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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.