The speech made by Michelle Mone in the House of Lords on 17 April 2017.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on securing this timely debate. There is much to welcome in the Government’s plan to tackle childhood obesity. It is of grave concern to me that those most affected by the obesity epidemic are among the poorest in this country. I am sure I share the belief of all noble Lords that people should not be at a higher risk of obesity and cancer just because they are on low incomes.
I grew up in the East End of Glasgow. I did not learn anything about food and nutrition until I started my business and my entrepreneurial career. I was eating really badly and put on lots of weight. My children too were eating unhealthily. Once I learned the basics of nutrition, I changed what I ate, lost tons of weight and started to work out. I became a lot happier and healthier and my children followed me. It is far too easy for people to point the finger at low-income parents and criticise them for not feeding their children properly, but I think we are putting the blame in the wrong place. When you are on the breadline, your focus is, “I just need to feed my kids”. You will reach for a tin of spaghetti hoops, pre-packed, convenient ready meals or fish fingers and oven chips, thinking that you are providing a decent meal for your kids. We put a lot of trust in manufacturers and supermarkets, believing that they are selling us food that is healthy and nutritious, but that trust is misplaced.
The fact is that the food industry, both manufacturers of processed food and supermarkets, can make billions of pounds selling high-sugar, high-salt, low-nutrition foods at cheap prices, regardless of the impact it has on childhood health. Essentially, the Government are subsidising the food industry to the tune of £5 billion-plus per year—the cost to the NHS of the obesity health epidemic. These trends, unless stopped, will cost the NHS tens of billions in the coming years. Changing behaviour around food at childhood, teaching in schools and educating parents on the dangers of what they are eating will prevent lifelong problems. We can save billions of pounds and live healthier, more productive lives.
We have been here before on many different matters of public health. We eventually banned lead from paint when we realised it was killing people—although 86 years after Australia. Wearing a seatbelt became the law when we realised that not wearing a seatbelt meant we were more likely to die in a car crash. And we put health warnings on cigarettes when we realised that smoking caused cancer, although it took 50 years to achieve this. How long do we wait to act on obesity? At what point do we accept that our food manufacturers and supermarkets are selling food that is slowly killing their customers? It must be made clearer to families that a diet of kebabs, chips, chocolate, burgers, sugary drinks and convenient ready meals does not constitute a healthy, balanced diet just because these products are sold in supermarkets and available at takeaways. We must act when less healthy foods are three times cheaper than healthy foods, and foods with red traffic light labels are 20% more likely to be on promotion.
We can change food labelling once we are out of the EU. How should we do this? First, we must apply health warnings. As the Royal Society for Public Health has advised, high-fat, salty and sugary foods, which are linked to obesity and cancer, should carry a clear health warning, as cigarettes do.
Secondly, food labelling must be simple and easy to understand. The “recycle” symbol is one of the most recognised in the world. In the same way, a positive food choice should be instantly recognisable at the supermarket. Australia’s Health Star system rates foods out of five stars. The more nutritious the food is, the more stars it gets. It is simple. If we can get a similar system, and do it right, this sort of labelling will help families make positive choices.
Change is possible. The food industry has responded amazingly to the “Blue Planet” documentary, which shifted our attitudes and practices around plastic almost overnight. Iceland is working to reduce the use of plastics in its packaging to save dolphins. It is banning palm oil in its own products to save rainforests. But what are Iceland and the other supermarkets doing to end the supply of goods that fuel childhood obesity and illness? Let us work hard in this House to challenge the food industry to make it easier for hard-pressed families to make positive food choices, by getting real about the health risks of cheap, processed foods, adding health warnings to packaging, and devising simple labelling to help families make informed choices. Together, we can end the £5 billion-plus NHS grant to the food industry, and stop this obesity epidemic now.