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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34 Responses to “Stopping benefits for the obese: why it won’t work”

  1. ttilley

    There are many reason that people are ‘fat’. Food related issues are only one. I myself am fat. I have Lymphoedema and Lipoedema so am suitably deformed too. No amount of calorie control will give me a working lymphatic system. No ‘treatment’ by the multi-million pound diet industry will change the very nature of my adipose cells. I have a healthy relationship with food. I eat very healthily despite looking like I’d deep fry and consume ANYTHING. I also have Multiple Sclerosis. That’s nothing to do with being fat at all. I’m certain that most people claiming DLA/ESA/PIP do NOT have Obesity as the main cause of their disability.

  2. littleoddsandpieces

    From the second world war British servicemen prisoners of war, it was found that the more overweight you were the quicker the soldiers died from starvation.

    Cutting benefit to obese not in work will kill them quicker than the average one month it takes to starve to death.

    But it will also add even more funding consequences to the NHS, from rising even more the huge rise in malnutrition hospital admissions.

    There are already 1 million people a year left to starve without food money from sanctioning, that include 23 week pregnant women and the over 60s even disabled / chronic sick.

    Foodbanks do not feed the starving every day. If you are hungry one day, you are hungry every day, not least because Fareshare, the supplier to the foodbanks, do not gain state subsidy and so does not gain even 5,000 tonnes of surplus food, instead of near 400,000 tonnes a year available.

    There is no saving unless, because even killing the poor has a cost – ambulances, hospital autopsy, police, HM Coroner, pauper cremations to cash strapped councils.

    There is a way to gain a very different government
    that will end all this active cruelty by the state.
    And it is a Vote or Starve election.
    See how on:

  3. Kryten2k35

    Taking benefits away from people is massively dangerous to their health.

    Do I think people who DON’T have health reasons for being overweight should be given a free ride? No. Do I think the DWP are capable of fairly assessing that? No. Therefore, the fairest and best thing possible is to leave them alone.

    If there was a system in place that could properly assess overweight people who are “too fat to work” to determine if there is a medical reason that they are overweight and then sanction them accordingly (in such a way that helps them to tackle their problem, addiction and better their lives and help them back into work… not a sanction that is basically a monetary punishment) then I’d be for it.

    This, however, is just a way of punishing people and taking money off them. It’s unacceptable.

  4. JoeDM

    An excellent idea that should have been introduced years ago.

  5. Peem Birrell

    >>Doing something about it would after all be ‘nannying’, wouldn’t it?
    Well if it’s done to people who’re not obese then indeed it would be. And I think that’s exactly what Tam Fry wants.

  6. Patrick O'neill

    too fat to work is tabloid nonsense I don’t believe there is any real number of people that are disabled due to weight maybe one or two extreme examples but that’s it. this is yet another excuse to fail for the dwp if they cant get people into work its never due to a lack of work/training/skilled middle men bridging the gap between unemployment and work instead its because of peoples weight or lack of trying. we need to move to a system of a guaranteed job after 12 months unemployed say 6 months work with the state paid at the living wage.

    PS im also getting sick of workfare “trainees” being used inplace of increasing hours or increasing staff numbers.

  7. Guest

    Yes, to you it’s always excellent to have high-cost programs which pay your friends for attacking people who don’t fit your criteria for being poor, then the next, etc.

    Meanwhile, your obesity isn’t an issue because you’re rich. And yet you still leech off the state by opposing the living wage, not paying tax, etc.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Peem, it depends on how they define “obese”. No doubt it’ll be a purely BMI measure, and one which can be adjusted downwards quickly as it’s a figure.

    Moreover, of course the privately-run treatment centres…

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    You’re against “trainees”, but you’re FOR creating a massive incentive for unemployment to be kept high to provide minimum-wage 6-month contract workers? Pushing down wages rapidly. Er…

  10. AlanGiles

    The fact is people addicted to drugs and alcohol would be incapable of working, and a reduction in benefits would probably result in more addicted people turning to crime – both those addictions can and often does make many people chronically ill with renal problems, for one example

  11. anon

    This will severely target mental health patients. Many, if not most psychiatric drugs – from antipsychotics to lithium to amitriptyline (also forced on fibromyalgia patients) – cause weight gain as a side effect.

    Yet many MH patients risk forced hospitalisation, and/or being forcibly pinned down and injected with the drugs at home, should they fail to comply with a prescribed treatment regardless of the reason.

    It seems that anyone with an MH issue will now be faced with a choice between sectioning and sanctioning. How is this NOT torture?

  12. Patrick O'neill

    no im in favour of breaking up long term unemployment with guaranteed work. im against utilising workfare to replace or decrease the need for paid work

  13. Leon Wolfeson

    You repeat yourself. Forced labour, your “guaranteed work”, is even more pernicious in many ways than workfare, since it technically is “paid” and hence is a “long term” solution, and the structural demand for it which it creates is far easier for some types of economist to justify.

    It remains a major danger to decent employment and workers rights.

  14. Patrick O'neill

    i disagree the point is to move away from the idiotic notion of long term unemployment. workfare is giving free labour to large institutions for very little in return this would give people real paid work.

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    You want to make it essentially illegal to be unemployed for a set period of time. You will force people to take short-term minimum wage labour, instead, meaning that companies will be far more empowered in sacking people, again.

    Very cheap labour for large institutions, who will be able to minimise their wage bills due to the strong downwards pressure this will place on wages, and it strongly encourages them to encourage high unemployment rates to maintain their supply of cheap labour.

    It’s also, as you show, “acceptable” in a way workfare is not, you’re happy for people to be trapped in this sort of cycle, that working for a third of the time on sub-living wages is “real” work, when other employers won’t touch those people with a bargepole. (It’s bad enough with workfare today!)

    Again, I’m completely against right-wing forced labour (which, of course, is also a weapon against disabled “fit for work” people who can’t actually handle doing the work – especially the sort of physically taxing work much of this will be).

    I’ll keep supporting a left wing notion, a Basic Income, which empowers workers rather than your plan of pushing their rights and salaries sharply downwards.

  16. Patrick O'neill

    no my point is the state would be required to give every unemployed person 6 months of paid labour after a years unemployment this is in no way to penalise the unemployed. I am of the opinion that most disabled people can work in some way or other with the right support. I disagree with the idea that it would force down wages

  17. Patrick O'neill

    one other thing i am dead against workfare or state employed labour being channelled into profit making businesses. using the unemployed labour to channel dividends into private pension funds while we gut the only pension those people will have access too sits very uneasily.

  18. Leon Wolfeson

    You disagree with basic economics, right, as you restate your plan for forced labour. You make withholding labour strongly conditional…

    This is a major attack on rights, and of course you’ll force most disabled people into this sort of cycle of very low paid work, or they can be “supported” with benefit withdrawals.

  19. Leon Wolfeson

    So basically, you’re going to have people on minimum wage replacing council workers, until the non-supervision jobs are gone there (and people are left with terrible service, with untrained “bin men” and the like…then we’re down to scraping gum off the streets and such.

    Useless “work” like that is strongly inflationary, because it has no real productive effect, and yet people are being paid anyway. So the minimum wage will erode even faster!

    The state pension will of course be all the people you’re trapping will ever have!

  20. Patrick O'neill

    im not sure how you equate employing the unemployed with benefit withdrawal

  21. Patrick O'neill

    wouldn’t it be more likely we would use the labour to add value locally such as environ,mental work or helping people to acquire skills When the private sector fails to

  22. Leon Wolfeson

    Because that’s what it is. It means you take the job or get no benefits, and that’s exactly what “job guarantee” schemes are.

    Minimum-wage, short-term employment is bad enough as it is without trapping people into it and creating strong incentives for it – for example, councils dependent on it won’t support measures to reduce employment locally nearly as strongly, as it will increase their wage bill. It’s a major, instant, structural issue.

    Meanwhile, the evidence from studies of Basic Incomes show that the only people who work significantly less are heavily pregnant women and people in full-time education.

  23. Leon Wolfeson

    “Add value”. That’s 100% corpspeak for “replacing workers”, I’m not really thay silly.

    Encviron…replacing groundskeepers and park staff.
    Mental work…replacing office jobs (and of course JSA workers and such)

    Acquiring skills? Don’t make me laugh, this sort of scheme has always been at the expense of actual training schemes, since there’s no skill requirements for pushing people into them. Unless you mean the skill of travelling for hours by bus per day to a temporary low-skill minimum wage job (since the train would cost more than the job pays)…

  24. Patrick O'neill

    im really not sure why you think im in favour of cutting wages? unless we offer an alternative to long term unemployment we will continue to have people pushed into faux self employment or into workfare or simply sanctioned off the benefits system in order to manufacture low unemployment figures. My thinking would be create new work not replace the jobs already available but obviously that would need considerable oversight.

  25. Leon Wolfeson

    Because you’re demanding forced minimum-wage labour. You refuse to consider alternatives, I’ve offered one clearly – a Basic Income.

    Forced Labour, especially the sort of replacement of Unionised public workface labour as you suggest, is completely the wrong way to approach the issue, especially when as we current do we face a major shortfall in jobs and the market should be empowered by government investment to create well-paid jobs, not to attack those who have seen their jobs slashed by cuts forced into low-income positions!

    “Oversight”, every time forced labour is tried, always turns out to be a bad joke and the high economic cost of the sort of schemes is well documented.

  26. Patrick O'neill

    while I agree with a universal basic income there is more chance of finding mordor at the end of my street that this country realistically entertaining the idea we are simply too greedy and selfish.

  27. Leon Wolfeson

    You may wish to look at some of the polling on it. It’s comparable to other countries, and selfishness is a reason to argue *for* the basic income – it creates a backup for poor choices.

  28. Patrick O'neill

    the same polls point to a clear majority in support of centre left policies across the board yet when was the last time you saw a left wing government in this country.

  29. Leon Wolfeson

    The problem there being FPTP. Also, that’s no reason to abandon campaigning for such principles, or to fail to consider them.

  30. sarntcrip


  31. sarntcrip

    tories are bad for the health of low income families there were virtually no.FOODBANKS
    at all before the coalition wangled power, no tory majority remember

  32. sarntcrip


  33. sarntcrip


  34. Leon Wolfson

    Why should the government do anything about obesity?

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