Fat benefits claimants told to go to the gym or face having have handouts taken away by local councilsThe initiative could see obese people prescribed activity sessions by GPsThey would be penalised if they failed to turn up or rewarded if they doWestminster City Council back report which could make 'significant' savings for the public purse

By
Matt Chorley, Mailonline Political Editor

PUBLISHED:

01:56 GMT, 3 January 2013

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UPDATED:

13:21 GMT, 3 January 2013

Obese benefits claimants have been warned they could lose handouts if they refuse to get fit.

GPs would prescribe exercise sessions to overweight patients who face punishment if they refuse to turn.

The idea has been drawn up by the Local Government Information Unit which says smart card technology could be used to track who is using council leisure facilities, and benefits could be docked for those who refuse to shape up.

Bigger picture: Obese benefits claimants who refuse to exercise could have their payments cut under plans being considered by Westminster City Council

Bigger picture: Obese benefits claimants who refuse to exercise could have their payments cut under plans being considered by Westminster City Council

The idea is being studied by councils Westminster City Council which says the 'potential improvements to the nation's health and to the public purse could be significant.'

From April local councils will become responsible for public health in their areas, and with government funding being cut town halls are under pressure to find ways to save money.

Linking the health of residents to their eligibility for helping paying housing and council tax bills would prove controversial, but could persuade some people to lose weight.

The LGIU report published today said councils could use existing information on who is using sports centres and swimming pools to track the health of the local population.

'The increasing use of smart cards for access to leisure facilities, for instance, provides councils with a significant amount of data on usage patterns,' the report said.

'Where an exercise package is prescribed to a resident, housing and council tax benefit payments could be varied to reward or incentivise residents.'

Tory-run Westminster council said a combination of ‘carrot and stick’ techniques would be needed to encourage people to exercise.

Philippa Roe, leader of Westminster council, said: 'Councils have a great opportunity to improve lives by thinking how public health can be integrated into existing local services. This can lead to savings being shared across the entire public sector.

'This report contains exactly the sort of bright, forward-thinking and radical ideas that need to be looked at. Local government needs to seriously start considering how it is going to manage public health before April arrives – it is only four months away.

'The potential improvements to the nation's health and to the public purse could be significant.'

Other suggestions considered in the report include reducing red tape for non-alcohol based social venues, to create a 24-hour ‘caf culture’.

Opportunity: Philippa Roe, Leader of Westminster Council says that councils have a great opportunity to 'improve lives by thinking how public health can be integrated into existing local services'

Opportunity: Philippa Roe, Leader of Westminster Council says that councils have a great opportunity to 'improve lives by thinking how public health can be integrated into existing local services'

But critics said the scheme would not be easy to implement.

Professor John Wass, of the Royal College of Physicians, said: ‘For people to lose weight, they must want to lose weight, and I have concerns about forcing the public to exercise. If we want to solve a problem this big, we need to look at the bigger picture.’

Alex Thomson, chief executive of the think-tank Localis, praised the idea as ‘localism in practice’, but said it discriminated against those who exercised outside council facilities.

‘And even if you check in to the pool how will they know if you just sit and have a latte in the caf instead’ he added.

Around half of British adults are overweight, and 17 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women are obese.

Obesity is one of the biggest strains on the health budget and costs 5.1billion a year, according to Department of Health estimates.

Dr Jonathan Carr-West, of the Local Government Information Unit, which co-wrote the report, said: ‘Helping people and communities stay healthy is a double win for local government. We can save money while helping citizens have better lives.

'The ideas in this paper are intended to stimulate and provoke. They won’t all be right for everyone but we hope they can lead a debate.’