John Rentoul: Fat police: guilty as charged

Obesity has risen among children because they don't run about as they did
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The Independent Online

It is curious that Tony Blair's government will be remembered for many things to which he was either personally indifferent (such as the smoking ban) or actively hostile (such as the ban on fox-hunting). A further curiosity is that one of the achievements in which Blair strongly believed, and of which he is justly proud, is the promotion of equal rights for gay people. It was accomplished partly by stealth and is therefore largely overlooked. The abolition of Section 28, the lifting of the ban on gays in the Armed Forces, the equalisation of the age of consent and the advent of civil partnerships amount to a huge advance towards a more tolerant society.

Now we are witnessing a similarly significant change, albeit in a rather different direction, namely the arrival of the fat police. I doubt if the Prime Minister even knows it is happening. His wife did briefly hop on the Jamie Oliver bandwagon during the last election campaign, telling parents on a school visit in Birmingham that she was "seriously thinking about" sending Leo, then nearly five, into school with a packed lunch. But I doubt that Leo's father has the slightest idea what his government's policy on childhood obesity either is or should be.

That is the trouble. I suspect that if the Prime Minister thinks at all about the plan to weigh and measure all four-year-olds in school, his views will be utterly conventional. And therefore totally wrong. It is an extraordinary example of government by inertia. By which I mean not a government that does nothing, because that would actually be rather difficult and highly Conservative, in the old, pre-Thatcher sense. I mean a government that does things for the sake of it, so that junior ministers can appear busy and press officers have some "good news" stories to put out.

When that happens, a government will simply reflect back to the media and public opinion what their concerns are. Thus ministers think they are responding to what the people want when in fact they are following the line of least resistance. In this case, they are responding to a popular panic about fat children, which partly reflects our society's abnormal relationship with food, in a way that will make that relationship more difficult still.

Candida Crewe, the novelist, who writes on page 9, has said that "almost all women in the West, myself very much included, have a relationship with food and weight that is not straightforward". They hear "a continuous soundtrack in our head which is telling us what we might and might not eat".

That applies to increasing numbers of men, too, and it often starts in childhood, as it did in Crewe's case. One way to make matters worse is to weigh four-year-olds and encourage them to worry about what they eat. Then do it again when they are 10. By the time they are teenagers, they should be properly neurotic.

It almost doesn't matter what children eat. It seems to me that ideas about what food is "good" and "bad" that are projected on to children too often reflect adult obsessions with fats and sugar that do not apply to growing young people.

The new standards for school lunches announced on Friday by Alan Johnson are a good example, no more than two deep-fried portions a week. To make matters worse, the rule against crisps and chocolates is not even a mealy-mouthed guideline but seems to be an outright ban, betraying the new Education Secretary's nanny-state instinct.

The whole Jamie Oliver campaign has been a sideshow, distorted to serve the needs of the panic of the times. Everyone is in favour of children having expensive food for school lunches rather than cheap food, but school food has always been rubbish and so it cannot be a cause of fatter children.

Obesity has increased among a small minority of children mainly because they don't run about as much as they used to. Of course, the nanny state has invaded this part of the private sphere too, with more justification and less risk of lasting psychological harm but equally little chance of success.

This week is "Walk to School Week". See if that makes any difference to traffic congestion between 8.30 and 9.30 tomorrow morning. Next week will no doubt be "Uninventing the Television and the Games Console Week". The week after will be "In and Out of Each Other's Houses, Never Have to Lock the Doors, Out Blackberry Picking All Day, Paedophiles Don't Exist Week".

There is little the Government can do and less that it should do to encourage children or adults to be more physically active. So what we get is a lot of snobbery about how working-class children eat so-called junk food and spend all their leisure time on the PS2. When the snobbery becomes too obvious, we get middle-class guilt about doing the school run in a luxury 4x4. Of course, there is a class dimension to obesity, as there is to many health problems. Inequality is bad for your health if you are poor. Yet last weekend saw the publication of remarkable figures showing that the distribution of disposable income in this country has become more equal than at any time since 1987.

So while achievements on a heroic scale such as this pass by unnoticed, without comment, Government priorities are driven by popular neuroses about food. In this case, ministers want to be seen to be doing something about childhood obesity, so they have ordered it to be measured and set a target for halting its increase with no idea how it is to be met.

The inevitable result, because too few ministers have any instinctive understanding of what a free society means, is a vast, bureaucratic and authoritarian scheme to measure every child in the country at the ages of four and 10. Parents have the right to refuse permission for their children to be weighed and measured, but should not be put in that position in the first place. Meanwhile, in their desperate search for ways to meet targets they should never have set, ministers fall prey to every self-appointed expert group on nutrition and every lobby for organised sports activities. This is bureaucratic activism run mad.

Last week, David Cameron accused Tony Blair of presiding over "a government in complete paralysis". If only.

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