Stopping benefits for the obese: why it won’t work

This is what happens when you prioritise lurid headlines over actual solutions

10 years ago David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party on a ‘modernisation’ ticket with a plan to make the party electable again. The failure of that project is evidenced by the party’s repeated reversion to type.

Whether evidenced by immigrant-bashing, hostility to Europe or, today, threatening the obese with benefit sanctions, the nasty party of old never really went away.

Indeed, under the veneer of ostensibly compassionate conservatism exists a far more traditional attitude to life: rich people will only work if you give the money whilst the poor will only do so if you take it away.

The latest wheeze is to threaten people who cannot work because they are obese or suffering from addiction problems with sanctions if they fail to seek treatment. Under the proposals which David Cameron will announce today, the Tories will reduce payments worth around £100 a week for those who don’t attend medical programmes.

The Conservatives plan to make £12bn in welfare cuts in the next parliament and today’s policy proposal is designed to make at least some of those savings.

However I have two major gripes with the announcement.

The first is the messaging

I mentioned already that the thin veneer of compassion has long-since dropped from the Tory brand. This ought to be driven home by today’s announcement. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with providing treatment to the obese or those suffering from drug addiction. In fact, it’s quite a sensible option.

But demonising people with lurid headlines and threatening to deploy sanctions are not a particularly helpful way to tackle addictive behaviour; not least because food/alcohol/drug addiction tends to be a consequence of underlying emotional problems – the substance is the emotional crutch, if you like. What eactly will being threatened do to a person’s emotional state, do you think? As disability campaigner Ellen Clifford told Sky News today: “That {Cameron’s proposal] isn’t going to suddenly snap people out of an enduring condition. It’s punitive and it’s savage.”

There are bigger fish to fry (no pun intended)

The NHS is haemorrhaging money due to the cost of obesity and obesity-related illness. Were the government actually serious about saving money and improving the nation’s health it would spend a little more time focusing on measures which nip health problems in the bud – i.e. before they result in costly long-term conditions.

However such an approach would probably not result it populist and lurid headlines, which perhaps explains why the government is reluctant to do it. As Tam Fry the National Obesity Forum also told Sky News this morning: “We have the most appalling problem [with obesity] and so far the coalition government have done absolutely nothing serious about it.”

It’s worth emphasising that point: the government has done absolutely nothing about it. Doing something about it would after all be ‘nannying’, wouldn’t it? (although for some reason this policy doesn’t fall under that label).


The UK has higher levels of obesity than anywhere in western Europe except for Iceland and Malta. But believe it or not most overweight people do actually hold down jobs. Rather than address two significant challenges – public spending and public health – the Conservatives have proposed a policy which produces the sensationalist headlines while not actually tackling any of the problems it ostensibly sets out to solve.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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