Thursday, 7 February 2019
Report of Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs: Motion
That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs entitled 'Tackling Childhood Obesity', copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 14th November, 2018.
As the Chair of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, I am pleased to discuss the committee's report on childhood obesity. I wish to express my sincere appreciation to the organisations and individuals who appeared before the committee and made submissions to it on this matter so that we might discuss their work, research, views and suggestions. Their input was vital in informing the committee's work and ensuring we all had a thorough understanding of the challenges that childhood obesity was causing across our country. I also wish to thank my fellow committee members for their work on this report and, indeed, the committee secretariat for its work throughout the hearings and on this report.
The House will agree that childhood obesity is an issue that we must address with the utmost priority. We must work to ensure that our children - the future generation - have the strongest possible future. As part of that, we must act to ensure that we take action in the best interests of the health of every young person in our country.
Childhood obesity represents one of the foremost challenges we face in modern society. This is highlighted by data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, which are outlined within the report. The study found that one in four three year olds was overweight or obese while one in five five year olds and one in five seven and eight year olds were overweight or obese. By the age of 13, the figure rises to one in four children.
What was incredibly striking was the fact that 54% of parents of children who were overweight and 20% of parents of children who were obese reported that their children were about the right weight for their height. This signals a significant issue whereby parents and guardians may be unaware of what being overweight or obese actually is.It highlights the importance of ensuring adequate information is disseminated in order to support parents and guardians in recognising when this is the case and what actions they can take to prevent their children from becoming overweight or obese in the first instance.
Having listened to many organisations that appeared before the committee to discuss the initiatives they were promoting to assist our younger citizens in becoming and remaining healthy, and having heard of the additional supports required to tackle childhood obesity levels, I believe that we must strive to cause societal change on this issue. By doing so, we will encourage people to break bad habits and increasingly normalise healthy lifestyles for our younger generations.
First and foremost, the committee has recommended that the Government should ensure that a whole-of-system approach is adopted in all policies that work to tackle childhood obesity. It is fundamental that joined-up thinking be utilised so as to allow us to devise the most effective and efficient strategies to support young people and their families in living healthier lives and addressing the challenges posed by being obese or overweight.
It is of the utmost importance that action be taken to address socio-economic inequalities. For a variety of reasons, the reality is that people who have some degree of socio-economic disadvantage also face a disadvantage when it comes to tackling obesity levels.
As such, the Government should establish clear targets for reducing socio-economic inequalities, especially as they relate to childhood obesity, and put in place an evaluation framework to monitor progress. In addition, the Government should provide the necessary funding to support the identification of obesity hotspots which may allow for particular targeted measures to support those most vulnerable to the challenges and risk posed by childhood obesity. The committee has also made a recommendation that the Government should examine the possibility of expanding existing targeted interventions, and introducing new targeted interventions to address issues such as food poverty which adversely impact on those in lower socio-economic households. We have done this in a number of other areas and I do not see why we could not implement it in this field.
One particular area on which the committee sought to make recommendations was that of the youth work sector. Those who work in the youth work sector do great work to support some of our more vulnerable citizens. We must act to improve the supports available to the youth work sector to empower it in terms of the work it undertakes regarding obesity in children and young adults.
In this regard, the committee has recommended that the Government act to empower the youth work sector in strengthening its work "in enhancing the knowledge and skills of young people in relation to healthy eating and active living". In addition to this, as outlined in recommendation 7 of the committee's report, the Government should provide a programme of continuing professional development in physical activity for the youth work sector. This recommendation is in line with action 13 of the "Get Ireland Active" plan.
Physical activity is important, both in terms of general health and tackling childhood obesity, especially as a preventative measure. The committee believes that viewing the promotion of physical activity and sport as a key priority when it comes to the funding of projects using public money, for example, through the sports capital grants programme, would be very beneficial for young people.
By encouraging sporting bodies and organisations to interact with students in both primary and post-primary education, we will be able to increase the number of children and young people participating in sports and physical activity. Having had the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, in my constituency this morning visiting two projects which have benefited from sports capital grants, I am aware that there is a points system in the sports capital grants programme that incentivises sporting organisations to have a formal written arrangement with local schools. We should enhance that scoring scheme to give particular additional points to any sporting organisation that is targeting younger children and, most especially, those in socio-economically deprived communities.
On physical activity facilities within our schools, the committee believes that the Government should undertake a survey of all schools to ensure they have the necessary facilities to allow their students to partake in physical activity, and indeed to encourage them to do so. Having heard anecdotal reports on insurance liability concerns in some schools whereby certain curtailments on physical activity have been enacted, we, as a committee, would urge the Government to survey schools to determine the extent to which such insurance liability concerns are impeding the ability of students to partake in physical activity at their break and lunchtimes, and to address the matter urgently should it be a real factor for schools.
Physical activity is an important factor in tackling childhood obesity, but as many people may say, "You cannot out-exercise a bad diet". Therefore, we must examine diet, nutrition and the implementation of no-fry zones. The committee has made recommendations relating to the introduction of no-fry zones nationally, particularly that the Government should consider both the implementation of such zones in the vicinity of schools and how best to enforce no-fry zone rules nationally. To do this, we must have one national definition of what constitutes a fast-food outlet, and while this may seem somewhat simple, it is a pivotal element in bringing in the no-fry zone concept. As I stated when launching the committee's report, we can see from a study undertaken in Finland in 2005 that "the proximity of a fast-food outlet to a school can potentially lead to a 25% increase in the risk of a child being overweight". We must recognise the important work which has been undertaken by groups, such as No Fry Zone 4 Kids Committee, in advancing the no-fry zone concept thus far, but now it is time for the House to introduce it on a national basis.
A number of further recommendations relating to healthy eating have been made by the committee within this report, especially the promotion and normalisation of the drinking of water over fizzy drinks. To achieve this, we must ensure there are adequate drinking water facilities in all of our schools. Vending machines are not an appropriate facility to be offered in any school. The committee heard reports that some schools may be dependent on the proceeds of vending machines. The Department of Education and Skills must act to ensure that this is never the case. Vending machines can be offered to schools and provide for healthy snacks. There are such things, they are popular, they sell and there is no particular reason they cannot be put in a school in the first place. That is something the committee recommended.
With regard to home economics, we have recommended that the Government consider introducing the subject as a compulsory subject for the junior certificate on a phased basis to ensure young people have the knowledge and skills to be able to make nutritious, healthy meals and develop and maintain a healthy diet.
In adequately addressing and preventing childhood obesity, it is vital that we address the marketing and advertising of junk foods and unhealthy foods to children and young people. That is also something that will require definitions. While I am aware that certain restrictions on advertising are in place, these restrictions do not go far enough and are not comprehensive enough. Therefore, the committee believes that a number of improvements of new measures are urgently required in this regard. A more robust nutrient model is required in the context of the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods to younger citizens. The World Health Organization, WHO, nutrient profile model for the European region may be a suitable model to utilise in this regard. The Government must also amend regulations for broadcast media and introduce a statutory code along the same lines for non-broadcast media, in conjunction with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, to ensure regulations which prevent the marketing of junk and unhealthy foods to children apply not only to broadcast and non-broadcast media aimed at children but also to all media of which a significant number of children may be availing.
Early intervention has also been identified by the committee as an important issue. In this regard, we believe the Government must act to increase breastfeeding supports substantially and increase necessary funding levels for these supports. The reason for this is that much evidence has indicated that children who are breastfed are significantly less likely to become overweight or obese.
I mention also the recommendations of the committee in the report on mental health. When discussing this topic with representatives from the W82GO weight management service at Temple Street Children's University Hospital, the committee heard that, of the young people they had seen, 40% have significant and severe mental health problems, 75% have experienced bullying, with 11% experiencing severe bullying, and unfortunately a number of the children seen have a history of self-harm or suicidal intent. We always hear that physical health and mental health are intertwined and that one cannot have an impact on one without addressing the other. As such, we must ensure that supports are in place for children who may face weight difficulties as a result of mental ill health and for children who face mental health difficulties as a result of weight difficulties. In saying this, in this report we acknowledge that further work could be undertaken in terms of examining any links between childhood obesity, mental health, and body image.
As Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, I commend this report to the House, urge the Government to implement its recommendations in full, and reiterate my thanks to all who contributed to this worthy report over the course of a number of months in 2018 and to the committee members for their contribution to its completion.
I will be speaking on this matter for the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who asked me to pass on her regrets that she is unable to be here today. On her behalf, I thank the House for this opportunity to discuss the report of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on tackling childhood obesity and the important work that is going on in the Department of Health on this important topic under the aegis of the national obesity policy and action plan launched in late 2016.
The joint committee's report emphasises the scale of this issue in Ireland at the outset of its comprehensive and in-depth report. The Growing Up in Ireland study is cited when the committee's report states the proportion of children at different ages who are overweight or obese.
The annual Healthy Ireland Survey 2017 showed that 30% of young people aged 15 to 24 are overweight or obese. Being a healthy weight is no longer the norm. The Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, COSI, is conducted by the national nutrition surveillance centre in UCD on behalf of the Department of Health and the HSE. Its last report draws on data from more than 17,000 examinations of primary school children in Ireland between 2008 and 2015. Among the key trends emerging is that the levels of overweight and obesity in children in first class in Ireland - children aged 7 and 8 years - appears to be stabilising. However, it is also evident that this stabilisation is not observed in children attending DEIS schools, and there is also a marked difference between girls and boys, with more young girls tending to be overweight and obese. While any positive direction in the trends is welcome there is certainly no room for complacency. The next report from the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative is anticipated later this year. The Joint Committee on Health clearly acknowledged this in its detailed report when it concluded that, on the basis of the statistics and the various materials and submissions it received during its extensive hearings, the topic of childhood obesity warranted in-depth scrutiny of the issues associated with it.
With the publication of the committee’s report, the Department of Health will be submitting it to the national obesity policy implementation oversight group for its consideration. This national oversight group was established under the chair of the Department of Health. It is comprised of representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, University College Cork, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the Health Service Executive - including the national clinical lead for obesity, and Safefood. This oversight group from a diverse range of Departments and agencies represents the whole-of-Government approach to tackling obesity encapsulated in the national obesity policy and action plan. It is about joined-up thinking and how we respond to obesity and its underlying causes. I say this in the context of fully acknowledging and allaying the concerns reported on this aspect of dealing with obesity in the joint committee’s report.
The oversight group has been meeting since October 2017 for the purposes of providing oversight to the implementation of the national obesity policy and action plan. In submitting it to the oversight group and prioritising it on the agenda for its forthcoming meeting, the joint committee’s report will then be considered for the explicit purposes of, among others, aligning both sets of recommendations.
The consequences of child obesity are significant. Being overweight or obese carries with it an increased risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. In addition to the physical health implications, there is also a significant reduction in quality of life, a reduced opportunity to contribute to society and reach potential, as well as mental health implications for some people. For children, obesity carries a stigma and may be linked with bullying.
We also cannot ignore the financial dimension to this challenge. In 2015 it was estimated that the total lifetime cost of childhood overweight and obesity in Ireland was €4.6 billion. This is the landscape of obesity that we must deal with and what our obesity policy seeks to address. We know that obesity is a complex problem with nutritional, activity-related, psychological, biological and social determinants. Consequently, any realistic solutions must be multifaceted and be implemented as part of a suite of measures. The policy acknowledges the importance of an integrated approach across Government to tackle the social determinants of health and well-being, and in particular those which contribute to health inequalities in the population.
The policy is informed by the Healthy Ireland principles to ensure it is life-course oriented, with a focus on children and families; and prevention focused, with an emphasis on targeting inequalities. The policy contains concrete indicators to measure the success of its implementation. It set a short-term target of 0.5% per annum for a sustained downward trend in levels of excess weight in children and a reduction in the gap in obesity levels between the highest and lowest socio-economic groups by 10%. The development of the obesity policy involved a consultation with children and young people facilitated by the citizen participation unit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and recruitment supported through the Irish Primary Principals Network as well as Comhairle na nÓg. The report of this consultation Healthy Lifestyles — Have Your Say was launched with the obesity policy, and the implementation of the policy commits to continuing to include the voices and contributions of children and young people.
I believe that every Member of this House acknowledges that individuals and families need to be supported to make informed choices in healthy eating and in being physically active so they can achieve and maintain a healthy weight. The obesity policy and action plan, strives to empower individuals, families and communities to enhance their own skills to improve their health. The national obesity policy prescribes ten steps that would be taken to prevent overweight and obesity. Under each step there are a number of actions, some of which have been identified for early implementation. I am pleased to report that we have already made progress in a number of areas that are directly relevant and of particular interest to child obesity. In addition to establishing the national obesity policy implementation oversight group, which I referenced earlier, the Minister for Finance announced in budget 2018 the introduction of a sugar tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. The policy objective of this levy is to reduce rates of obesity, as well as rates of dental deterioration particularly in young people. As the House is aware, the sugar-sweetened drinks tax regulations commenced on the 1 May 2018. It represents a positive step in our national policy to deal with the problem of obesity.
The national oversight group also gave early approval to the establishment of sub-groups on reformulation and on healthy eating as initial priority areas for action. The reformulation sub-group is technical in its work programme. Work is well under way in this regard on a roadmap for the reformulation of foods and drinks to reduce sugar and fat content. The work of this sub-group will primarily set targets on reformulation of food and drink. It will also make recommendations on addressing the reduction of portion sizes and on monitoring and validation procedures. One of the priority actions under step 3 of the national obesity policy and action plan was to establish a forum for meaningful engagement with industry on best practice initiatives towards a healthy food environment. With this in mind, a workshop between the reformulation sub-group and food sector stakeholders took place last September. This workshop provided an opportunity for detailed engagement with key food sector stakeholders on the challenges and opportunities of reformulation in the interest of promoting the health and well-being of the population. Another similar engagement has been scheduled for late February.
New healthy eating guidelines and food pyramid resources have been published and widely disseminated including to all primary and post-primary schools. New nutrition standards for schools, with an initial focus on school meal programmes, funded by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, have also been developed. These nutrition standards were published in September 2017. The nutrition standards were developed by the Department of Health with the assistance of Safefood and the Health Service Executive, in co-operation with the members of the school meals programme in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department of Education and Skills. Work has commenced on developing healthy eating guidelines for the 1 to 5 year old age group, which will be a valuable resource for parents and carers in the future.
A voluntary code of practice for food and beverages promotion, marketing and sponsorship has also been developed involving representatives from the food industry, the advertising sector, statutory agencies, and various Government Departments. Work is under way to operationalise it. Pertinent to this is that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has now commenced a review of the effectiveness of its current children’s commercial communications code. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
The code was introduced in 2005 to set down the rules applying to television broadcasters in respect of commercial communications that promote products, services or activities that are deemed to be of particular interest to children or which are broadcast during and between children’s programmes. Commercial communications include advertising, teleshopping, product placement and sponsorship. The code was updated in 2013 to introduce rules on foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has advised the Department of Health that it is anticipated that the review of effectiveness of this code will be completed by July 2019. Once the review of the effectiveness of the code is completed, the authority will consider what revisions to the code are desirable and undertake a public consultation.
The HSE's Healthy Eating Active Living programme is supporting work in the education sector, as well as with parents, families and communities to deliver a more co-ordinated approach to prevention and early intervention in child obesity. This includes a five-year communications campaign called START, which is being delivered in collaboration with the HSE and safefood with a focus on supporting parents make healthy choices around food and activity. A first clinical lead for obesity, Professor Donal O'Shea, was appointed in 2017 to provide a model of care for children and adults and oversee its implementation. Health assessments, including weight checks, were introduced in the GP under-six contract. The HSE is also implementing a national breast-feeding action plan which is very important and relevant to this topic. Under the broader Healthy Ireland agenda, a number of other major initiatives support the obesity policy.
The obesity policy acknowledged the key role of physical activity in the prevention of obesity, while the broader benefits of a more active population are set out in the national physical activity plan. Being active is vital for healthy growth and development and has emotional, social and cognitive benefits for children and young people, as well as benefits for their physical and mental health and wellbeing. The national physical activity plan is one of the key developments arising from Healthy Ireland. It was approved by Government and launched in early 2016. The implementation of the plan is well under way in collaboration with the Department of Transport. Tourism and Sport and a range of other stakeholders, including the Department of Education and Skills. The Healthy Ireland 2018 communications campaign aimed to encourage people to make a small, healthy change under three themes, namely "healthy eating", "physical activity" and "mental well-being". We are working with a range of national and local partners to deliver a range of communications and citizen engagement activities. The Healthy Ireland fund, which was initiated in 2017, has supported a range of actions at both national and local level, many of which are targeted at children and which aim to support the obesity policy and the physical activity plan.
The Government agreed to establish a Healthy Ireland office in the Department of Health to build on the progress to date and further strengthen cross-Government collaboration on the implementation of Healthy Ireland. This development will bolster our collective efforts to implement key policies, including the obesity policy, aimed at improving the health and well-being of our population. I thank Deputy Alan Farrell and the joint committee for their great work on this issue.
I acknowledge the work of the joint committee and its staff in producing the report. While I am not on the committee, my lifetime of working with young people means I am very interested in the report. The Minister of State referred to hot spots. His contribution on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, confirmed the issue in acknowledging the difference for students in DEIS schools as well as for girls. I was glad he acknowledged the role of youth clubs and youth projects and the work they have done. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is using funds to make an effort to target areas of great need and to target services for young people outside the normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours. That is important.
Progress is being made on water. One certainly sees more young people with bottles of water than with fizzy drinks, albeit those continue to be consumed. In the north-east inner city, the programme implementation board, PIB, has introduced a range of fitness activities. There are fitness events taking place at different times of the day in different locations. I acknowledge that work. When I spoke about CAMHS in last week's debate, I pointed out that issues of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, aggressive behaviour and violence, which presented at second level when I was teaching are now presenting at primary level. While the Minister of State referred to a programme at junior certificate level, it has to start for much younger children. These issues are starting much younger and food and diet have a role to play.
Childhood obesity is almost a contradiction in terms. I think of childhood as a time of activity and outdoor play with a great deal of physical exercise. Perhaps, I am simply being nostalgic as a child of the 1950s and 1960s, but that kind of childhood went on into the 1990s. However, the pace of life is changing and that is affecting children. There are more cars on the street and children are dropped right to the doors of their schools. Increased traffic and on-street parking means parents are less likely to let children go out to play in urban areas. I remember holidays when children would go out at 9 a.m. and return home only at night when they were feeling hungry. That has changed. There is also an increase in the kinds of activity in which people remain seated, whether it involves the Xbox, iPad or whatever. There is more of that now, which is also a contributing factor. There is also a fear factor. Parents do not want to let their children out unsupervised to run around the streets. All of that plays into what we see with obesity.
There has also been a change of atmosphere and activity levels in schools and on playgrounds. We had a visiting delegation from a Nordic country at one of the primary schools in Dublin Central. Its members were astounded that the children in that primary school could not run, climb trees or take part in any kind of physical activity during break time. That brings us to the issues of litigation and insurance claims, to which the Minister of State referred. I am from a generation when such claims simply were not made. A long time ago as a child, I broke both arms, fortunately not at the same time. It was my fault and my parents knew that. It was nobody else's fault and there was no question of an insurance claim.
We are also seeing changes in food and the way disposable income is being spent on fast food from takeaway outlets. While busy lives mean an increase in the consumption of that kind of food, it is horrible to see young children coming out of the local supermarket with a breakfast roll and a can of Coke in the morning.
This is the context in which we are looking at childhood obesity. It is not possible to change it without looking at all of the issues. That brings us to the idea of prevention rather than reaction and that means awareness raising. Some of my voluntary work has involved addiction prevention and education. What has come across in our engagement with young people in the north inner city is that one cannot talk about drugs and alcohol in a vacuum. One has to bring in all of the other aspects, including physical and mental health. That brings in body image and food. Young people can be challenged to look at food and what they are eating. They can be challenged to ask were it is coming from. Home economics is an important school subject. I acknowledge the demands on the curriculum, but even a basic form of home economics and food awareness would be useful. Schools have a role to play. We have a new wellness programme in schools and that could be a venue for this type of education. I cannot understand, however, how matches played by school teams are not included in the physical activity part of the programme. Sports day is included, which I suppose is because it includes everyone. Team sports must be built in and recognised within the wellness programme.
Parents have an obvious role and awareness must be built with them. I heard one of our famous restaurant chefs on the radio yesterday discussing the need for a change in diet to one based to a greater extent on plants and fruit. He made the point that a recent shop consisting of €19 worth of fruit and vegetables produced enough meals for nine days. A change of attitude can be brought about. It was frightening to hear some of the statistics the Minister of State cited. He said that, by 2030, Ireland was scheduled to have one of the highest obesity rates in Europe.
That is ironic because it is at a time when children in other countries are starving and dying as a result of hunger and malnutrition.
Alongside obesity we have other illnesses associated with food, including anorexia and bulimia. It is part of the big picture regarding how people feel about themselves and the need to change this. We also know about the economic costs and what could be saved if we can tackle this. It is about lifestyle choices, behaviour and patterns. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, the children who were overweight and obese were targets for bullying but good looking children and children who were doing a lot of activity were equally so. It is a strange situation.
There is a need for an holistic approach. We are speaking about quality of life. It is about making choices and knowing how to make healthy choices. It is also about knowing the consequences of making unhealthy choices. This applies to drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, gambling and relationships, including sexual relationships. The joined-up thinking also involves dealing with all of these issues young people face and giving them the critical awareness and skills to make healthy choices.
I commend the committee on its report on tackling childhood obesity, in respect of which it did a great deal of work. I also thank the various groups and organisations that came before the committee. The publication of the report is a major step forward in addressing an issue that is a ticking time bomb in terms of public health. Right now, one in four children is overweight or obese. What is even more worrying is that the majority of parents of overweight children do not particularly recognise their child is overweight. We are seeing the normalisation of the issue. Only one in five children in the State gets the recommended 60 minutes of physical exercise per day. The long-term effects of this are devastating for the children who, as they get older, may end up with type 2 diabetes, heart issues and other long-term conditions. This puts a massive strain on our healthcare system.
Prevention is better than cure. The recommendations of the report offer some very simple ways to ensure that children are educated about their diets and that advertising targeted at children by junk food companies is restricted. We also need to look at where fast-food outlets are located and ways in which we can encourage healthy eating and physical activity. While physical activity is important, one cannot outrun a bad diet. We are seeing the constant push of junk food on our children via broadcast media, visual media and, in particular, social media. This is why I want to press home the importance of recommendations Nos. 14 to 18, inclusive.
Prior to Christmas, I attended a talk hosted by the Irish Heart Foundation at which Dan Parker, a former top advertising executive from Britain who worked with McDonald's and Coca-Cola, spoke about the cynical tactics used by junk food companies to target products at our children. To be honest, it was an eye-opener. What I took away from it was that the only way to tackle the constant pushing of junk food and unhealthy drinks on our children is through legislation. Voluntary codes simply do not work. In fact, the existing voluntary codes will be a year old next week and we still have no monitoring body in place or guidance developed. This shows that we need statutory regulation.
Among the other recommendations the issue of vending machines in schools stood out. It is bizarre that home economics students are taught about healthy eating but as soon as they walk out of the classroom and go down the corridor they come to a vending machine selling junk food. I know some schools state they rely on the money generated by these machines but that is wrong. No school should have to rely on the takings of a vending machine. This is something we need to look at.
On the issue of takeaways deliberately locating beside schools we have seen no-fry zone campaigns, and there was a successful one in Wicklow. It is a good initiative. The problem is we do not have clarification on what is junk food and we need this clarification as a matter of importance.
This is a great report. If it is implemented properly it will go a long way towards tackling the crisis of childhood obesity. I hope it does not end up on a shelf gathering dust.
I commend the Chairman, Deputy Farrell, and all the members of the committee on the work they did in producing this excellent report. I also commend my Fianna Fáil colleagues, Deputies Rabbitte and Lisa Chambers and Senator Clifford-Lee, who have also done a great deal of work on the report.
The recommendations in the report are hugely important and, to a certain extent, mirror some of the recommendations made last year by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills of which I am Chairman. It is good to see both committees investigating something that is so important and to see that independently, and with different sets of stakeholders coming before them, they came to the same conclusions.
As we know, there is a global problem with childhood obesity. This was apparent from the evidence given to both committees. The evidence very much highlighted the prevalence of obesity in Ireland and the potential for a future health epidemic. I would go so far as to say we already have a health epidemic. We know from research that one in four of three year olds are overweight. This is quite shocking. We could go so far as to say they are obese but it is not a word we like to use about children. Sometimes we must own a problem as it is. We also know from research carried out that obese children are five times more likely to become obese adults and have a much higher risk of health problems. It is not just about being fat. It is also about the huge possibility of developing osteoarthritis, obesity-related cancers, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Almost one third of all of children in Ireland are now overweight and the country ranks 58th out of 200 in the context of its proportion of overweight youths.
The most recent statistics compiled by the NCD risk factor collaboration demonstrate a tenfold increase in the rate of obesity among Irish boys between 1975 and 2016 and a ninefold increase among Irish girls. This is frightening. The problem absolutely has to be tackled at an early age. The issue can only be tackled with a change in attitude in society and a multisectoral approach for any strategy to have the desired effect in the long term. It cannot be just with one Department. There must be a cross-departmental approach to this, in addition to any other initiatives on and parental involvement in this issue from when children are at a young age.
In the context of the report the Joint Committee on Education and Skills brought forward, I am of the view that schools play an absolutely vital role in promoting healthy lifestyles, healthy eating and nutrition and in the provision of physical education to prevent obesity before it becomes established. This is where schools have PE halls and programmes but, as we know, there are schools in every constituency that do not have PE halls.
I do not have to go too far from where I live in Newbridge to the Curragh post-primary school that has no PE hall.
To deal with a problem which it is estimated costs this State €1 billion annually - that is the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with obesity and treating individuals who are overweight or obese - it is essential that ongoing and sustainable school programmes, teacher training and training for communities and parents are in place to reverse obesity trends.
I turn now to some of the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, which tie in with and reinforce this work of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. We have also referred to the introduction of an outright ban on vending machines that dispense unhealthy food and drinks in schools. That has to happen. There is no way unhealthy food and drinks should be available for sale in school canteens, shops or vending machines. I have spoken to representative from schools about this issue and many of them state it is a badly needed source of income for the schools.
We all accept capitation grants should be increased to enable them to support schools in their work. It is an appalling set of circumstances that leads to schools trying to raise income from vending machines giving fizzy drinks and the wrong type of food. Consideration should be given to exploring whether revenue generated from the sugar tax should be used for initiatives aiming to promote a healthy weight and active lifestyle for all. Break times should be targeted to improve children's activity. The provision of fixed playgrounds in primary schools is also essential. I again do not have to go too far in my constituency before finding the example of Ballyshannon national school. Extensions to deal with the increasing number of pupils in the school means it does not have appropriate playgrounds for children to play. Some schools are also telling their students they should not run during playtime because of difficulties with insurance.
That is not right. The schools building programme, as I mentioned, should prioritise physical education facilities to encourage physical education activity within our schools. Promoting safe walking and cycling has to be built into school programmes. Local authorities and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government should be ensuring funds are allocated for that. I have visited four national schools in my area in the past two weeks, namely, Lackagh, Twomilehouse, Scoil Na Naomh Uilig and Scoil Mhuire junior, Newbridge. I intend to visit Killina national school in Carbury next week. Children in those areas have major problems walking or cycling to school safely. That has to be a priority and funds have to be allocated to address that issue.
Looking to the future, lands and green spaces around schools should be protected for use by schools for sport and exercise, as well as for the construction of playgrounds, gyms and other exercise facilities. Returning to the curriculum, one of the recommendations our committee made was that home economics should be compulsory up to junior certificate, at least. Cookery skills and nutrition should be a part of the core curriculum in order that children can lead healthier lifestyles, not only themselves but their families and their own future families.
We all know parents learn from their children. Following that thought process, we need to have more parenting courses on nutrition and dietetics in order that parents can support our young people. Our committee, together with the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, is gravely concerned about the prevalence of childhood obesity in Ireland. The practical recommendations put forward by the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs today should be incorporated, together with the recommendations from the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, in the Government's plans for tackling childhood obesity.
Many of the measures recommended can be taken within schools and within communities, youth clubs and other youth organisations. I came across a statistic that Ireland is on course to be the heaviest nation in Europe by 2030, only 11 years away. Is that the measure for which we as a country want to be known? We have set targets for our education system to be one of the best in Europe, if not the world. That is laudable and noteworthy. Do we, however, want our children to be the most obese and, consequentially, unhealthiest by 2030? We absolutely do not. We need a cross-departmental approach to this crisis. I look forward to working with the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs to see how we can co-operate to make sure the recommendations we jointly make can be implemented at governmental level.
I also want to be associated with the positive commentary this evening. I compliment Deputy Farrell on chairing the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs for the weeks and months it took to do its work. I also compliment all the committee members, who really put their hearts and souls into this report, along with the people who came before us week in and week out. Some days, we had double and treble sessions because we wanted to include so many people. We also must acknowledge the great amount of work done by the clerk to the committee and her team. It was necessary to gather a phenomenal amount of information to compile such a comprehensive report.
It can be seen from the recommendations that we delved into many spheres while compiling this report. We examined the areas of family, education, physical activity, public health and communication and advertising. We did not take a blinkered approach in this report but a helicopter view. Certain aspects stood out for me. One of those was vending machines, to which Deputies O'Loughlin, Mitchell and Farrell all have referred. I was astounded to hear vending machines made up an income stream for schools. I could not believe that was part of the income stream which helps to plug the gaps where schools cannot afford to keep basic functions going, yet that was stated to us.
What I found interesting in the presentation from the Department of Education and Skills is noted within the report on page 38:
The position of the Department of Education and Skills is that it does not intend to instruct schools to end the practice of having vending machines. As I mentioned in my opening statement, the Department has issued healthy lifestyle guidance to schools. Part of that is about schools having healthy eating policies and looking after the well-being of students so a school in having a vending machine needs to balance that.
Balance that with what? That statement made no sense whatsoever. There is no money message or anything else like that from this side of the House. I would like to ask the Department, therefore, could it please issue a circular stating vending machines are going to be banned? That is a positive step that could be done straight away at no cost to the Exchequer. It would bring about, however, a great improvement in the well-being of the children in those schools.
Teachers of home economics were another important group of people to come before the committee, as well as the people who travelled down from St. Angela's College in Sligo. It is wonderful to hear the Joint Committee on Education and Skills came up with exactly the same proposal. I refer to ensuring home economics was provided to least the level of the junior certificate cycle. That would be so welcome. When the people from St. Angela's were before us, they went so far as to explain they have gone into national schools in Sligo. They told us how they were able to meet the requirements of health and safety by using equipment that could be rolled in and out on a trolley.
They could then use the equipment in speaking about making good smoothies or pancakes, while still ticking all of the boxes required under health and safety etc. The representatives from St. Angela's also told the committee how they went out into the community in their area to deliver healthy eating plans. We must consider the wealth of knowledge possessed by teachers of home economics and how powerful a grouping they are. They are a resource that really needs to be tapped into in every community. They are in every community and school.
A positive outcome would be if it was made mandatory for young people up to junior certificate level. It is a wonderful skill to have.
On sports and physical activities which were covered in recommendations Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, I do not mean to reiterate the contents of the report, but we all know that a certain number of schools do not tick those boxes. We can do something within local government, however, in planning to tick the boxes of physical activity.
I endorse a suggestion made at the committee related to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, upgrading roads in communities, particularly off national routes. I made reference to the N63 in County Galway where TII was upgrading approximately 3 km of the road. I asked why, in the name of God, the road could not be lit. TII built a path, but it did not install lighting. It is a prime example. When we are rolling out critical infrastructure that will be in place for many years, it should be rolled out in an holistic fashion in order that everybody can use it day or night with safe access. That needs to happen because unless we start to examine tackling obesity in the round and Departments stop operating in silos, we will not address certain aspects because we will not have the funding to provide a hall in every small village. In Abbeyknockmoy, if the lighting had been installed, people would have been able to walk approximately 5 km from one area to another. Children could cycle or walk, while older people or those with disabilities could be out and about, but that cannot happen when the lights are turned off in the evening. There must be both a whole-of-government and a whole-of-community approach to how we tackle obesity.
One problem I noted was related to advertising. I am very much on the record in respect of "The Big Big Movie". The Minister of State spoke about hitting fats, sugars and soft drinks, as well as target audiences. There is a target audience at 6 p.m. on a Saturday when families sit down together. It is prime advertising for a fast food outlet to advertise to and target young children who are watching whatever the latest movie is. That is wrong. In 2019, therefore, I will introduce a Bill on broadcasting and public health advertising that will examine critically how target marketing at young people for fast food will be addressed. The need for the Bill follows the publication of the report because, as Deputy Mitchell eloquently noted, voluntary codes do not work and companies do not adhere to them. As legislators, we must say we have given them the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity, that they have not taken it on board and that, therefore, we will come down heavily on them and pass legislation to address the matter.
Another issue that concerned me was related to weighing, which was the subject of many of the conversations during the committee sessions. Some of my conversations may have been taken out of context, but I wanted weighing to be a part of the entire approach. When I discussed weighing, I was referring to the measurement of flexibility, mobility and weight and meant that we should gather data, which we do not do. Children are weighed in third class and when they are under the age of six years. One amazing aspect that emerged from the committee report was that we did gather data in third class, although we did not discuss it. We should, however, gather data consistently because how else will we plan for the future? How can we plan and how will we know what our needs are if we do not gather these data? I am not specifying where the data should be gathered, but we need to have a conversation on the collection of data.
I do not mean to criticise the report because I am glad that it addressed the issue. It states:
The JCCYA notes that the evidence presented by witnesses suggests that there are divergent views with regard to the weighing of children . Given this divergence of views, the JCCYA is not in a position to definitely conclude that the introduction of such a practice is warranted. On this basis, the JCCYA suggests that the Government should actively explore the means by which data could be collected in this regard, while ensuring that best practice based on clinical advice is taken into account.
That sums the issue up well and leaves the conversation open. It means that there is capacity and scope to discuss it further. I am happy with the report, the production of which was a fruitful and worthwhile exercise. I, too, would like to see its recommendations implemented, rather than being left on the shelf.
I welcome the report of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs which follows other reports and debates at other committees, including the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, of which I am a member. I can speak with some authority on the subject, although perhaps not specifically about childhood obesity. Six years ago I was 4 stone heavier than I am now. I took some measures to reduce my weight in the past few years which were necessary in my interests and those of my family. All of us in society need to examine what we are doing. People ask me what the secret is or what worked for me and the answer is simple: eat less and move more. If we try to put that into practice on our plates and in planning, we can make a difference.
The real reason the issue of childhood obesity is so important is that there is some evidence, although it is not conclusive, that obesity is not reversible or at least that it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse the longer it continues. While there are stories about people who have done well, it is very difficult to do it. In the case of children who are obese, as well as adults, it can be a death sentence, or at least a life sentence of suffering from high blood pressure and various diseases that flow from it. People need to be made aware of these issues in the starkest possible terms. Obesity can kill and kills many people in various ways. I am forever grateful that I copped on to the problem.
I was not the sportiest person in the world while in school or growing up. My father played soccer in the League of Ireland; my wife has played for four counties and - thanks be to God - my kids play sport all the time. The most important gift we can give to kids is letting them play. While I fully agree that there is a need for far more physical education facilities in schools and the deficit is outrageous, we should allow kids more time in the yard to move around and take classes outside when the weather is good. Even in our own case, we could take phone calls from constituents while walking up and down Molesworth Street, rather than sitting at a desk. That can make a difference and I try to put it into practice. It is disgraceful that in some urban areas, including parts of my constituency, there are schools and places to which one cannot walk or cycle. It is outrageous that there are schools with 400 or 500 children to which nobody can walk because they are on busy roads in suburban areas and often there are no footpaths. Furthermore, there is no proactive effort by the Department of Education and Skills or the Department of Health to insist on cycling buses, for example, such as exist in Amsterdam and other European cities. I saw them featured on news programmes.
Yes, that is where I saw them recently. I also saw them in Amsterdam three years ago and thought it was unbelievable that there were approximately ten kids on a bicycle. It was tremendous, although Amsterdam is geared up for cycling and, therefore, a different kettle of fish.
There are effective ways to tackle the problem. We must get real. That also applies to adults. I do not mean to blow my own trumpet, but, like many Deputies, I am an educated person who went to college, earned a professional qualification and a foreign professional qualification. Six or seven years ago, however, I found that I was utterly clueless and uneducated about food, as many Irish people are. For example, I never considered the number of calories in fruit juice, but now I never move down the fruit juice aisle. It is amazing what a simple change like that can do. There is no need to drink fruit juice and children should never drink it. One might recall the tiny glasses of orange juice one might have had with one's breakfast years ago. Where have they gone? People now drink large glasses of orange juice which are full of sugar and calories and making the country fat. People do not eat enough peanuts, peas, chickpeas, beans and so on. They are not part of our diet, but we must incorporate them into them. People do not eat enough vegetables. Farmers grow all the broccoli, cabbage, carrots and other good foods that we need, but we do not eat enough of them.
I have given my little bit of wisdom. We must educate ourselves as parents and citizens, and we must take responsibility and show a good example. We must stop this pattern as there are people who are destined for a life of ill-health because of it. All of us in society have a responsibility for the deaths that will result from the obesity epidemic. People die all the time from it and will continue to unless society as a whole and the western world cops on. We need to do that quickly.
People speak about alcohol being a reason for obesity but it is not a factor in childhood obesity. The main issue is eating too much food so we must get real about portion size. A child's meal in Burger King is enough for an adult's snack. It is the truth. I go to Burger King the odd time - it is a rare occurrence - and I order a child's meal because it is big enough for a bit of lunch. We must start educating ourselves about such matters. I find calorie counters useful and I strongly urge anybody who is interested to consider calorie counting and apps such as MyFitnessPal that help add up what a person eats on a daily basis. It is what works for me, and I have been counting what I eat for the past six or seven years. My weight has gone down, predominantly, although it is a constant battle.
I just wanted to give my own pearls of wisdom and encourage others to do what has worked so far for me. It is a constant battle and I want to reassure those who find it hard. It is a difficult process but we can do certain things to make it easier. We need to talk more about the topic as well and give reassurance to people that when they fail, they can get on an upward path again. We should, with our children, eat less food but enough while moving much more. Let our children free on housing estates and towns. When I was eight I was allowed to go to the supermarket on behalf of my mother. That does not happen now and kids are not allowed out. There may be valid reasons for this but we must give a bit more freedom to our children during daytime hours so they can be out and about and moving. It would help address the obesity epidemic.
On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, I thank Deputy Alan Farrell, the proposer of this motion, for his valuable contribution to the debate. I commend him on his work and leadership of the Oireachtas committee. A number of important points were raised.
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan mentioned disadvantaged schools and food and diet issues, a lack of childhood activity and the modern fear factor as compared with when we were younger and children were allowed to play outside more freely. Nowadays there are more safety concerns on people's minds.
Deputy Denise Mitchell raised important concerns, particularly the idea that prevention is better than cure. She mentioned junk food and fast food outlets while emphasising recommendations Nos. 14 to 18, inclusive, in the report. I agree completely and we cannot allow a report like this to lie on a shelf. I take the Deputy's point and the idea is something that must be strongly supported.
Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin stated that obesity is a global problem, although there is a major crisis affecting children aged between one and three, with 25% of them being overweight. It is a startling figure so we must deal with nutrition issues, and the Deputy also mentioned parenting classes.
Deputy Anne Rabbitte rightly commended the clerk to the committee on the magnificent work in putting this report together. She also strongly emphasised family education in public health, and she pointed out the problems with vending machines. She highlighted a whole-of-community approach. These were very important points and I look forward to seeing the Deputy's legislation on broadcasting matters.
Deputy Thomas Byrne gave an account of his practical experiences, and it is important to hear from people who have made the effort. He spoke about personal responsibility and physical education facilities. We must develop the Deputies' points and I thank everybody who was directly involved in the debate.
I referred in my earlier contribution to the START communications campaign, a five-year public health awareness campaign to set families on the path to a healthier future. It was launched in late 2017 and the campaign involves safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland. It was developed with the input of parents, health professionals and community leaders, and it acknowledges that there are many factors in the solutions to tackling excess weight and obesity, with each sector having a role to play in this very important health issue. Underpinned by the A Healthy Weight for Ireland obesity policy and action plan for 2016 to 2025, the campaign has been designed around four key themes to deliver a system-wide approach to tackling excess weight and obesity in society. These are providing families with practical advice and support to help build confidence in making positive changes to their lives; delivering a consistent approach across all relevant sectors, including schools, crèches, hospital and GP surgeries; supporting sustainable communities and tapping into existing community health programmes; and tackling the environment as a driver for change through key policy initiatives.
Ultimately, what we do in our homes, schools and communities to help build healthy habits for children and families is vital to childhood obesity prevention efforts. These healthy habits are critical to helping children who are a healthy weight now remain a healthy weight and those who are overweight or obese to achieve a healthier weight as they grow. The key healthy habits are reducing portion sizes, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables every day, managing treat foods so they are not consumed every day, replacing sugary drinks with water, making being active fun every day, having less screen and encouraging more sleep. We are all guilty of having too much screen time.
I spoke previously about the targets for fighting excess weight and obesity in the national obesity policy and action plan. It has five-year targets, including a sustained downward trend of an average of 0.5% per annum as measured by the Healthy Ireland survey in the level of excess weight average across all adults; a sustained downward trend averaging 0.5% per annum as measured by the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, COSI, in the level of excess weight in children; and a reduction in the gap in obesity levels between the highest and lowest socio-economic groups by 10%, as measured by the Healthy Ireland and COSI surveys. Additionally, the preparation of a progress report on the implementation of the national obesity plan is continuing so it can be considered by the obesity policy implementation oversight group.
Furthermore, there will be development of an annual bulletin or scorecard to evaluate progress in the national obesity plan dissemination of results has also been initiated. My Department has requested the Health Research Board centre for diet and research at University College Cork to develop a framework for this annual bulletin scorecard. This evaluation will primarily consider progress made in implementing the various actions in the national plan. The Department of Health anticipates this framework will be finalised in this quarter, allowing for a robust qualitative assessment of progress in implementing the national obesity policy and action plan to be compiled and published later this year and on an annual basis thereafter.
On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, I commend the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on their important and insightful work in producing a report on tackling childhood obesity under the Chairman, Deputy Alan Farrell. The Department of Health was pleased to be invited to the committee's hearings and make a presentation on the work under way to deal with obesity. I thank Deputies for their contributions on this important matter. I reassure the House that tackling childhood obesity continues to be a priority for the Government.
I thank all Deputies for their contributions. I acknowledge the Minister of State's commitment that this report will go before the national obesity policy implementation oversight group for consideration. My first suggestion is that group's name should be shorted, as it is a bit long. Perhaps it could be abbreviated.
This is an epidemic and its scale of difficulty, presented to us as policymakers, is quite daunting. One of the biggest issues we have, given the manner in which our Departments are created, is that this is a multi-departmental matter, as it involves the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs and Housing, Planning and Local Government. The fact this children and youth affairs report is being responded to by a Minister of State at the Department of Health exemplifies this. This needs to be co-ordinated and if that co-ordinator is to be the national obesity policy implementation oversight group, that is fine and I would be happy with that, particularly if it touches on the matters dealt with in the debate. Deputy Rabbitte's proposed legislation is an example. I welcome it and look forward to supporting it.
In response to Deputy O'Loughlin's contribution on the ban on vending machines, which was given from the perspective of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, how simple it would be to issue a circular, yet that has not been done. I appreciate the ink is still wet on this report which was published in November. While I accept the financial consequences of that for schools, boards of management make decisions every day about what to spend their money on. Schools in disadvantaged communities which rely on such income can request additional sums from the Department of Education and Skills on the basis of disadvantage, irrespective of whether they are DEIS schools. It is important to highlight that.
One of the most sobering figures cited in this debate was that obesity costs this State approximately €1 billion per annum. That is not exclusively childhood obesity but it is a rather sobering figure. Think what we could do with €1 billion. It is an extraordinary sum of money.
Deputy Thomas Byrne's contribution was tremendous. It was terrific to hear someone who has gone through challenges and used it to his family's benefit. That type of personal story and contribution happened throughout our hearings. They are very important in the formulation of policy.
A societal change has occurred in recent decades. I grew up on the coast road in Malahide. My school was in Malahide village, just over 1 mile away. I used to walk to school from the age of approximately eight, when I was in first or second class. My seven year old son is in first class and I would not dream of letting him walk to school. I am not sure why society has changed, whether it is a matter of child protection, roads, safety, cars driving faster or what. Perhaps that is a conversation we should have.
We need to consider the infrastructure around the school. We are building a new primary school across the street from a secondary school, one of the biggest in the country, with a footpath that is probably no wider than the aisle in this Chamber. It has lampposts and signposts on it. There are 1,250 secondary school students who walk to it; it is beside a GAA club. The primary school, which will have 1,000 students, will be located there and the footpath is substandard. We are actively discouraging people from walking. Deputy Byrne and, I think, Deputy Mitchell mentioned this. The planning application for the primary school has an exclusion to stop the builders moving in and out of the site during school times but right beside it is another building site that has no exclusions. This sort of approach, with a nonsensical lack of connectivity or joined-up thinking, is unfortunately prevalent in all Departments. It is not intentional but it needs to be remedied to tackle this very important issue.
I accept Deputy Rabbitte's comment on weighing. I am sure she remembers our discussions on whether to put it into the report and whether what we did was an adequate solution. It is probably not but, as politicians, we know how important it is to collate data on all sorts of different metrics and while some, perhaps for political correctness, suggested that we should not do this, I disagree with them. There is a bit of the nanny state in that but I am fine with it because ultimately it is for the betterment of society.
The Minister of State acknowledged that the sugar tax has had a profound effect on the sales of sugar sweetened drinks. Most, if not all, of the producers of full sugar drinks have now reformulated their product and are selling a sugar-free version. Previously that was referred to as a "diet" version but now everything is "zero" or "free". That is positive but the key for schoolchildren is water faucets, even in the classroom if necessary, where they can go up, press a button and have a little drink of water and the parents can be content that there are no vending machines selling sugar sweetened drinks. There are no soft drinks permitted in the primary school that my two boys attend. They are allowed only water. That is a good thing. My child has been in the school for three years so this predates my time on the committee but it is a good initiative and should be rolled out to all schools.
Deputy O'Sullivan made a really valuable contribution, especially as she represents a community which is, broadly speaking, disadvantaged. I had the privilege of visiting one of her youth clubs at the invitation of Healthy Ireland. I was very happy with what I saw: young people from a disadvantaged community actively engaging in healthy eating and lifestyles, with physical activity, right bang in the city centre. Their biggest complaint was that they had insufficient green open space in an urban environment. The Minister of State represents a bit of the city and a bit of suburban Dublin and is very fortunate in having plenty of open space in his constituency. There is not that space in the inner city. It could and perhaps should be provided. I know Dublin City Council is doing great work on some of the Georgian squares on the northside, which I welcome but perhaps more needs to be done. I hope the council will take cognisance of the remarks made during the committee hearings and this evening.
General purpose rooms in primary and secondary schools are critical. So many schools do not have adequate facilities. There was an estimate from Deputy O'Loughlin's committee that €1 billion was required to invest in general purpose or physical education halls for schools around the country to either bring them up to standard or deliver them if they did not have them. Perhaps the €1 billion we spend on the maintenance of obese people could be used for such purposes.
I did not mention St. Angela's College. I thank Deputy Rabbitte for doing that. It is important to acknowledge the work of the college, the contribution its representatives made to our debate and the manner in which they made it, which was probably the most heartening aspect of it. They were thorough professionals, really nice people to deal with. They took a simple approach, talking about bringing a cooking ring into a classroom with a portable fridge to teach children about food. Deputy Byrne mentioned it too. That is an invaluable sort of endeavour that should be rolled out throughout the State.
Those in Wicklow who have done extraordinary voluntary work on the "no-fry zone" did a very good job of lobbying the committee members to make sure the no-fry zone was included in the report, and to roll it out. One of the councillors in my local council in Skerries, Tom O'Leary, tabled a motion with a Green Party representative to ensure that the no-fry zone was introduced into Fingal. It is not quite there yet but these are simple things that can be implemented. Definition is critical but if a fast food outlet is not permitted by statute to open within 300 m or 400 m of a school, it will not apply for planning permission and local authority members and the general public will not be up in arms when the applications are made.
I reiterate my thanks to the committee members and all who made contributions to this report, including the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for his response to it.