Leading article: A pointless gimmick

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The Independent Online

It is a bad sign when this Government starts creating new "ministries". In recent years we have had a minister for women who is paid less than her male colleagues, a minister for equality who thinks homosexuality is a sin, not to mention a minister for children who once presided over a town hall child abuse scandal. And now we have a minister for fitness. It is not difficult to be depressed by the creation of such a portfolio.

It looks like a gimmick. The concept of a specialised fitness minister conjures up images of a glorified aerobics teacher. Another problem is the governing mindset implicit in the creation of such a role. The Government seems to be saying that it is the job of the state to make us healthy.

The secret to keeping fit is no secret. A sensible diet and a reasonable amount of exercise are all that are required. But these are not things the Government can impose on us. Individuals must choose to live a healthier lifestyle.

We are told that the brief of Caroline Flint, the first incumbent, is to create a healthier nation in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. This demonstrates a considerable nerve from the Government. Whose fault is it that there are so few Olympic-sized swimming pools in this country? Whose fault is that school playing fields continue to be sold off? If the Government were serious about encouraging participation in competitive sports in Britain it would have acted long before now.

Of course the Government is justified in emphasising that it is far better to spend resources on encouraging healthier lifestyles than spend billions on treating the symptoms of obesity though the health system later on. This is one of the lessons from the extraordinary success of Cuba's health system. And it is also right to stress that obesity is a growing problem. Since 2003 obesity has risen dramatically in adults. And according to a report to be published by the Department of Health this week, one in three of us will be obese by 2010.

But the response of the Government to this rising tide of obesity must be holistic. All departments should be acting with public health considerations in mind. The Department for Transport should be creating more cycle lanes. The Department for Education and Skills should be investing considerably more in school sports. It should not require a dedicated fitness minister for things like this to be happening.

The creation of such a position is intended to demonstrate that the Government is taking the problem of obesity terribly seriously. In fact what it shows is that the question of the nation's health is being cynically ghettoised.