Politicians need to do more to tackle the growing obesity problem

I was talking with social service experts at a conference the other day, trading health gossip as well as other, more high-minded traffic about the future of ageing humanity.

Someone told me for a fact that Cherie Blair is poised to stand for Parliament, which isn't true (I checked). More interestingly, I was also told that junior health minister Lord Darzi is not being treated as a proper health minister in the Lords because he's too busy Darzi-ing.

'They don't have a health minister now in the Lords. It's all being done by a whip, Baroness Royall,' I was assured. Imagine my surprise when I saw Lord Darzi at the dispatch box handling the Lords equivalent of health secretary Alan Johnson's statement on the Foresight report about obesity.

The Commons exchanges were a bit underwhelming, in a fast-emptying house after prime minister's question time. Reading both volumes of Hansard it is easy to think (yet again) that peers are often more on the ball, ageing or not.

In the Commons the health secretary was accused of gimmicks and a lack of consistency by his Tory and Lib Dem shadows, tall and thin Andrew Lansley and Norman (unfatty) Lamb. They condemned cuts in public health budgets and Lottery funds for sport, and much else - including U-turns on food labelling and abandonment of the policy to halve childhood obesity by 2010. For a free-market type, Mr Lansley can be quite bossy.

In vain did Comrade Alan cite cycle networks and schools' nutritional targets - all those 'five a day' fruit and veg kids. In vain did he protest that a 2020 target to reverse childhood obesity (to 2000 levels) is better than the discarded 2010 target. Oh no it isn't: it's just further away.

Peers covered much the same ground, but more rigorously: so many know more. Thus crossbencher Lord Krebs, an Oxford don and ex-chair of the Food Standards Agency, accused ministers of 'pressing the snooze button' and going back to sleep on obesity warnings. He called for much tougher and compulsory regulation of a reluctant food industry, as did others. A blindingly obvious point, I would have thought.

Considering the draconian steps we (rightly) take against hard drugs, you would have thought ministers could risk persecuting junk food and fatty bars at the supermarket checkout a little harder.

But Lord D took refuge behind Europe and said a compulsory regime would 'probably have to go through' Brussels, where, incidentally, Tory MEP and ex-MP John Bowis (a bit of a fatty, as I recall) has been campaigning to ban trans-fats.

Faced with complaints about conflicting advice to consumers, Lord Darzi praised the FSA-devised front-of-pack 'traffic light' warning system - used by Sainsbury's, Waitrose and M&S - in preference to the 'confusing' guideline daily amount system used by Tesco and Asda.

'We can do more,' he conceded after also skirmishing over bariatric gastric bypass surgery for which a National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence-approved queue of 60,000 is building up. It is the 'last resort' weight-loss option, said surgeon Darzi, who has done such ops. He warned against market-driven forces in the US.

That's the answer to my conference gossip, I think. The deal is that Lord Darzi is a proper, paid minister, but his load at the dispatch box will be shared with Lady Royall - Neil Kinnock's loyal chief of staff for many years - because a) he is busy with his review of hospital services and b) also using his awesome skills in the NHS whenever possible.

Thus Lords leader Lady Ashton deputed Royall to handle recent questions on food additives while Darzi dealt with obesity, where his expertise is needed. That seems OK to me, more so than when I hear on the radio that ministers are only 'considering' making their programme for weighing schoolkids more stringent - but 'no final decision has been taken'.

About time it was. MPs are right to say that most GPs are wrong to blame obesity on lack of will power. For many people the problem is much harder, although will power and personal responsibility always help. Comrade Alan is right: society does have a role. His role is to get much tougher. Now.