Burnham proposes sugary cereal ban

Will it save lives? Can it save money?

Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has urged the government to ban high-sugar cereals in an effort to tackle obesity amongst children.

He told the Daily Telegraph:

Like all parents, I have bought products like cereals and fruit drinks, marketed as more healthy, that contained higher sugar levels than expected.

We need to open our minds to new approaches in tackling child obesity… The Government has failed to come up with a convincing plan to tackle this challenge.

If we fail to act… we are storing up huge problems for the country and the NHS in the long term. That is why Labour is calling for new thinking and why we’re initiating today’s consultation.

The plan follows a report from the OECD which found that English children were almost twice as obese as French, and the third fattest in Europe. It estimated that a "comprehensive" anti-obesity strategy would save 70,000 lives per year.

Burnham has said that he is considering a 30 per cent cap on sugar in cereals, but the move risks being seen as a return to Labour's nanny-state past by some – and is similar to New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg's extremely unpopular ban on large servings of fizzy drinks.

The consultation, if performed correctly, will have a number of tricky questions to answer. As well as addressing the matters of political morality – ought the government be limiting adult access to foodstuffs for the sake of children's health? – there is not yet confirmation that such a move would have a noticeable impact on health at all.

Furthermore, there's the curious wrinkle in all such public health campaigns: they rarely save money. Although on the first inspection, figures for the cost obesity imposes on the NHS may suggest that tackling obesity is a cost-cutting exercise, that ignores the cold truth of the world. Everyone's gotta die sometime, and someone who dies young and suddenly of heart disease usually imposes less of a strain on public finances than someone who lives to an old age but spends the last third of their life in and out of hospital.

That's not an argument to not do it, of course. Long and healthy lives are better than short unhealthy ones, regardless of their costs on the public purse. But Burnham would do well to not over-promise on the supposed benefits of his plan.

Cereal on a supermarket shelf. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.