Leading article: Sometimes nanny is right

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The Independent Online

The lazy response to the Government's plan to offer keep-fit classes on the National Health Service is to dismiss it - from the comfort of the sofa - as nanny-state nonsense. But it is far from being that. On the contrary, it is a rather small and tentative step in the right direction.

It may be that Labour ministers tend to reach for top-down, big-state solutions to social problems. This newspaper has criticised them on many counts of indifference to individual liberty. But the impetus behind this scheme is - in New Labour jargon - evidence-based. The pilot schemes that have impressed ministers have been very successful. First, they have helped make people aware of just how inactive their lives are. Second, they have proved popular. Third, they have made people healthier and saved the NHS money by reducing the cost of treating the medical repercussions of taking too little exercise.

The last is the sticking point, of course. Complicated policy analysis is always bedevilled by claims that expensive action now will save money in the future. As usual, the extent to which the growth of keep-fit pilot schemes will be funded by new public spending is unclear. But the principles of the scheme are right.

The important point, for the moment, is that there is no element of compulsion. People who are unhealthily inactive may be offered classes in street dancing or salsa, and may find that they enjoy them, but there is no penalty for not joining in. Yet part of the reason why there might be an instinctive jibbing against the idea is that it is part of a closing in of the state's walls of moral pressure around the citizen. The implication of Labour's rights-and-responsibility rhetoric is that those who ignore medical advice to change their sedentary lives are contributing to their own ill-health. Yet there is no necessary contradiction between disapproving of behaviour that poses a risk to one's own health - such as drug addiction, irresponsible mountaineering or train surfing - and offering "no-fault" medical treatment.

The important parallel is with smoking. This newspaper, rather unfashionably, took the view that the total ban on smoking in enclosed public places that will come into effect on 1 July 2007 goes too far. But we did not dispute that the Government has a role in making it easier for people to kick the habit.

There is a part that legislation can play in these things, and there is a part that the likes of Jamie Oliver can play. There is also a role for some deep thinking about the micro-geography of modern life. What kind of society is it in which thousands of people drive to the gym to keep fit? This is a point that applies beyond the question of transport policy (see below). It is not simply a matter of exhorting children to walk to school, but of rethinking urban planning so that people are tempted to walk for short journeys, and of rebalancing leisure activity in favour of active, rather than passive, pursuits.

So, yes, state-sponsored line dancing and aquaerobics may sound like a throwback to wartime memories of a regimented citizenry. But that is simply idle thinking, a failure to think through the challenges of modern affluence. It would be too easy - the passive response, in fact - simply to pour scorn on a nudge from nanny that helps people take responsibility for making themselves healthier.

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