The speech made by Jo Gideon, the Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, in the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.
Making Britain the best place to grow up and grow old is a big challenge. Ensuring where people are born and raised does not limit their quality of life and life expectancy is an even bigger challenge and one that lies at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
We all know the expression “You are what you eat.” In Britain, we are trapped in a junk food cycle that means we now consume more highly processed foods than any other European country except Malta and have higher levels of obesity, yet we have had decades—even centuries—of political barriers to good food policy. We often hear cries of “Nanny statism” or “Don’t tell us what to eat.” The latest Government announcements on delaying the ban on junk food advertising on television before 9 pm and delaying restricting “Buy one, get one free” promotions follow that regrettable trend. As a self-confessed chocoholic, I struggle to resist the temptation to boost my energy levels with a bar of chocolate rather than, so I know at first hand the irresistible pull of promotions and multi-purchase deals. I appreciate some hon. Members believe that attempts to tackle the bombardment of unhealthy food should be postponed so as not to increase the cost of living, but they are wrong. Research shows that promotions encourage people to buy 22% more unhealthy food and drink than intended, and to consume more of it, too. Marketing tactics have a real financial cost, as well as a negative health impact.
Let us not forget that retailers have other choices. Instead of encouraging customers on tight budgets to spend more on non-essential foods through these offers, they could simply offer 50% discounts or, as some supermarkets have started to do, have a value range of products at affordable prices that covers the basic foods for a balanced diet.
The political context has changed in recent months, and the Government’s focus is rightly on helping with the cost of living. Although that is a priority, it should not prevent the introduction of these important measures. Any delay will mean more children living with obesity and too many having reduced life chances through ill health. Our constituents will not thank us or forgive us for doing a U-turn on their health.
Obesity is a national emergency. In England, about 68% of men, 60% of women and more than one in four children aged between two and 15 are obese or overweight. Although this is a nationwide issue, rates of obesity are disproportionately higher among people living in more deprived communities. The statistics for my city of Stoke-on-Trent are shocking: 76.1% of adults in Stoke-on-Trent are overweight or obese. That is the third highest figure of all local authorities in England.
As the cost of living continues to squeeze household budgets, low-income families are forced to choose the cheapest calories, which are typically the least healthy. The Government must ensure that, when it comes to tackling food insecurity and the cost of living, they introduce policies that make nutritious diets affordable, easy and accessible to families on the lowest incomes
There is a pressing need for a good food Bill to set out in law a long-term approach and clear targets for the food system, with better systems for independently monitoring policy. We talk about the need for a resilient food system in terms of supply chains and production, but we need to widen that narrative to one of a resilient population that is both financially resilient to price shocks and resilient in public health terms, such as to pandemics.
We must not lurch from crisis to crisis. Action on the nation’s obesity emergency needs to start now. I support the right to good food as a fundamental pillar of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I support a school food standard to ensure our young people have the fuel to learn. I support bringing cookery skills and an understanding of nutrition into the school curriculum at every key stage and through community organisations such as family hubs. I support measures to enable British farmers to produce the food we need, and to enable the food industry to innovate and adapt by incentivising the creation of healthier and more sustainable products. And I support better help within the NHS for people living with obesity, including social prescribing and fair access to bariatric services.
Good health is a vital ingredient in maximising our quality of life and longevity. Proper nutrition is the foundation of good health. Investment in access to good food will pay dividends both in savings to the NHS and in increased productivity, which will boost the economy and deliver on the promise of levelling up health outcomes.