Leading article: A fat load of good

People don't want to live in a nanny state. Thus spake the Prime Minister during a previous discussion about obesity, when it was alleged that his advisers wanted to impose a "fat tax" on supposedly unhealthy foods. He was right, but unfortunately his ministers have been over-zealous in their desire to be seen to be doing something about childhood obesity. Theirs is not an ignoble motivation. Of course, as Tony Blair said, it is not the Government's job to make people thin, but equally the state has a responsibility to give people the information they need to keep themselves, and their children, healthy. Health education campaigns backed by legislation can work wonders without intruding on people's liberties. Even before the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces comes into effect next year, smoking was in decline.

Public health campaigns should never rely on government action alone. More important than last week's new standards for school lunches, for example, is Jamie Oliver's campaign to encourage children to eat better, both at school and at home. Mr Oliver has been accused of self-promotion, but it is precisely his success in this department that makes him such a potential force for good. He should be judged by his works, which have been a triumph for celebrity culture. When the chips are down, Mr Oliver has rather greater purchase on popular culture than Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary.

Yet some ministers have learnt nothing from Mr Oliver about changing attitudes and remembered nothing from the Prime Minister about the dangers of the nanny state. The way they have gone about promoting children's health is extraordinary. They have responded to a moral panic about rising numbers of fat children by tackling the symptoms not the causes. First, they set a target to halt the year-on-year increase in obesity in children under 11 by the year 2010. You would have thought this government would have realised by now the dangers of ill-chosen targets. Then ministers realised that they did not have the data by which to know if they had met the target, so they launched a huge exercise to weigh and measure all children in England at four to five, and at 10 to 11.

This was bad enough. Rather like installing metal detectors at school gates, this can only have a damaging effect on pupils' feelings about school. It is bound to make some children more self-conscious about their bodies, which is the cause of later problems. But, as we report today, ministers have made matters worse. Realising they have no means by which to achieve the target, they are turning what was a data-collection exercise into a fully fledged screening programme. The Government still has no idea how to make fat children thinner, but it thinks that unless it identifies them at an early stage then it has no chance. From the summer term 2007, if children are deemed overweight, their parents will receive a letter.

This is a bizarre and shocking example of how the ratchet of an authoritarian state can operate if politicians, citizens and media relax their vigilance in defence of civil liberties. Our children, already over-tested and over-regulated, are now to be over-labelled. If enough parents refuse permission for their children to be measured, the exercise will become pointless. How much better, however, if Alan Johnson and Patricia Hewitt, the Education and Health secretaries, come to their joint senses and tip the scales against this ill-conceived plan.

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