On the Politics Show, Sunday 13 April 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Health
JON SOPEL: I'm joined now by Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary. Welcome to the Politics Show. How seriously do you see the problem of obesity.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well, I see it's a very serious problem mainly because we asked the scientists and the clinicians to look at this, we asked them to look at what the world would look like in 2050 in relation to obesity and it was their report that's driven our policy and it's the science and the clinicians view that will guide us through this and I think Max's, I'm obviously with Gill on this argument, Max's argument was not just an argument about obesity, it was an argument about public health, it was saying that governments shouldn't intervene, whether it's on smoking, whether it's on issues like sexual health; governments simply shouldn't intervene at all, that's the extreme libertarian view and I think that's wrong. And on obesity and life style epidemics, we now know that it's as big a problem now as smoking was in the '60s.
JON SOPEL: So if the problem is so serious, then why isn't the action that you're proposing more drastic?
ALAN JOHNSON: Er, well our policy is drastic, but what we're seeking to do is to go with the industry, with the food industry. We have food labeling in this country to a level that doesn't exist in any other country in the world and we've done that in co-operation with the industry. Now the problem that we pointed out in our response to the obesity review that was conducted by the scientists, is that there's three different systems of people going to different supermarkets and there's a different system and we've asked the food standard's agency to work with the sector to try to come up with one system, because we think that would be simpler.
JON SOPEL: Why not just oppose it. Look, in 2004, so four years ago, the government came up with a report saying, we need a clear, straight forward coding system that is in common use. This year you come out with a report in which you say, what was needed was a single, simple and effective approach to food labeling, used by the whole food industry . So in other words, nothing has moved on in four years.
ALAN JOHNSON: But in between, what happened is that we've got the biggest, the most iniquitous food labeling system in the world; people have different views on this. There's a view that you should have the coded system. There's another view that that's too simplistic, and that what you need is lots of information on the pack and there's another view that says you need a combination of both.
JON SOPEL: But going back to your argument, if you believe that intervention is the right approach, well then just decide whether it's traffic lights or what ever it happens to be and say, right, I want all supermarkets to have this system so that people, consumers have a clearer idea.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well, that's what we have said, we want all supermarkets to have one system. But we want to work with them to arrive at that decision and the Food Standard's Agency are doing that now. But in the interim period
JON SOPEL: impose it.
ALAN JOHNSON: It you look what we have
JON SOPEL: What's the argument against imposing it.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well, it depends what you're seeking to impose. We've imposed healthy school meals, we've imposed the abolition of food that's high in fat, salt and sugar from vending machines. We've banned them from vending machines in schools, so there's an element where you take
ALAN JOHNSON: Well there's an element where you take the regulatory approach. There's another side where you try to bring the industry along with you. If you don't you'll end up with a battle where people are looking at the lowest common denominator to comply with the law. They won't be looking at how we can all work together and government can't do this alone, to really tackle this problem of obesity.
JON SOPEL: What about the suggestion that you don't want to take on the food industry and that is something that the British Heart Foundation have more or less said, that you're frankly fearful of them.
ALAN JOHNSON: No, that's not true. You run this risk that you know, if you take a moderate view to bring people along with you - you take the issue of smoking, what government did, because we need to bring the public with us as well, we didn't jump to the regulatory approach of smoke-free environment which we introduced last July with great success.
If we'd have tried, if governments of different persuasions had tried to do that too early, we'd have found it wouldn't have worked. Now smoking is a really good example of a public health policy that's really delivered results, over the years, by approaching it in a way that is partly regulatory, and partly consensual and I think that's the way to go and you have to bring the public along with you, cos you can have all the food labeling systems under the sun - if the public don't understand it and don't use it and don't take any notice of it, then it won't have any effect.
JON SOPEL: Okay, let's talk about obesity in children because I think 16% of our children are now considered to be obese and the government has taken action. There's a ban on advertising of junk foods on specific children's programming, but of course we all know that children watch a lot of other programmes like, I don't know, Coronation Street, the X Factor, Saturday Night Takeaway, whatever it happens and there, you're getting a lot of adverts for junk foods, now why not just say, actually, no junk food advertising before the nine o clock watershed.
ALAN JOHNSON: Because I think that would be too drastic as a first step. A first step, and it's a very important first step which was introduced in January as you rightly say, is we ban food advertising from children's programmes, we look at the effect of that, which is what we've agreed to do, and the advertising industry have brought forward that review to the summer, which was initially going to be at the end of the year and then we look at the effects of that, we have an evidence base, before we move on to the next step.
There's lots of people who will say that the evidence from other countries suggests that this doesn't have an effect that it's actually damaging the industry and damaging the television industry, without having the desired effect on obesity.
JON SOPEL: You say that is too drastic, I'm struggling to understand the argument because if you're saying that obesity (interjection)
ALAN JOHNSON: as a first measure.
JON SOPEL: But you're saying, you've said - be quoted as saying that obesity is as serious as climate change. Well if it is as serious as climate change, then you need urgent measures. And you're saying, well, actually, let's go softly softly, build up consensus and then we'll inch forward.
ALAN JOHNSON: Incidentally, the issue of how climate change - it wasn't me saying that, it was the scientists who said that there are parallels with climate change. The most obvious one is you can reach a stage where there's a point of no return. Now we're going along with the scientists here, what the scientists say is that you have to work across government and you have to work with civil society as well to change attitudes and that's a lot more difficult than simply governments saying we are going to move immediately to draconian measures that force people to do things and could have a counter- productive element. So I'm not saying that we rule out more radical policies, I'm saying that we have to ensure we move on a basis that's evidence based and has the science and clinical evidence to support it.
JON SOPEL: I just wonder whether we could move to some of the wider political issues. How would you characterize the past few weeks for the Prime Minister.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well they've been difficult weeks, but there are always difficult weeks for Prime Ministers. Listen, I've been hanging about this political world for long enough to have seen the kind of attempted character assassination that we've seen on Blair, that we've seen on John Major, that we saw on Margaret Thatcher; this happens, it's part of being the Prime Minister.
And as far as what's happening at the moment with the international situation, not just the international situation in relation to the economic situation, but also as we've seen, the real problems with food shortages around the world - these are very difficult issues and they're world wide issues and I think, my view is if you want someone who's shallow and synthetic, you haven't got it in Gordon Brown, he won't be inviting the cameras in while he pours out the Shreddies for the kids. He won't tell you, you know, who he kissed behind the bike shed - what you'll get is a serious man for serious times.
JON SOPEL: But why are the poll ratings plummeting. I mean you've become less popular in a record short time than even Neville Chamberlain.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well, we've been through very difficult times and you can have a parallel with other leaders at other times. What you've got with Gordon is someone who's determined to tackle these very serious issues. And I think when we get round to talking not about personalities, but about policies, the kind of policies we'll be looking at in the London elections and in the elections across the country, about who's got the policies on climate change, on energy, security, on these fundamental issues - housing, that will affect people's lives, when we get round to that, you'll see the strength of Gordon Brown's politics, and you'll see the strength of this government.
JON SOPEL: Well, okay, talk about another policy. This is about extending the period that terrorist suspects can be held for forty two days. Jacqui Smith argues in the papers this morning it's needed. You get Keith Vaz, the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee saying, frankly, at the moment the government hold a majority for this.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well, there again, if you look at the history of this, we had seven days and the arguments against extending it were there every time. Now we've got to twenty eight days and we needed that to deal with at least three very serious plots. Now, I mean this argument will obviously reverberate around parliament over the coming weeks and months and we'll listen to all the various views.
But the view of government is we're not seeking to move to forty two days, we're keeping the twenty eight days in place, but we're saying that there will be cases where we'll need to move beyond that and with the involvement of the judiciary, with very, very important safeguards in place, we want to actually plan for that, not look at this after we've had a real problem in saying, we wished that that had been in place. So, it's about making difficult decisions in government.
JON SOPEL: Will the government get a majority on it.
ALAN JOHNSON: Yes, I think we will. I, I, I'm absolutely certain that we will. I think once we've talked all this through and once we've I mean you only have to look at the seven planes that were due to be blown up over the Atlantic, to see, as Jacqui Smith has said today, this is a very serious problem. We would only move beyond twenty eight days on the recommendations of the police, on the recommendations of the judge and there will be in very few cases, and exceptional cases, what I think that's necessary, given the complexity of the plots that we're trying to crack.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Alan Johnson, I want to take this back to where we started, which is on health and obesity and I want to see if you're living up to the governments billing on what we should be doing. Do you eat your five daily portions of fruit and veg.
ALAN JOHNSON: I do. I try very hard to. I don't want to be a smart Alan on this, a smart Alec or a smart Alan on this, but yeah, I try.
JON SOPEL: You've never exceeded the twenty one units of alcohol per week.
ALAN JOHNSON: I have but I'm trying to do something about that. It's important to get the message that five a day isn't five bottles of wine, it's five portions of fruit and veg.
JON SOPEL: That brought a laugh in the studio. Thirty minutes of exercise.
ALAN JOHNSON: Yeah, I try. I run, try and play tennis, I walk.
JON SOPEL: What a healthy model, health secretary
ALAN JOHNSON: I sound like a paragon of virtue.
JON SOPEL: Yeah, I'm sure if Ken Clarke, when he was Health Secretary was sitting here, I bet he wouldn't have given the same answer.
ALAN JOHNSON: He wouldn't no.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Alan Johnson, than you very much for being with us.
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The Politics Show Sunday 13 April 2008 at 1400 BST on BBC One.
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