Magazine article Public Finance

Nanny Does Know Best

Magazine article Public Finance

Nanny Does Know Best

Article excerpt

At a recent lunch for journalists in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Alan Johnson joked that under the new NHS Constitution 'the broccoli police' would not be sent in to monitor what people were eating.

It was a quip that went down well with the assembled guests, striking as it did at the very heart of that dreaded nanny-state Britain. After all, nobody wants to be told what to do or how to lead their lives, do they?

Politicians are especially conscious of this. The memories of Nanny Virginia Bottomley are still alive in the Department of Health after she presided over a document setting out, among other things, how many potatoes to eat each week and what size they should be.

On the other hand, another former health secretary, John Reid, struck a chord when he expressed sympathy for single mothers on council estates who chose to smoke.

Nevertheless, it is the duty of the government, and the DoH in particular, to disseminate the good living message. In this spirit, it kicked off the new year with a massive cross-sector anti-obesity drive - Change4Life which warned that by 2050, four out of ten children and nine out of ten adults would be overweight or obese.

But in the DoH headquarters, there is a constant balancing act between wanting to be tough on public health issues, and the fear that the media will deride them for nannying.

This has meant that the power of the Change4Life anti-obesity message has been somewhat diluted by ministers going into partnership for the campaign with a number of food, supermarket and advertising companies.

What ministers could have done instead is told them to get their houses in order once and for all, stop adding so much sugar and salt to their products, stop targeting children with their advertising and lose the trans-fatty acids.

Just two weeks after the campaign was launched, it was revealed that children as young as two were receiving NHS treatment for severe weight problems. A dietician blamed parents for allowing small children to pick their favourite sugary and fatty foods rather than giving them a healthy range of food.

So when is the time to send in the broccoli police? Healthy eating used to be one of the subjects passed down through families, from grandmother to mother to daughter. There were domestic science classes. Now, young families do not always have access to that information, they are not taught how to produce a balanced meal and so begins a vicious cycle. Yet someone has to tell them and why not start at the top? Why not some nannying? After all, this is the country that grew up on 'nanny knows best'.

It is not just eating. …

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