Deflating the Big Fat Lie with Big Fat Facts

Anna Soubry, Minister for Public Health, says she can tell somebody's background just by looking at their weight. Such claims are not evidence-based, they are prejudice-based, and shouldn't be allowed to inform policy.

Yesterday Anna Soubry, Minister for Public Health, made some comments. As is the fashion these days, they were directed at poor people. Or rather, they were directed at rich people, who like to read about poor people and nod along.

Soubry explained how she “can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight” when she walks around her constituency. She expressed surprise at the fact “there are houses where they don’t any longer have dining tables. They will sit in front of the telly and eat.” She spoke of her horror at seeing parents buying their children fast food and concluded that poor people should be more disciplined about teaching their children proper table manners.

The springboard for this tirade was a set of government figures which “showed that 24.3 per cent of the most deprived 11 year-olds in England were obese, compared with just 13.7 per cent of children from the wealthiest homes”. A highly selective sample – with no definition about what “most deprived” or “wealthiest homes” might include, looking at children of a very specific age.

In an unusual move, I shall try to intrude in this debate with – gasp! – some facts. An analysis of the most recent and most comprehensive set of figures, collated by the Department of Health, concludes that there is no obvious relationship between obesity and income. The groups with the lowest levels of obesity are poor men and rich women.

The dataset also strongly suggests that there is no obvious relationship between obesity and social class.

Now there is some evidence to suggest that there is a problem, specifically with children, looking at the same data. Currently 6.9 per cent of boys and 7.4 per cent of girls are obese - with the difference between the lower and higher classes 0.6 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively for boys and girls.

However, there is a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon between a study showing that a variation of values between 0.6 per cent and 1.5 per cent is beginning to emerge in children and the Minister for Public Health saying she can tell poor people's background just by looking at them because they're fat. And then going on to criticise them for not having dining tables – gosh, these people are animals!

It is not so long ago, I had to subsist on a bag of frozen fish fingers (40 for £2), two loaves of value bread (42p) and a bottle of cheap ketchup (31p) for twelve days. I remember it well. I remember the panic of running out towards the end and beginning to make my daily sandwich with three - not four – fish fingers, to make them stretch. So, when some affluent minister in a position of power, sits on her perfect Laura Ashley clad arse, in her perfect Laura Ashley dining room (paid for by our taxes), in her pink Laura Ashley life, and criticises me for not giving that splendid, nutritious meal the ceremony it deserves with a candlelit setting, I get very, very, very annoyed.

Soubry’s target is what she sees as bad parenthood and misinformed choices by poor people. Her comments about dining tables ignore the rising trend of limited affordable housing, with limited space in it, especially in urban areas. Her insufferable arrogance of condemning a parent buying their kid a MacDonalds, goes directly to her prejudice. Was it a rare treat? Was it a regular thing? Did she stalk this parent for a month to observe the family’s nutritional habits? Do you, when you make similar judgements?

The subtext of her solution – the only thing to do is speak to manufacturers – is steeped in the presumption that "these people are too thick to do the right thing, so we have to tackle it at the source".

Her understanding of the issues is derived from years of a sustained tabloid campaign to portray poor people as idle, fat, lazy, stupid, ignorant slobs, responsible for their own demise. And, possibly, a DVD box-set of The Royle Family. Once the premise is established in one's mind, of course, it is very easy to walk around a poor area and identify examples which confirm it. But that doesn't make it evidence and the policies which result from it are not evidence-based. They are prejudice-based.

For every poor fat woman she sees (and judges) on a high-street, there are two of regular weight, an undernourished person in the queue at the job center, an emaciated pensioner who has to chose between heat and food, and plenty of incredibly fit people who clean others’ houses and build others’ conservatories. Anna Soubry just notices them less. Perhaps she wants to. The evidence and statistics actually do not support her position. She is just airing her own anecdotes.

Critically, she does so, while her government dispenses with school dinners and closes health centres, public libraries and local swimming pools. Those are the real, the shocking facts, Ms Soubry.

There is conclusive evidence linking poverty to poor nutrition, which brings terrible health problems and a reduced life expectancy. So, in fact, the only way for Anna Soubry to effectively poor-people-spot would be to observe someone for a very long time and see if, having suffered insult and condescension by her miserable government at every turn, having had their public services pulled from under their feet and privatised, they then die relatively young of some horribly painful ailment.

Let's sort out the underlying problems, instead of further victimising their victims. Let's not become judgmental, twitchy-curtain neighbours, like Ms Soubry, and call it anything other than pure cruelty.


UPDATE – 25 January 2013

I watched Anna Soubry’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time yesterday evening. Her unwillingness to admit that her comments were wrong could only be characterised as wilful; her aggressiveness towards anyone who suggests otherwise as defensive.

She refutes data collected over a period of years, which is indeed capable of showing trends. Instead she chooses to look at data from only 2012 (a snapshot), from England only (a snapshot of a snapshot), on 11-year-old children (a snapshot of a snapshot of a snapshot) and apply it to all poor people of all ages in all areas, because that serves her narrative. If that is not the essence of prejudice, I don’t know what is.

Obesity has dozens of factors which are well established contributors. There is a statistically significant link, between race and obesity (for example, see figures 6 and 7 in this study). Applying Ms Soubry’s logic, it would be acceptable to say that almost all Black Caribbean people are fat. There is a statistically significant link between people with sedentary jobs and obesity (for example, see this report). Does this mean Ms Soubry can spot almost all office workers at the beach? There is evidence that working long hours and overtime may increase the risk of obesity (from a study conducted on nursing staff). Does it follow that Ian Duncan Smith can spot strivers by looking at their butts?

It is incontrovertible that deprivation is linked to malnutrition with all the health problems that may bring. One of them is being overweight. Another is being underweight. Another is having skin problems from vitamin deficiencies. Applying Ms Soubry’s logic, poor people must almost all be fat AND thin AND spotty. Also, almost nobody who is not poor is fat or thin or spotty.

I admire her motivation to tackle the food industry. The fact that she does not see the flaw in the logic of her damaging Daily Mail rhetoric, however, is deeply worrying.

Anna Soubry was just airing her anecdotes, not citing any actual evidence. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.