Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Liberals and child obesity

What should the Liberal Democrats say and do about increasing levels of obesity? In recent days Iain Sharpe has posted a couple of times (here and here, to be precise) looking at the dilemma the issue poses for Liberals.

Child obesity, at least, is an issue that we should take up. The trouble is that most of the policies that get debated miss the point.

For a start, we are not eating more than we used to. The picture is not altogether clear, but the most authoritative research seems to be that by Prentice and Jebb who say:
However, in sharp contrast with the suggestion that a secular drift towards high fat diets has induced people to overeat, there is evidence, based on the National Food Survey's annual measures of household food consumption, that the British are becoming fatter in spite of consuming less energy than in the 1970s. Even after adjustments for meals eaten outside the home, and for consumption of alcohol, soft drinks, and confectionery, average per capita energy intake seems to have declined by 20% since 1970.
So the answer must be more sport in schools. That is what Don Foster said for the Liberal Democrats two years ago:
We see sport as crucial to the nation's health and well being. With child obesity trebling in the past decade, it is time the Department of Health took a far greater role in promoting sport and active living.
Children were not thinner 20 or 40 years ago because of school sport. Organised games dominated the lives of boys in public schools and, to a lesser extent, grammar schools - even if many of them spent their time shivering on the wing and hoping the ball did not come near them. But for most children school sport was not that important.

Children were thinner because they burnt energy in free play out of doors. What politicians should do is look at the forces which militate against their doing so today. Among them I would list the dominance of the motor car, the removal of authority figures from public space, the panic over child abduction and a culture that has left adults afraid to exert any sort of authority over children.

The car can be tamed by home zones, with their planting and very low speed limits. We might begin to repopulate the public world by campaigning for a new generation of Routemasters with conductors in the next London Mayoral election. The panic over stranger danger is harder to tackle, but as a first step politicians could avoid stoking public anxiety.

And adult authority? Perhaps children's freedom to play in the street was always balanced by an adult's right to tell them to play somewhere else if they became to irritating. The collapse of this sort of authority has not resulted in an age of freedom for children: instead they see their lives ever more closely policed by the state and its agents.

I have developed these ideas further in an essay that forms part of a collection edited by Graham Watson and Simon Titley. It is about to be published and will be available from the Liberator stall at Brighton. Further details soon.

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