An interesting report from Westminster City Council and the Local Government Information Unit is published this morning. The report reflects the transfer of responsibility for public health from the NHS to local councils.
Several local authorities have introduced schemes that allow GPs to prescribe physical activities at local facilities including council swimming pools, gyms, yoga and walking clubs.
However the council does not need to own the swimming pool or gym. Public health would be better served with these facilities thriving under the ownership of private enterprise rather than being constrained as part of the municipal empire. Not that ownership would make much odds to the type of voucher scheme described as being made available.
The report also suggests that liberalising licensing policy could produce public health benefits:
Reducing licensing red tape for smaller, non alcohol-led venues to encourage a more responsible approach to drinking.
But the controversial proposal is as follows:
The increasing use of smart cards for access to leisure facilities, for instance, provides councils with a significant amount of data on usage patterns. Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents. It proposes that the overweight who refuse to take exercise should have their benefits docked.
I think the principle is reasonable although it might be more applicable to the Department of Work and Pensions. If someone is unemployed then benefits should be conditional on them doing everything possible to get into work. It might mean going on a training scheme, or an apprenticeship, or learning English. But if someone is really fat, actually obese, is that not also a barrier to them gaining employment? Shouldn't their Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and indeed their JSA, be conditional on them doing something about it?