Ministers ‘dithering’ on childhood obesity

The government’s efforts to tackle childhood obesity have been characterised by “dithering and confusion”, MPs have warned today.

The public accounts committee says government departments have been “slow to react” to a 2004 target to cut the growth of obesity among the under-11s, and are still confused over who has responsibility for what.

Opposition parties demanded the government step up its efforts. However, the Department of Health (DoH) insisted today’s report was based on old information and since then it had achieved “an enormous amount”.

In 1995, 9.9 per cent of children between the ages of two and ten were classified as clinically obese, but this rose to 13.4 per cent by 2004. Obesity costs the NHS £1 billion and the economy up to £2.6 billion a year, but this is set to increase as child obesity rises.

Three government departments are responsible for working towards the childhood obesity target, with their efforts focusing on improving school sport and lunches and working with the children’s play programme to ensure youngsters are healthier.

However, today’s report notes this approach involves 26 different agencies and bodies, and says ministers must organise a more coordinated response based on a “clear direction” to ensure there is action on every level.

The MPs say ministers have been slow to target parents with advice on how to stop children becoming obese and criticise the failure to decide whether parents should be given results of school weighing programmes. They argue parents should be informed.

The committee also warns that ongoing efforts to get the food industry to cut junk food advertising to children have “not been successful”, and calls for a different approach.

Chairman Edward Leigh said the level of childhood obesity in Britain was “alarming”, and argued: “Halting the growth of childhood obesity means changing how children and their families behave and that requires many parts of government acting together.

“This is tricky territory. It is therefore all the more urgent that the departments involved work together to set a clear direction. It is lamentable that, long after the target was set, there is still so much dithering and confusion and still so little coordination.”

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said he shared Mr Leigh’s alarm, but warned the government was “thrashing about with a series of loosely connected initiatives in the hope of it amounting to a strategy.” He said a “call to action” was now required.

Liberal Democrat children’s spokeswoman Annette Brooke called for a named government minister to coordinate action on cutting obesity, saying the lack of progress so far was “shameful”.

Public health minister Caroline Flint said there were “no easy answers or quick fix solutions”, but insisted that the government had a “highly coordinated approach” to cutting obesity and was making headway.

People’s awareness of healthy eating had “increased significantly” as a result of the five-a-day campaign and changes to food packaging that made it easier for shoppers to identify healthy food, she said, and there had been a “transformation” in school food.

The government had also beaten its target to get 80 per cent of school children doing at least two hours of school sport a week, Ms Flint said, adding that new measures to target families and children on how to live more healthy lives were being rolled out in March.