Inside Parliament: 'Tyranny' surrounding tummies weighed up : Control of diet-products industry sought - Straw claims landlords are big winners of state 'hand-outs'

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A small blow against the 'tyranny of thinness' was struck yesterday by Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, as she introduced a Bill to regulate the diet industry and require health warnings on all pills, potions and slimming aids.

Attacking the 'image-makers' who tried to persuade women they were unattractive if they did not fit into a size 10 or 12, Mrs Mahon said it was widely established that diets did not work. 'Ninety-five per cent of dieters will regain all the weight loss within two or three years.' The message in the title of one slimming book - Size 12 in 21 Days - was a lie, she claimed. 'The average woman would not be able to drop two dress-sizes in three weeks without seriously affecting her health.'

Mrs Mahon's Regulation of Diet Industry Bill would require all weight loss centres to display signs warning that rapid weight loss could seriously damage one's health. Diet pills, potions and patches would be brought under the control of the Medicines Act.

To a good deal of mirth, particularly from the roly-poly food minister Nicholas Soames, she said one of 'daftest but certainly not the cheapest' slimming methods was a 6,000-year-old Chinese remedy to 'lie on your back and rub your tummy.' Another was a 'vanishing cream' to dissolve fat. But Mrs Mahon, who looks more in need of a good meal than the application of vanishing cream, knows her Bill will not reach the statute book this time round at least, despite getting a first reading. Parliamentary time would not allow, even if the measure was not controversial. Arguing against it, Michael Fabricant, Tory MP for Mid Staffordshire, did not want 'costly and cumbersome' burdens imposed. 'We are the government of deregulation.'

People did die from eating disorders, but not from dieting. 'It is trite and irresponsible to believe that complex psychological disorders can be cured by limiting access to products from which no one is in danger.'

But Mr Fabricant, who stressed he was not on a diet and had no connections with the industry, thought Mrs Mahon was ignoring a bigger problem. 'Nearly half of all adults in this country are overweight, and one in seven - nearly 6 million people - are so fat their health is suffering.'

Opening a Labour-initiated debate on housing policy, Jack Straw, the party's local government spokesman, said private landlords were fast overtaking farmers as the biggest recipients of hand-outs from the state.

Because of rising rents, housing benefit costs had rocketed, and nowhere faster than for private sector tenancies. In cash terms, benefit for private tenants had risen three and a half times in five years, from pounds 1.5bn in 1988-89 to pounds 3.8bn in 1993-94. But the number of claimants over the same period had risen by just a third, from 970,000 to 1.3 million.

'If the Government want to do something about people sponging off the state, it is to private landlords, not to the homeless and the beggars, to whom they should direct their attention.'

Replying, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, said Mr Straw had given vent to one of the things that had been most damaging to the private rented sector, 'a deep-seated hatred against any kind of renting that is not controlled by Labour councils'.

Whatever might lie at the root of housing problems, it is not a shortage of bricks, according to the housing minister, Sir George Young. Rejecting a claim by John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley West, of a materials crisis in the industry, he said: 'There are an estimated 893 million bricks in stock, enough to build a six-foot wall between London and China.'