Stephen Jardine: Time to protect school children

North Lanarkshire Council tried to stop burger vans from setting up near schools. Picture: Jon Savage
North Lanarkshire Council tried to stop burger vans from setting up near schools. Picture: Jon Savage
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We must do all we can to promote healthier lifestyles argues Stephen Jardine

What’s the point of our elected representatives? In this week, of all weeks, it’s a very pertinent question.

Most people would agree it is about protecting our health and security and seeking to make life better. And that’s exactly what North Lanarkshire Council did last year when they introduced a ban on burger vans outside school gates.

With one in six Scottish children now classed as obese, the council acted out of a sense of moral duty to tackle the problem. Sadly, that approach isn’t shared by everyone.

Earlier this week a group of burger van owners went to court to challenge the ban which prevented them trading within 250 metres of school premises.

In a written judgment, Sheriff Vincent Smith acknowledged the motive for the move: “That obesity among the general population and children especially is considered problematic is not in dispute”.

However, he went on to overturn the ban on the basis that the local authority simply didn’t have the power within existing legislation to restrict street trading in this way.

The traders involved have hailed this as a victory, claiming their human rights and those of their customers had been infringed by the ban.

How many times have we heard that important piece of legislation being rolled out to defend the indefensible?

There are human rights at stake here but they belong to children who have the right to lives not blighted by diet related ill health.

At an earlier hearing, the QC acting for the burger van owners told the court: “Everyone has the right to chose what kind of food they want to put into their body”.

Follow that laissez faire logic and lots of children would stay up until after midnight eating chocolate.

Instead most parents try to help their children with healthy eating choices.

In school hours, responsibility for educating, feeding and taking care of them then passes to the local authorities who run our schools with limited resources.

From the very beginning, North Lanarkshire Council have acted in the interests of the children for whom they have a duty of care. Now they face the difficult decision whether to appeal the case to the Court of Session.

But this case isn’t just of concern to one local authority.

Several Scottish council’s have similar restrictions in place and enthusiastic lawyers are likely to begin a number of legal challenges.

The local authorities have tried and failed to make a difference, now the responsibility must switch to the Scottish Government.

From free school meals for children in the first three years at primary school through the nutritional guidelines to policy initiatives like Beyond The School Gate, Holyrood has shown a real commitment to improving the health of the next generation.

But now it’s time for a fight.

From industrial estates to building sites, from outside call centres to alongside football grounds, there are plenty of places where burger vans can trade to adults without any issues around human rights.

If grown ups want to buy what’s on offer, that’s up to them

But our children deserve better and until they can make educated and informed choices, it’s our job to look after them.

The Scottish Government can do that by changing the law and they should do it now.