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.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.