Floella Benjamin: Ministers should seize the baton and get serious on child obesity

Posted On: 
23rd February 2018

Whilst some parts of the government’s National Child Obesity Strategy are welcome, its reliance on a voluntary approach will not provide the necessary impetus for real change, argues Baroness Benjamin

"If we are serious about child obesity, then our government must lead and co-ordinate policy."

Firstly, the National Obesity Strategy has no greater champion than me and the All Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood which I co-chair.

From day one, we’ve said that if we are to defeat the obesity epidemic – which has the UK (and most countries worldwide) in its grip – business, industry, the voluntary sector, advertising and media outlets can only do so much. If we are serious about the issue, then our government must lead and co-ordinate policy or else good intentions will remain simply ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’.

We were delighted when David Cameron made obesity the theme of his first speech after the Conservative 2015 General Election victory. He promised a National Obesity Strategy insisting that, as the problem began in childhood, he would start with children. In 2016 Theresa May published The Child Obesity Strategy.

So far, so good; no broken promises in sight! However, her strategy had been reduced to a slim 13 pages and relied largely upon voluntary ‘happenstance’ rather than a properly funded holistic approach, overseen by a cabinet minister – a minister for children – with sufficient authority over all policy areas relevant to children. How would the necessary changes in direction, budgets and guidance actually happen?

We also noted that most of the proposals in the strategy were voluntary rather than statutory, reliant upon an outpouring of good will and benevolent behaviour that might happen in an ideal world. However, there were no mechanisms to evaluate the strategy, therefore if you don’t know what has worked well, and what hasn’t, you can’t make progress!

Of course we were pleased that the 2016 Strategy was not presented as a ‘silver bullet’ to redressing obesity. The mention of a future ‘Stage Two’ recognised that Rome wasn’t built in a day and the focus on encouraging industry to improve the nutrient content of fast food is warmly welcomed. Our reports have all stressed that ignorance of good nutrition is a major obstacle to our best efforts to combat an obesity epidemic that is proving to be devastating (both now and in the future) to the NHS and wider economy. Yet concentrating upon food and nutrition exclusively misses important points. At present the impact of the Strategy is curtailed due to the lacks any emphasis on physical activity, the importance of play, PE or sport.

Neither is there any serious concentration upon the early years of childhood and what precedes it; pregnancy and preparation for parenthood. Our APPG considers obesity to be ‘a family affair’ and a government that is determined to eliminate obesity must devise polices that apply to the family in its widest sense, including professionals and carers who interact with families and children.

Our APPG acts as a critical friend, asking government to lead in combating perhaps the most serious health challenge of the 21st century. Actions must be evaluated and made fit for purpose with a mix of statutory and voluntary measures, a holistic impetus and a readiness to work in partnership whenever and wherever those partnerships can be forged to optimum effect.

Good oral health must also be integral to all initiatives to improve the National Obesity Strategy. Dentistry is increasingly regarded as a ‘Cinderella’ service but how can we have a sugar tax just on soft drinks on the one hand and, on the other, ignore the fact that an average five-year old eats their bodyweight in sugar every year in foods other than soft drinks? Poor oral health strikes also at the root of young people’s mental health and self-esteem. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has joined dental and oral health organisations in their efforts to put the need to improve children’s oral health smack bang on the government’s policy-making agenda. Where better for oral health to find a home than at the heart of the National Obesity Strategy?

We may only have one chance at this, so let’s give it our very best shot. With full government support, the UK can seize the ‘obesity baton’, aim for the winning post and cross the line as gold medallists.

I always say, ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’ so for the sake of everyone today, and our successors tomorrow, this isn’t a choice: it’s a duty that we owe to our children. So together, we can and must win the battle against obesity and forge a future fit for all.

Baroness Benjamin is a Lib Dem Peer and chair of the Fit and Healthy Childhood APPG. Her Oral Question on the obesity strategy is on Monday 26 February.