearly £5 billion of education catch-up funding targeted towards recovery through the National Tutoring Programme. But all the extra tuition in the world won’t work if children arrive at school without having eaten a nutritious breakfast.

There will be some out there who argue this should be the responsibility of parents and carers. In an ideal world, it should be, but sadly, in too many cases, this is not happening.

Can readers really stand in front of the single mother of three I spoke to, and tell her she should be denied temporary help and her children left to go hungry, because she had been made redundant due to the pandemic and can no longer afford to put food on the table?

The statistics are clear. We know that children who regularly eat breakfast achieve, on average, two higher GCSE grades than children who don’t. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs make two months additional academic progress. According to Kellogg’s (an organisation not usually associated with the left), hunger could cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through lost teaching time spent on dealing with the needs of hungry pupils.

So how, ask those rightly concerned about public finances, are we supposed to pay for this? I was not a great fan of the so-called ‘Coca-Cola tax’, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) introduced in 2018 on sugary drinks. It disproportionately affects those on lower incomes who might simply want to purchase the occasional treat for their kids. But it also generates a revenue of £340 million each year.

Given that the money was originally intended to fund healthy living initiatives, why not use it to fund hunger reduction programmes? That way no-one needs to ask the taxpayer for more money.

According to a new poll conducted by Opinium Research, two thirds of UK adults (66 per cent) would be likely to support the Government increasing spending on school breakfast provision for disadvantaged children through using unspent funds from the Coca-Cola tax.

Magic Breakfast have calculated that for £75 million more per year, funded by the sugar tax, the Government could ensure that 7,300 of the most disadvantaged primary and SEN schools could provide a free, nutritious breakfast to every pupil that needs it.

This would reach an estimated 900,000 pupils throughout the year, targeted to the most disadvantaged schools. This could complement other initiatives such as the deeper strategy to support Family Hubs championed by my colleague Fiona Bruce MP and given the additional £500 million provided in this year’s Autumn Budget.

Currently, the Department for Education’s new breakfast provision service reaches just 30 per cent of schools in high levels of disadvantage and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison last year taxpayers spent £380 million on Free School Meals vouchers.

For some, this may be difficult to stomach, but no Conservative opposed the £70 billion furlough scheme which was in essence, a welfare benefit to employers. And no Conservative opposed the £850 million Eat Out to Help Out scheme – again, another form of welfare relief to the hospitality industry.

Pro Bono Economics report the impact of free school breakfasts on Key Stage 1 pupils’ future economic contribution. If every pupil in disadvantaged areas received breakfast provision, this would translate into nearly £3 billion in long-term economic value.

If support can be made available to businesses feeling the brunt of the pandemic, then surely we could provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children.

Dealing with child hunger should not be a left-wing issue. Indeed, the Levelling-Up agenda has the potential to heal some significant social injustices in our country and provide every child with a hand-up to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Supporting high-quality education and increasing academic attainment in schools must be crucial to levelling-up but we can’t expect pupils to succeed on an empty stomach.

No-one has to ask the taxpayer for more money to do this – the money is waiting in Treasury coffers to be used. So as we look towards a new year, and a new start, let’s make free school breakfasts a new year’s levelling-up resolution.

Hollywood’s erasure of Cruella de Vil’s smoking habit is pointless and dull. Companies, and the state, must stop telling people what to do.

30 May

Before I start this article, let me just say that I won’t be watching the new Cruella de Vil prequel starring Emma Stone. I am not 10 years old, for starters. But in general I have pre/sequel-phobia; an intense aversion to films that have had their five minutes of fame. Do we really need to know the whole backstory to Cruella de Vil?

Cruella, however, caught my attention when I found out that producers had scrapped her iconic cigarette holder. Any fan of 101 Dalmations will know this is a crucial part of Cruella, along with her pathological hatred of dalmations (alive, at least). But that’s over now. Stone has told The New York Times that no one is allowed to smoke onscreen in a Disney film and she doesn’t want to promote it. Furthermore, this Cruella will not “in any way harm animals”, according to the producers. Is this even Cruella?

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with politics. Well, the story got me thinking that cigarette-less Cruella didn’t happen in a vacuum; she is, in fact, part of a wider societal trend across the West, whereby organisations – and the state – now think it’s their role to parent people. Disney presumably thinks it’s preventing the next generation of children from smoking (personally I think they’re missing an opportunity to help kids associate tobacco with evilness). And this “nudge” instinct is all too common in other corporations, which appear to view themselves as guiding forces on health, morality, politics, and actually most things.

One of the most virtuous organisations is Twitter (a site that I spend far too much time on, incidentally). It now issues warning signs if you want to share content, saying “Want to read the article first?” A lot of its signposting comes across as a knee-jerk reaction to Brexit/ Trump, when “disinformation” was used to explain why voters voted the way they did. Thus, tech companies are trying to “help promote informed discussion“, as Twitter puts it, using instructive messaging. In fact, the “want to read the article first” signs feel like the social media equivalent of being in Waterstones buying a book for your friend, only for the shop assistant to pop up and ask “want to read the book first?” None of your business, you would think.

Our paternalistic culture has not been helped by the Coronavirus crisis, which greatly increased people’s need for instruction in their everyday lives. At the beginning of the pandemic, MPs advised people on the nature of the disease, but since then we’ve been taught everything from “how to give a hug” to how to interact with others in our own house. Even to have two friends over for dinner post May 17 is to feel like the character from Crime and Punishment, as you anxiously cross-check the Government website to ensure compliance with the rules. The amount of advice out there is startling. Worse still, it seems unexceptional these days; the default to expect it.

The State had been interfering in people’s lives more and more before Covid, despite most people’s belief that Boris Johnson would be libertarian on many issues, particularly obesity. Instead, shortly after he became Prime Minister, the Government developed a strategy that included banning adverts for high fat, salt or sugar products on the TV and online before 9pm – among other tough measures.

I don’t count myself as someone who gets particularly vexed about sin taxes, incidentally – it’s actually the area I’m least libertarian about – but given that we have just had a year in which we were told how to hug, I’m starting to think all this has gone too far. We seem to have embraced a new variety of what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the authors of The Coddling of the American Mind, would call safetyism – the increased societal efforts to protect children from emotional/ physical harm, which in turn make them less resilient. Nowadays businesses and policymakers treat children and adults as though they can’t be trusted to think for themselves.

To even utter the phrase “use your common sense” is to be frowned upon in our current climate. Take, for example, when Michael Gove said “it’s always better to trust people’s common sense” on wearing face masks. It was interesting to note a letter that followed in one newspaper shortly afterwards reading “I no longer trust people’s ‘common sense’ in dealing with coronavirus. We need real leadership” (leadership being synonymous with more rules). When I wrote my own article arguing that face masks shouldn’t be mandatory, I was surprised to find people disagreeing with me, warning how useful they can be. But I wasn’t disagreeing with that; merely saying that I trusted people to wear them without legislation. I thought this wouldn’t be controversial.

The result of this nudging, and governmental advice over how many people can come over for a cuppa, and the rest won’t be good. Already we are seeing signs that people have become more worried about going back to “normal” because of the lockdown restrictions, with The Office for National Statistics finding that just 39 per cent met people outside their support bubble indoors after May 17. My own age group 30-49-year-olds) were some of the most hesitant. What are they waiting for? More state encouragement? A Twitter notification (“want to go out soon?”) The Government must roll back its powers; it must help personal judgement become the norm again. Organisations must relax. Give us back our Disney villains, at least.

Greg Smith: The proposed ban on ‘junk food’ advertising needs an urgent rethink

17 May

Greg Smith is the Member of Parliament for Buckingham.

The enthusiasm for tackling obesity and wider public health issues that the Prime Minister has demonstrated since his own Covid-19 hospitalisation is understandable. But unless there is a pause for thought, we risk introducing nanny-state measures for no practical benefit.

Officials have wandered so far off the plot have wandered that many food companies in the United Kingdom risk being clobbered by new regulations, despite their products, in some cases, already having been developed or reformulated to meet government guidelines.

From April 2022, the rules for selling a range of food products will change. The Government is legislating to restrict the promotions of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) by location and price, as well as introduce a total ban on advertising of HFSS foods for TV and online.

But restrictions will affect many unintended products, including healthy alternatives to high-sugar snacks, contradicting the ultimate goal of the restrictions: tackling obesity. These restrictions will also put an additional strain to businesses already affected by the pandemic.

The categories within the scope of the restrictions cover broad concepts such as “confectionery” or “sweet biscuits and cereal bars”, without clear definitions or exemptions being provided. These categories have supposedly been included because they have the strongest connection to childhood obesity.

Many products that are included, including high-protein and low-sugar sports bars, are not even intended, or marketed, for children. Such protein bars may curb appetite, fuel a workout, or support muscle repair after exercise. For those trying to lose weight, eating a carefully selected protein bar between meals can help to provide for a suitable, nutritious, snack.

These products should not be hidden from adults who lead an active lifestyle and seek a healthy alternative to a high-sugar snack. The Government is essentially confusing and misleading consumers about the healthier options that are available to them. It has not published sufficient evidence to demonstrate that these measures will actually reduce childhood obesity.

Farmers and food producers will be penalised by these measures. Farmers in my constituency are particularly concerned that granola, porridge and muesli have been included in the list of breakfast cereals that will face restrictions on promotion and potentially advertising.

In a letter from the Prime Minister to Ian Wright, Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, dated 10th January 2021, it clearly states that the Government’s intention is to target “the products most closely linked to childhood obesity”.

Granola, porridge and muesli account for just seven per cent of children’s breakfasts. It therefore defies common sense to claim they directly contribute to childhood obesity in the UK. Wholegrain breakfast cereal products help increase vital intakes of fibre, vitamins, minerals, fruit and calcium from milk in the adult population.

They also cost on average just 27p per portion. At a time when one in ten people say they cannot afford even a £1 rise in food bills, low-cost nutritional breakfast cereals are an important meal.

The products within these categories will be scored using the Department of Health and Social Care’s Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM), to define what foods are healthy and what foods are not. Under the NPM, a food is either declared “healthy” or “less healthy”, so any food that just meets the threshold of being “less healthy” is subject to all the same restrictions as the least healthy foods that are produced, even if they have very different compositions and nutritional value. The thresholds stablished by the model are impossibly restrictive, with most processed foods struggling to pass the test.

The NPM makes no allowance for sugars that occur naturally within dried fruits and are frequently found in breakfast cereals, despite this criterion being applied by Public Health England in their latest sugar reduction targets. In addition, the fibre allowance is capped at a relatively low level.  This seems to run contrary to government policy to increase fibre consumption.

The food industry has spent the past ten years trying to follow Public Health England recommendations to reformulate, change product size, or shift consumers to low- or no-sugar options for their foods. When the Soft Drinks Industry Levy was introduced, between 2015 and 2018, the total amount of sugar sold in soft drinks dropped by 29 per cent, with six of the top ten soft drinks companies in the UK having reformulated 50% or more of their products subject to the sugar tax.

But manufacturers who have already invested heavily in reformulation, or even developed their products in response to the Public Health England 2015 Sugar Reduction Programme, are still being penalised because products meeting PHE reformulation thresholds can still score poorly under the NPM.

Introducing a total ban on the promotion and advertising of HFSS foods will negatively impact both small and large businesses. This is an ill-considered policy that goes a lot further than simply being a ban on ‘junk food’ advertising. Food producers, start-up companies, and businesses of any size should not be punished as a result of a hasty and ill-thought-out campaign to tackle childhood obesity.

As we recover from the pandemic, it is essential our economy recovers quickly and robustly. Whilst the Government is right to be concerned about obesity in Britain, there is a stark difference between inspiring wiser choices among citizens and a nannying Government that tries to rescue people from themselves using regressive regulations.

Anthony Browne: Why the Chancellor is right to increase Corporation Tax

5 Mar

Anthony Browne MP is a member of the Treasury Select Committee and former CEO of the British Bankers’ Association.

There is a change of direction in the Budget that is causing murmurings on the low-tax side of the Conservative Party: the increase in Corporation Tax (CT).

A decade of sharp cuts to CT were justified by saying that they not only boosted investment and growth but also actually increased tax revenues. Ireland too is cited as an example, where the sleepy Celtic moggy cut CT rates to 12.5 per cent, the lowest in the industrial world, and was transformed into a Celtic tiger.

I too want low taxes, and this Laffer curve argument is appealing because it suggests that tax cuts can pay for themselves. But the Government is now planning a sharp rise in CT from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in 2023 for the most profitable firms, with the Budget Red Book showing the Treasury expects this to raise more than £17bn extra a year by 2025. But hang on! If lower CT rates increases revenue, then raising them can’t. Why the change?

So, in technical language, just what is the peak revenue-raising rate on the Laffer curve on Corporation Tax?

Laffer curves exist for all taxes, and their peak rates depend on many factors, such as the substitutability of the product, the elasticity of demand, mobility of production, the fungibility of capital and labour, and what other tax authorities are doing. Tax on sugary drinks probably has a very low Laffer curve peak because a small tax just prompts people to drink otherwise identical zero-sugar drinks. The Laffer curve on fuel is very high – well over 100 per cent – because people can’t do without fuel to drive.

On Corporation Tax, the Laffer curve would be lower for highly mobile sectors that can shop around for the lowest tax regimes in the world, and higher for ones that can’t easily move.

It is absolutely true that CT receipts have increased dramatically since George Osborne started cutting the rates, from £36.3bn in 2010-11 to £55.1bn in 2018-19. But that is largely because corporate profits were hugely depressed in 2010 in the wake of the deepest recession for a century. Corporation tax profits – and so CT revenues – are super-cyclical: exaggerated versions of the underlying economic cycle. Aggregate company profits on which CT is charged fell from £203.6bn in 2006/7 to £151.6bn in 2010/11, and then bounced back to £267bn in 2018/19.

After both the 1990/91 recession and the dotcom crash, CT revenues took just three years to return to their long run average as a percentage of GDP, but after the financial crisis, it took eight years, presumably because of the lower rates. Other changes have also increased CT revenues since the financial crisis including the corporation tax surcharge on banks (about £2bn a year), and widening the base of corporation tax. As it happens, CT revenues also rose sharply before the financial crash, and that had nothing to do with their rates because they were static throughout the entire period.

But CT is one source of tax revenue – what about the others?

Lower CT rates leads to lower cost of capital for companies, and so should increase investment and thus increase jobs, wages, GDP growth and consumption, leading to higher rates of income tax, VAT and so on. HM Treasury started doing dynamic modelling on the effects of cutting CT tax, to take into account the overall effects. In 2013, HMT and HMRC published a detailed analysis from the dynamic modelling, showing an increase in investment, in GDP (between 0.6 per cent and 0.8 per cent) and wages (£405-£515 per household). That lead to greater tax revenues, but only enough to reduce the loss of direct revenues by between 45 per cent and 60 per cent.

In other words, even a Treasury analysis, presumably designed to support Treasury policy, admits the CT cuts reduce overall tax revenues rather than increase them. It also surveyed the academic literature from around the world on this, and they all estimated that between 45 per cent and 90 per cent of the revenue loss would be made up – not enough of an impact to actually increase revenues.

There are other reasons to cut CT taxes than raising revenues. Another argument used is that cutting CT increases investment, but that also isn’t really supported by the evidence. Business investment is the same now when CT is 19 per cent as it was in the late 1990s, when CT was 30 per cent. Between 1997 and 2017, we had the lowest CT in the G7, but also the lowest average non-government investment at 14.3 per cent of GDP (compared to G7 average of 17.3 per cent).

Whatever the impact of low corporation tax in Ireland, it is really not comparable to the UK. When it introduced them, it was a much more agrarian economy with little inward investment and a major exporter of skilled people. There was not a big corporate base, and so it had little to lose from cutting CT.

If you want to use tax policy to increase investment, then it is better to target the tax cuts directly at investment decisions, as the Budget is doing with its “superdeduction” on investment, which will mean the Government will write off 25 per cent of any investment any business makes against its tax bill. Here is a suggestion for the corporate world: cutting corporation tax has not lead to a surge in investment, and it is now it is going back up. If you want to keep the “superdeduction” investment relief and make it permanent, prove to the Treasury that it works.

Dolly Theis: Why Government policy on obesity affects us all

27 Oct

Dolly Theis is completing her PhD at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit.  She contested Vauxhall in the 2017 general election.

This article is the first of a mini-series of three about obesity policy that I have written for Conservative Home this week.

Today, I want to set the scene for you and explain why obesity policy affects us all.

Tomorrow I hope you’ll join me in an exploration of the Conservative Party’s own history, beginning with Sir Robert Peel, to find out what previous Conservative Party “greats” have done to help solve nutrition problems, and to see what we might learn.

Finally, I will set out why I think we have failed to tackle our broken food culture and system, and what I think Government should do going forward.

I am hugely looking forward to reading your comments, from the brutal to the thought-provoking. So without further ado, here is why I think obesity policy affects us all.

I have a strong image of my dream world. In this world, it would be easy for everyone to live a healthy life, regardless of where we live, our budget, our circumstances and, ideally, without having to think too much about it.

It would be easy to eat well, and to be fit and active. Indeed, it wouldn’t just be easy; it would be enjoyable too. In my dream world, we also wouldn’t judge people based on their weight, and we would all have a positive relationship with food.

Tragically, we currently live in a world where it is not easy for everyone to live a healthy life. For some, finding a meal is hard enough – so whether it is healthy or not is irrelevant.

We are all surrounded by constant reminders and/or opportunities to eat, mostly tilted in favour of unhealthier options – at the same time as being told that we need to lose weight, or feel we should aspire towards a certain body ideal.

We are then shamed, or may feel like failures, for not achieving this perfect body.  Or else we are celebrated for doing so, even if we reached it in an unhealthy way.

The more I listen to and read debates about food, health and body image, the more they confirm that my dream world, in which it is easy for everyone to be healthy, would help solve the situation.

So how could we get there? Before answering the question, let us explore the current situation further.

In England, 67 per cent of men, 60 per cent of women and more than a quarter of children aged two to 15 live with obesity, or are overweight.

Obesity and overweight are associated with many long-term physical, psychological and social concerns. A recent YouGov poll found that 46 per cent of British adults were “not very happy” or “not happy at all” with their body image, compared to just seven per cent who were “very happy”.

Pressure to achieve the perfect body has led to almost two thirds of British adults being on a diet “most of the time”, with between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK estimated to suffer from an eating disorder.

We live in a world where the majority of people are not living a healthy life, and where far too many of us are unhappy with our bodies. I find this unacceptable.

I research obesity policy and, when I talk to people about it, many view obesity as being an inevitability of modern life – an issue of poor choice, bad parenting, a lack of education or less cooking.

But it is not. To understand and tackle the issue properly, we need to stop reinforcing these beliefs, and instead understand obesity as being just one of many consequences of our broken food culture and system.

Obesity is a stigmatising word – encouraging us to judge people based on their weight, and divide us up into those who are “the problem” and those who are not. It makes politicians squirm having to speak about the issue, for fear of offending people or being seen to tell us what we should and should not eat. However, obesity is an outcome of that unbalanced food culture. Indeed, this culture and system affects us all.

Food is everywhere. Not only in more obvious places like supermarkets, restaurants and cafes, but also in clothes shops, stationeries and pharmacies. We also see food in deliciously tempting photos and recognisable brand logos. Food adverts are on billboards and TV screens, online and in magazines, in sports venues and train stations.

So food cues surround us, yet we are mostly unaware of them. We don’t exactly go around counting the numbers of times we see a food advert or pass somewhere we could buy food.

However, where and how food is advertised and sold has a profound impact on our health, and so makes free choice-making very difficult, even if we believe that choice is technically present: there is a reason you can recite an entire list of crisp, chocolate and fast food brands without having to think too much.

Unhealthier foods are in the spotlight – despite the official UK national dietary recommendation for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) being that these not needed in our diet, so should be eaten less often and in smaller amounts.

However, it is not easy to consume unhealthy foods in moderation when we are being purposefully drawn to them by targeted messages and easy availability. For example, Cancer Research UK analysed food adverts on major TV channels and found that around half were for HFSS products, increasing to almost 60 per cent between 6pm and 9pm. Fewer than five per cent of all adverts shown were for fruit or vegetables.

Despite reports showing people can have a cheap healthy diet (which, while true for some, is often based on unrealistic assumptions about people’s lives), research shows that in practice, healthier diets are more expensive.

This is partly because food policies favour the production, marketing and sale of inexpensive, high volume products such as highly processed foods.

When money and time are tight, people turn to these cheap, convenient and often unhealthier foods, which might be the only option for parents who quite literally cannot afford to have their children reject what’s put in front of them.

This imbalance has resulted in what many perceive as a vilification of unhealthy food – with the Government going after junk food. However, were our food culture balanced in favour of healthy foods, then I imagine that unhealthy products would not be vilified at all, since people would more easily enjoy them in moderation, which would reduce the damaging health effects we experience today, and we could all enjoy and celebrate them for what they are: treats, rather than day to day foods.

So how do we rebalance things in practice?

The Conservative Government under John Major during the 1990s first recognised obesity as a problem that it should seek to reduce.

In 1992, it published its Health of the Nation public health strategy, which included the first ever government obesity reduction targets: reduce the proportion of obese men to six per cent and obese women to eight per cent by 2005.

Clearly, these were not met. Indeed, 14 government obesity strategies containing almost 700 policies have been published since 1991 – yet obesity rates continue to rise.

This is due in part to four main problems:

  • Government has proposed hundreds of obesity policies during the last three decades, but many of these have never been properly implemented or evaluated
  • It struggles to reconcile its desire not to be interventionist with its responsibility to protect people’s health.
  • There has been a focus on telling individuals to change their behaviour without helping to create a context in which that is easy; and
  • Government lumps many different policies into the “obesity agenda” – despite there being an important distinction between them.

To solve points one, two and three, government should prioritise transparent policy implementation and evaluation. Most of the obesity policies proposed under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are still waiting to be implemented.

I believe that it is wholly unacceptable that policies are proposed, but not implemented and/or evaluated. Could you imagine the same happening in business – with Jeff Bezos saying “hey guys! I have this great idea for a delivery company”, but then never introducing it?

For those of you reading this article and thinking that government shouldn’t be intervening at all, there is an irony – namely, that it probably would’t need to be considering such interventions now if it had properly implemented and evaluated even a handful of policies proposed previously.

So how do we better hold government to account on this?

To solve my final point – that government lumps many different policies into the “obesity agenda”, despite there being an important distinction between them – there should be a distinction between “obesity policies” (i.e: targeted interventions aimed at helping people living with obesity, such as bariatric surger), and population health policies, i.e: policies that make it easier for the population to live a healthy life such as reducing the bombardment of unhealthy food advertising).

By referring to all policies as “obesity policies”, people not living with obesity may see these as “not my problem” – or may feel government is unfairly intervening in their lives, and is being anti-business if a policy affects them (for example, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, also known as the sugar tax). Of course businesses – should make a profit.  But not at the expense of our health.

Introducing both obesity and population health policies would make it easier for everyone to live a healthy life. People living with obesity would receive effective and equitable treatment and support. They would then return to a context which facilitates and promotes a healthy life, thus making it easier to maintain their improved health.

Otherwise we risk Professor Sir Michael Marmot repeating his famous line: “What good does it do to treat people and send them back to the conditions that made them sick”?

The policies to deal with the problem are all in the 14 government strategies already published – from reducing the bombardment of unhealthy products while also increasing the provision, convenience and appeal of healthy products. Part One of Henry Dimbleby’s 2020 National Food Strategy is also one of the most comprehensive, “oven ready” policy packages ready for implementation.

We must stop searching for a magical solution, and instead begin implementing and evaluating policies that will help create a world in which it is easy for us all, regardless of circumstance, budget or where we live, to enjoy a healthy life without having to think too much about it.

Robert Halfon: Delivering social justice means feeding children properly. We’re not doing so – and we must.

7 Oct

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Combating child food hunger should be as much a priority for this Government as its work on improving education standards. After all, we know the two are interlinked. Unsurprisingly, the evidence shows that hungry children not only do not learn at school, but have damaged life chances later on.

In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that around 2.2 million people in the UK have limited access to food, due to a lack of money or other resources. Magic Breakfast, the charity implementing the Government’s National Breakfast Programme, has calculated that approximately 1.8 million children are living in food insecure households.

The economic impacts of Covid-19 have only exacerbated the problem of child hunger. According to the Children’s Commissioner, 88,000 children were living in households where jobs had been lost in April this year. Many parents, who have worked hard their entire lives, found themselves unemployed and, for the first time, struggling to provide the next meal for their children.

The Food Foundation’s September 2020 report showed that the Government’s furlough scheme undoubtedly protected many families from going hungry. But their May polling data also suggested a 250 per cent increase of households experiencing food insecurity since lockdown measures came into force.

School closures have placed further additional financial pressures on parents. Where childcare arrangements were too costly, or didn’t fit around work commitments, many parents reduced hours or even left jobs to care for their children at home. Families also had to provide home learning resources, and cover increased electricity and food bills.

Marcus Rashford has been a powerful voice in the debate on child hunger, calling for a long-term, cross-party strategy from the Government.  His impassioned letters to MPs resulted in the Government’s extension of free school meals over the holidays and at the start of September he endorsed the National Food Strategy’s recommendations. He emotively described his own mother’s struggle to put food on the table. Working full-time, earning minimum wage, their family still “relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbours and [football] coaches.”

Some Conservatives question the role of the state in addressing child hunger, or argue that the Government’s welfare system already acts as a safety net for those falling on hard times. But, as Lord Krebs’ report revealed, when the Government’s own calculations of welfare payments do not cost in the provision of a healthy diet, in line with its recommended Eatwell Guide, we are not even giving families on Universal Credit a fair chance.

Second, child food insecurity has a big impact on a child’s education. Kelloggs’ report, A Lost Education, found that if a child arrives at school hungry, teachers believe they lose one hour of learning time a day. Add to that the impact of the lockdown on education inequalities – early analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in June estimated that the attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures – and these children are at great risk of being further left behind.

However, a control trial has shown showed that pupils in schools supported by breakfast clubs made an additional twp months’ academic progress over the course of a year.

Third, the economy pays a high price, too. In terms of education alone, Kelloggs have calculated that “the grip of hunger could potentially cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through teachers losing teaching hours to cope with the needs of hungry children”.

In the long-term, there is enormous cost-benefit to improving education outcomes. Around a quarter of working-aged adults (approximately 9 million people) have low basic numeracy and literacy skills. Studies at Loughborough University indicated that £3.5 billion is lost in tax receipts from people earning less as a result of leaving school with low skills ,and child hunger costs the economy £29 billion a yearyear.

At a total price-tag well exceeding £1 billion a year, the three National Food Strategy policies endorsed by Rashford and his Task Force of prominent retailers and manufacturers are a tough sell to a Treasury spending unprecedented amounts to salvage our economy from the wreckage of the pandemic. But there is already money that could be put to better use.

First, consolidation is key. Over the years, the Government has applied sticking plasters to the crisis of food insecurity, resulting in a spaghetti junction of schemes spanning nearly every department. Putting welfare benefits to the side, we have Free School Meals, Universal Infant Free School Meals, the School Milk Subsidy Scheme, the Nursery Milk Scheme, the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, Breakfast Club funding, Healthy Start Vouchers and, during Covid-19, the Hardship Fund and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. No wonder the Children’s Commissioner called for a “clear, joined-up plan to reduce food poverty”, during our Education Committee session on Tuesday.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many of these schemes are operating with cost-spiralling inefficiencies. The Healthy Start scheme, for example, suffers from extremely poor uptake. This is, in part, because of its archaic bureaucracy. Eligible pregnant women and parents of under-fours must complete and submit a paper application form (which has been particularly hard in lockdown for those who can’t get to a library to print out the forms).

Low participation in the scheme has created a significant underspend (2018/19 saw £28.6 million unused). Surely we can do much more to market the scheme, accelerate its promised digitisation and introduce automatic enrolment (with an opt-out), to ensure that support reaches those in need.

As an initial, basic step, we need proper data collection. The Health Department’s answer to my written question seeking the total expenditure on Healthy Start vouchers in England revealed that information is only held for 2018/19, raising concerns about the Health Department’s grasp of the situation.

Second, the Sugar Tax is forecast to generate a healthy £340 million revenue in 2020/21 – £1 billion over four years. Ringfencing this funding offers a perfect opportunity to extend Free School Meals over the school holidays, estimated at between £281 million and £670 million/year.

If we, as a state, acknowledge that certain children need food during term-time with the provision of Free School Meals, what changes over the summer holidays? In fact, we know that the financial pressures on parents only increase during this time.

As the Taxpayers’ Alliance has shown, the levy on everyday sugary food and drinks disproportionately impacts those from disadvantaged families, as low-income households tend to drink more sugary drinks and the tax takes a greater share of their income. Using this revenue for Free School Meals or for a long-term Holiday Activities and Food programme has appeal in redistributing money back to those families hit hardest by the levy.

Third, the sceptics amongst us will point out that the conglomerates on Rashford’s Task Force are getting a great deal of good PR, without putting their money where their mouth is. The Evening Standard estimated that supermarkets throw away around £230 million worth of food each year. There is a real opportunity here for the supermarkets, wholesalers and manufacturers, to take on a much bigger role in combating child hunger.

As Conservatives, we need to address this social injustice. This is not about an expansion of the welfare state, but simply ensuring all our children are properly fed. As the pandemic has shown, if we don’t have a safety net at the bottom of our ladder of opportunity, what is the point?

Andrew Selous: It’s time for the Government to step up the war on obesity

22 Jul

Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity.

I warmly welcome the indications that the Prime Minister is about to take further action on obesity.

The greater risks run by people with obesity in combating COVID-19 have made this issue even more urgent but the truth is that even before the pandemic the UK had a serious obesity problem.

The national child measurement programme data shows that ten per cent of children in Reception were obese in 2018-19 and that had more than doubled to over 20 per cent by year Six. The Guys and St Thomas’ charity report ‘Bitesize’ shows that London has a higher rate of childhood obesity than New York and a rate nearly four and a half times higher than Paris.

Children’s health really matters, as does equality of opportunity. Overweight and obese children grow up to be overweight and obese adults.

There is not only leads to a significant cost to the NHS and the taxpayer, but it’s also a question of social justice, as 27 per cent of the most deprived children in Year Six are obese compared with under 12 per cent of their least deprived classmates.This is an area that politicians often fear to tread in but it’s a vital public policy issue and we lack courage if we ignore it.

I think that our guiding principle should be to make the right choice the easy and affordable choice for as many people as possible. It doesn’t help when children are bombarded with advertising for unhealthy products which they pressure their parents to buy. That’s why getting the 9pm watershed in place against the advertising of junk food to children is so important.

We also need more British supermarkets to follow the example of the Dutch supermarket Marqt, which has banned the marketing of unhealthy products to children. Their CEO says that tempting children to choose unhealthy products doesn’t fit with how they want to help their customers. Unfortunately, many people don’t have much of a choice with those unable to get to supermarkets easily often being faced with local shops, with a poor choice of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Some areas have massive concentrations of takeaways. In 2017 there were 400 in Southwark, a seven per cent increase on 2014 and this was the borough revealed in 2018 as having the first neighbourhood in the country where a majority of children leaving primary school were overweight or obese. The Food Foundation have also pointed out the across much of mainland Europe, the healthy choice is often the cheaper one, yet bizarrely and worryingly the opposite is commonly the case in the UK.

Local authorities have a role to play as well. The Amsterdam healthy weight programme launched by Eric Van der Burghas, the centre-right deputy mayor of the city, focused on schools, the health service, planning, sports, charities and the business sector.

The Health Select Committee went to see what he was doing and he told us that he went to a summer sports programme one year and saw a young girl who couldn’t do a forward roll because she was so overweight. When he realised how widespread the problem was he made it a priority. We need more leaders with his tenacity.

Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to have clearer food labelling. We need the same in restaurants and the takeaway sector. Shops should promote healthy food, not junk food. The hugely successful sugar tax should be extended to more products, with the proceeds going towards child health. Energy drinks should not be sold to under-16s either.

We also must not abandon those whose lives have been ruined by obesity. Bariatric surgery can be life changing for those who have tried everything else without success. Professor John Wass of Oxford University tells me that the number of bariatric operations in England is below 5,000 whereas in France, with a significantly lower prevalence of obesity, the figure is 60,000. Similar comparisons can be made with Sweden.

Johnson will have to abandon his libertarian instincts to tackle the obesity crisis

16 Jul

After Boris Johnson fell dangerously ill with Coronavirus, it was widely reported that he’d had a Damascene conversion on sin taxes.

Although he’s well known for his libertarian instincts, he told Times Radio that it was “absolutely true” he’d shifted his thinking on the obesity epidemic, regretting that in some of his “embarrassing former articles” he had “taken a sort of very libertarian stance”.

This led many to believe he might now back sugar taxes. However, today The Sun reports that Johnson has no plans to use them.

While this news will no doubt please libertarians around the country, it still seems that the Prime Minister will take radical action to tackle the crisis, with Number 10 reportedly considering calorie counts on all restaurant and takeaway menus, increasing bariatric surgery, as well as questioning whether to ban buy-one–get-one-free deals on junk food, as part of a war against obesity.

Many of these moves aren’t exactly “people pleasing”, but as with much of the Coronavirus, the Government has had to become increasingly interventionist, particularly due to the prospect of a second wave.

As overweight people are at increased risk of death and serious ill-health from the virus; with the UK currently having the second highest obesity rate in Europe, practical considerations have overridden philosophical ones.

Given that the Government is reportedly planning fairly dramatic steps, what people will wonder, however, is why not go for broke and ramp up sugar tax too (if The Sun story is correct). Not least because there’s the economic aspect of the Coronavirus crisis to manage, too, with the Government needing to raise taxes fast.

Some of the wariness around sugar taxes might be due to muddled scientific evidence. Since the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) was introduced in 2018, there have been fairly conflicting conclusions over whether it works – in the UK and elsewhere.

There’s also the libertarian resistance the Government receives when it considers sin taxes. Critics object on the ground that it reduces people’s right to choose what they want to consume, and impacts people on low incomes – something which Johnson is said to be keen to avoid. 

Whatever the case, it seems to me that the Conservatives cannot shy away any more from being bolder in nudging consumer behaviour – when it comes to the obesity crisis.

Indeed, what will stifle the Conservatives’ ability to make any decent progress on fighting the obesity crisis is a desire to be “freedom fighters” when it comes to consumption. Coronavirus has rather crushed the romanticism of this idea – and even before then it was unrealistic.

The idea of personal responsibility when it comes to food has always been overly idealistic, and has been challenged by science quite considerably over the last few years, which increasingly shows that some people struggle more than others in consumption habits.

Some of this is outlined by Tom Chivers for UnHerd; the piece outlines how heritability can influence what people want to drink and eat. Obesity has a heritability of 70 to 80 per cent, so this is why some find it much harder than others to cope in a society where food is advertised everywhere.

Far from the sugar tax being oppressive, our society has been pushy in the opposite direction to the one libertarians object to; it nudges people towards overeating and drinking, with two-for-one cocktail deals, meal deals and other offers always prominently positioned out and about.

It’s this encouragement factor that’s the problem, and it could be reversed with quite minimal tactics; the positioning of food in shops (healthier snacks near the counter), and other subtle techniques. The Government is also right to also consider steps such as gastric bands, which seem dramatic – but can improve people’s quality of life and the coping ability of the NHS in enormous ways.

On the economic recovery, Rishi Sunak recently said that we needed to be “creative” in how we spur growth, before he introduced his “Eat Out to Help Out Plan”. And this is the attitude that Johnson should take to solving this health crisis, although it will test his philosophical principles as much as the lockdown.