Statements on Tackling Obesity in Ireland, 17 June 2015

The Minister is always very welcome to the House. The time he has dedicated to today’s debate shows that he has an understanding of the importance of this issue and the serious health concerns associated with it. There is no doubt that we are IN the midst of a full-blown obesity epidemic. It is shocking that 61% of adults and 22% of children between the ages of five and 12 are overweight or obese. Given that this issue is so costly and damaging to the health and well-being of the nation, it is difficult to understand why we are still discussing strategies rather than implementing the excellent strategies we already have. The national task force on obesity has been operating for almost ten years, but its recommendations have been implemented in a partial and haphazard manner. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, established a special action group on obesity in 2011. This group highlighted priority areas and policy recommendations, such as an introduction of a sugar tax and the improvement of nutritional labelling. These are very cost-effective ideas, but four years on there has been no action towards implementing any of them. Children remain particularly vulnerable. The Government’s failure to act is having a particular impact on them. They are increasingly vulnerable to chronic diseases, premature deaths and disability in adulthood.

Given the negative impact of obesity on people’s health, it is understandable that we talk about it in a critical and negative way. However, we need to be mindful in our discourse that obesity and excessive weight are realities that people live with and struggle to overcome. This is especially important when we talk about childhood and adolescent obesity, which can have a significant impact on the self-image, self-esteem and confidence of the young person affected. For many years we have associated malnutrition with lack of food or starvation, but in fact that is under-nutrition. Obesity is the result of malnutrition, which is a poor diet with a lack of adequate nutrition for proper growth and development.Not everyone who is malnourished is overweight or obese but this does not mean that he or she is not seriously damaging his or her future health. It is imperative, therefore, that we shift the focus to a more holistic healthy lifestyle approach, with nutrition and exercise as its linchpins. We must tackle the unhealthy obsession that has developed about being fat, counting calories, “yo-yo” dieting and losing weight, all of which are serious issues among young adults, especially females.

As previous speakers pointed out, school is where children spend the majority of their time in the company of their peers. Physical education in schools is essential to a child’s physical and mental development. The children’s sport participation and physical activity study of Irish students in primary and post-primary education found that a mere 35% of primary pupils and 10% of post-primary pupils received the minimum 120 minutes of physical activity in school per week, as recommended by the national task force on obesity. One in four of the children surveyed was unfit, overweight, obese or had elevated blood pressure.

A 2013 report by the European Commission, Physical Education and Sports at School in Europe, found that the provision of physical education at primary level in Ireland is the third worst in the European Union, while at post-primary level, it was found to be seventh worst in the EU. This failure to ensure the weekly minimum of 120 minutes of physical activity for children is a serious blow to children’s health. We must promote physical activity, participation in physical education and non-structured play during school hours. Children should be encouraged to engage in team sports, join activity clubs in the community and simply enjoy the outdoors. When they learn these habits at primary school level they continue to be active throughout their teenage years, thus reducing the risk of obesity.

I am concerned that parents do not have control over children’s eating habits when they are outside the home. While healthy lunch policies are widely implemented in primary schools, they tend to be abandoned when children enter secondary school. Research carried out this year by the Irish Heart Foundation on food provision in post-primary schools found that 51% of students have daily exposure to foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt and that these are widely available not only outside the school gates but also in school tuck shops and vending machines. There is no statutory requirement on schools to provide meals and hot food to students throughout the school day, although many schools have canteen facilities. Given the obesity epidemic we face, it is alarming that no national guidelines or standards are in place on the types of food and drinks available for children to buy. With no time for exercise and sugary, fatty foods surrounding children everywhere, it is little wonder that childhood obesity rates are high. If we continue to ignore this issue, our children’s health will only worsen.

Obesity is also becoming a problem of poverty. Convenient cheap foods that are high in calorific value and low in nutritional value are becoming the norm for lower income families. Why are convenient healthy foods the most expensive option? Anyone who visits a canteen or shop will see that convenient healthy foods are the most expensive option. The cost of healthy food is becoming a barrier to a healthy diet for families. For this reason, I support the introduction of a sugar tax. The money generated from such a tax should be used to fund projects such as family food initiatives. These are projects that help to improve the availability, affordability and accessibility of healthy food for low income groups at local level using a community development approach. The objective is to help families to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

The Minister raised the issue of free general practitioner care for children aged under six years and the two health checks available for this age cohort. While these are excellent initiatives, one of the issues people have raised with me is that they do not provide access to a dietitian or nutritionist in cases where a general practitioner encounters a problem. The schemes present an opportunity for general practitioners to engage with parents and provide them with nutritional information. As the Minister is aware, I fully support free GP care for children aged under six years.

An issue arises regarding choice architecture. The Department organised a seminar some weeks ago on what is known as the nudge policy and a number of simple steps that could be taken in this area. One need only visit a local shop, supermarket or canteen to observe how choice architecture is being used. It is easy for shoppers to grab the unhealthy option. While many of us agreed with Senator Byrne’s interesting comments on food, these issues do not always click for us. If Members are not getting this information easily, how much more difficult must it be for someone managing a family and in a rush to do so?

I thank the Minister for his attendance. My message is that we have policy blueprints and it is now time for action.

Press Release: The exclusion of children from the Gender Recognition Bill is fundamentally wrong

Senator Jillian van Turnhout describes the exclusion of children from the Gender Recognition Bill 2014 (being considered, Wednesday 17 June, by the Dáil Select Sub-Committee on Social Protection) as fundamentally wrong

She says “I cannot sit silently by as we tell trans children and young people to sit in the corner and wait for their rights to be upheld, maybe, at some point down the road.”

 Statement from Senator Jillian van Turnhout 16 June 2015 *** Embargo 10am 16 June 2015***

“There are few groups in Ireland more vulnerable than our transgender (trans) children and young people. We don’t know exactly how many trans children we have in Ireland but we do have compelling anecdotal evidence from the groups supporting them that their number is significant; they live all around Ireland; there has been a notable increase in the numbers of trans children and their families contacting support groups for advice over the last 12-18 months; and in LGBT awareness training in schools the vast majority of teachers have questions around trans issues and trans identification. This is not a remote issue. We are talking about real children throughout Ireland right now. Many of these children are living a nightmare from as early as between three and five years of age when their gender identity is likely developed, where their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth and therefore indicated on their birth certificate.  These children and their parents face numerous challenges as so many of our services are driven by our birth certificates.

“Schooling is a classic example of the barriers trans children face in trying to live their young lives in the gender they identify with. We have a predominantly single-sex school system in Ireland where enrolment is predicated on a birth certificate. And so, we can have a 6 year old child who has clearly articulated that he identifies as a boy. His parents, friends, extended family and community all accept and support his lived reality. Is this young child, a boy, really going to be forced to go through a girls’ school, wearing a girl’s uniform, using the wrong name and personal details in order to access the education available in his locality? Are we really prepared to stand over legislation that in this case would allow unnecessary distress, embarrassment, humiliation and potentially serious psychological harm prevail in this boy’s life for 10 years before he is eligible to apply to have his gender identity recognised?

“As a children’s rights activist I am profoundly disappointed that children under the age of 16, and given the onerousness of the process for 16-18 year olds we can say in effect ALL children, have been excluded from the provisions of the Gender Recognition Bill 2014, which enables a person to apply for formal legal recognition of their preferred gender. I believe the new children’s rights article in the Constitution makes it incumbent on the Oireachtas, in any legislation directly impacting the lives of children, to ensure the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration; the views of the child are heard when key decisions are made about their lives; and the evolving capacity of the child is facilitated.

“The voices, opinions and lived realities of trans children have been deafeningly silent throughout this legislative process. I do not know of a single trans youth who has been consulted by Government but I have heard directly from many young people and their families about how significant a mechanism through which their preferred gender could be formally recognised in their childhood would be to them practically but also in terms of their mental and emotional well-being.

“It is fundamentally wrong that this Bill does not provide a mechanism for legal recognition, even on an interim basis, of gender for trans children under 16 who seek it, where there is parental consent, support of the child’s GP and agreement that this is in the best interests of the child. I tabled an amendment seeking such a compromise, an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate, at Report Stage of the Bill in the Seanad back in February.

“It is important to stress that an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children is completely distinct and has no bearing on any decision that might be taken by a trans person to pursue medical intervention, such as hormone replacement therapy or to undergo gender reassignment surgery at a later stage in their lives.

“I sincerely hope the Government is prepared to deal with the question of trans children in this Bill. We have this opportunity to make a massively positive impact on the lives of trans children in Ireland and to ensure, unlike too often in the past, that we are not compounding and ignoring the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

“An Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children would allow the rights and best interests of trans children to be promoted and protected, and for evidence gathering around models of best practice for a permanent arrangement, in the period before the issue is revisited in the two year review.

“I cannot sit silently by as we tell trans children and young people to sit in the corner and wait for their rights to be upheld, maybe, at some point down the road.”

-ENDS-

For More Information, Please Contact: Senator Jillian van Turnhout,

Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees)

Phone: 01-6183375    e-mail: jillian.vanturnhout@oireachtas.ie

Notes for Editor:

  • Gender recognition is an established human right to which children, as individual rights holders (Article 42A(1) of the Constitution), should be entitled. The Yogyakarta Principles (2006), which consolidated international human rights law, treaties and standards relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, is widely accepted as the authoritative legal statement and fully supported by Ireland at the International for a, defines gender identity as “each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth”. Principle 3 goes on to say:  “Each person’s self-defined sexual orientation or gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom.”
  • The Gender Recognition Bill 2014 will be considered, Wednesday 17 June, by the Dáil Select Sub-Committee on Social Protection.
  • Senator van Turnhout tabled an amendment at Report Stage of the Bill in the Seanad on 17 February 2015 seeking an Interim Gender Recognition Certificate for children under 16 years of age.
  • Some paediatric specialists put the age of gender identity in children, whether transgender or not, at two or three. Other research cites gender identity development as occurring between three and five years of age.
  • Senator van Turnhout welcomed the commitment in February conveyed by Minister Humphreys in the Seanad on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan TD, to convene a round-table discussion with all educational partners on issues effecting transgender children. However, she notes that to date no steps have been taken to this end.

 

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”