The "do as I say not as I do" tendency described in this Sunday Post column (6.1.13) is aptly demonstrated by the Rail Minister who's just revealed he doesn't use the train to get around. Its not that his £80k private limo is easier and nicer it's only ....... Oh c'mon. The day chaps like Simon Burns can winkle themselves out of flab-promoting, exercise-inhibiting, taxpayer-funded luxuries like door-to-door personal limos, Tory politicians can suggest docking benefits from folk who don't use gyms. And I take the point made by one tweeter about the lazy use of "fat cats" in the former heading on this piece. Gone.
Chubby Brits who refuse to attend exercise classes could have their benefits cut –in a bright new money saving idea from Westminster Council. Yip the folk prosecuted for selling council houses to potential Tory voters in the 1980s are back -- with another supremely bad idea. Charitably, you could say they have noble intentions. Improving fitness and losing weight will save an estimated £1.5bn from the NHS budget and since English councils are set to take over public health provision in April anything that tackles obesity is good news. So Westminster's barmy plan goes like this. GPs will prescribe swimming and fitness classes, smart cards will monitor claimants to make sure they use leisure centres and folk on benefits carrying a bit of pork but not swiping into a weekly yoga, weights or Zumba class will find their housing and council tax benefits cut. I suppose it does sound effective – in a dictatorial kind of way. But I'll bet this won't claw back a penny on forfeited benefits because doctors will simply refuse to become the "fat police." And it won't save NHS treatment by reducing the collective weight of the nation -- because threat never brings about lasting change.
Let's face it - we live in a couch-potato culture where TV ads encourage everyone to snack, grab supersized takeaways and regard outdoorsy folk who walk or cycle as car-less losers and boring keep-fit fanatics. We also live in a world of recession and redundancy where optimism is hard and motivation even harder. Eminently sensible people like the rotund English Communities Minister, Eric Pickles and our very own (how shall we put it) cuddly First Minister have dietary and exercise "issues". If they can't change their lifestyles, why should others with less support, status and motivation find it easier? Heavens to Betsy - hard-pressed folk in work already waste squillions joining gyms they never visit. Are there enough gyms to cope?
This must be the ultimate in sticking plaster solutions - many overweight people are also responsible for kids and parents. Is Westminster Council going to penalise them too? People are changed by encouragement, contact, engagement – by the way their family and peer group feel about life, by surroundings and above all by life chances. Of course overweight people need to quit self-destructive habits. But that takes confidence and willpower. Both are currently in short supply. I suppose though, the fear of seeing your family evicted after comfort binging Hob Nobs might just conceivably work. So I'll tell you what. In the spirit of the poll tax, why don't we test this idea out first -- on Westminster council chiefs. Porky leaders can face losing their publicly-funded pensions if they don't spend eat at salad bars and spend lunchtimes on treadmills. Actually how about abolishing their parking perks and council limos too? Jings, we could extend this "tough love" approach to bankers – offer 'em free travel on public transport with an Oyster Card instead of a million pound bonus in 2013. It really would be better for their well-being. And if the rich and powerful used shanks pony, bikes and buses, you can bet your bottom dollar public transport would be affordable, walking would be normal and cities would be planned around pedestrians not private cars.
Come to think of it, I'm warming to this cruel to be kind strategy – Westminster Council has just targeted the wrong people. The vulnerable and powerless aren't the folk who keep our society on the wrong tracks. So let's pitch compulsory self-improvement higher. If it works for the top earners maybe the unemployed can try it next. Now who can say fairer than that?