On the Politics Show, Sunday 9 November 2008, Jon Sopel interviewed The Health Secretary, Alan Johnson
JON SOPEL: A little earlier I spoke to the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson. I began by asking him whether the Healthy Towns Initiative, was a strategy or a gimmick.
ALAN JOHNSON: Healthy Towns we're calling it. It's part of a, of a major initiative to tackle the problems of obesity; we can't ignore this problem, it's a problem for health services right across the world and we commissioned a report from some of our most eminent scientists, epidemiologists in particular, called the Foresight Report, earlier this year and they said, at the moment, two thirds of adults are either over-weight or obese and a third of children. If we do nothing, by 2050, that will be nine out of ten adults and two thirds of children and that will be an extra cost to the NHS of around fifty billion pounds, but more than that, it means a huge increase in deaths from cancer, cardio vascular disease, a huge flourishing of type two diabetes and nine years on average, of someone's life. Now any government seeing that would be irresponsible, just to say, well we're just going to let things roll.
JON SOPEL: And no one doubts the scale of the problem. I suppose people will wonder whether thirty eight million between nine towns is enough to deal with it. I mean is that going to address the problem.
ALAN JOHNSON: Yeah, but let's put this in context. This is part of a three hundred and seventy two million pound initiative, part of which is to look at what's happened in other countries. No country has successfully tackled this but some communities, notably in France and Finland, by being given the help and the go-ahead and the support to try new things, have come up with enormously important ideas. So Manchester, Dudley, seven other towns will - and they were, they were part of a hundred and forty different local authorities who bid for this, will try out these innovative ideas and if they work, other cities, other towns, other communities will adopt them.
JON SOPEL: So one idea is a loyalty card in Manchester where you get points and ultimately, then you get money. Doesn't that mean that the tax payer ends up buying you Nike trainers or a tennis racket.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well the taxpayer is paying the cost of the NHS and the taxpayer would be paying the extra fifty billion pounds cost of obesity, if we don't tackle these issues. Incentives, as have been shown in other communities, are a very important - one way to tackle this. Now in Dudley they're trying something completely different, it's about how you plan open spaces so that people can cycle, play and be more active but the basic message is it needs everyone, local authority, the planning department, the people who deal with the Highways, all just looking to ensure that you build the ability for people to lead healthy lives and be more active, in to their daily lives.
JON SOPEL: What about the free school meals pilot, will that be extended to the rest of England and will children be essentially forced to eat a school meal.
ALAN JOHNSON: No is the answer to the last question but look, here in Hull, we did this pre-Jamie Olivier, an initiative of the local Labour council, for free healthy school meals- breakfast, fruit mid morning, healthy lunch because we were tackling the problems of low educational attainment and high levels of obesity. Now the results, analyzed by Hull University, showed before the Lib Dem Council stopped it, to their shame, that we were actually seeing improvements in behaviour, improvements in educational attainment and that that those grouped healthy eating habits, were being carried back in to the home. Now what we're saying, myself and Ed Balls in Partner for Children and Families, is we want to look at four projects across the country for a bit longer, to see whether we get any further evidence that that's worth rolling out to other communities in a similar situation. I don't think that it will ever be ubiquitous, you know, we'll never cover the whole country. But I do think in communities with the kind of social make-up as we have in cities like Hull and Stoke on Trent and Nottingham, that this may well be worth rolling out but we'll see what the evidence produces.
JON SOPEL: You mentioned Jamie Oliver there but he pointed out to parliament this week that I think only five thousand of the countries a hundred and twenty five thousand dinner ladies have received a proper training, he called it pathetic.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well Jamie uses terms like that. I think he's done a, made a great contribution incidentally, Jamie Oliver and he's coming in to see me soon about the initiative he's taken in Rotherham, with the help of the local NHS by the way. I don't think it's pathetic incidentally, I think the money we've put in to ensuring that all the rubbish, the turkey twizzlers that Jamie Oliver famously identified, have been taken out of schools. That they've taken them out of vending machines in schools and incidentally, here in Hull, you're asking whether these meals will be compulsory, at the time we made those meals free to primary school pupils, we saw a huge increase in take-up and since the free school meals have been withdrawn, we've seen that take-up come down again.
JON SOPEL: You've offered a sum of money to councils to take part in free swimming to the young and the elderly. But as we're going to hear later on in some of the regional programmes, some councils, including your own in Hull are saying, they cannot afford to take part.
ALAN JOHNSON: Yeah. It's ludicrous, it's rubbish. We're providing the money for free swimming for under sixteens and over sixty from the centre. We asked local authorities to bid for it - the vast majority have said, we want this money for our citizens to benefit from this. A few, like a Lib Dem council here in Hull, are playing some kind of strange political game with this. We will listen to what they've got to say but the vast majority of local authorities say, this is great, this a way to build a very important activity, because swimming - it's probably one of the best exercises you can get in to people's lives. For the under sixteens and over sixties, I think it's a huge boost and the noises off stage from a few Lib Dem councils, doesn't detract from that.
JON SOPEL: A couple of other quick things before you go Mr Johnson. A report in one of today's Sunday newspapers, speaking about the Birmingham Children's Hospital, offering worst care than a hospital in a developing country. That's pretty damning isn't it.
ALAN JOHNSON: I'm very worried about that report but you know, let's get it in context. This is the Birmingham Children's Hospital that has some of the finest paediatricians in the country. It was the consultant paediatricians themselves who were drawing attention to a problem, as John Black, the head of the Royal College of Surgeons points out, there's no harm been done yet. They're talking about the possibility, if we don't tackle it.
The NHS commissioned the report, as a result of consultants coming to them. Early next week, the Health Care Commission, independently will look at this and I'll be keeping a close eye, because we do take these things seriously. But Jon, I know you'll appreciate this point, you know, the NHS treats a million people every thirty six hours. I'm glad that issues like this come up, but they shouldn't detract from the wonderful care that's provided right throughout the country, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.
JON SOPEL: Final thought on the week that Barack Obama has been elected. What more needs to be done in Britain, so that people from difficult backgrounds, not unlike your own, stand a chance to become Britain's Barack Obama.
ALAN JOHNSON: Well the first thing is, I think it's a victory for progressive politics and I thought it was a great day last week to see Barack Obama elected. I don't agree with Trevor Philips but I do think we need to look at our structures. We've got some people that have come through the system, Dawn Butler, David Lammy, Shahid Malik, Sadik Khan, from black, minority ethnic population but I was hearing things when I was running for Deputy Leader about sometimes the procedures to get through to be selected as a candidate are quite difficult for people from that kind of background. I think personally, that the short list for a vacant position, that people on the short list ought to reflect the community and the percentage of the community should be reflected on the short list. So I think we ought to look at that, but none of that should detract from the joy that many people who believe in progressive politics feel, having seen that magnificent victory this week.
JON SOPEL: Alan Johnson, thanks very much indeed.
ALAN JOHNSON: Thanks Jon.
END OF INTERVIEW
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