Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Insulting patients improves health, minister suggests

So, the BBC is reporting (with stock photo of "headless fatty", of course) that Anne Milton MP (Conservative, Guildford), the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health, is suggesting that the NHS should use the term "fat" rather than "obese".

The article has the typical "opposing" views of "It's a harsher term, which is better" and "It can be considered offensive, which is hardly productive for doctor-patient relationships". A third view of "I consider it a neutral description of what I am, and would much prefer to be called fat than the negative overweight or obese." doesn't get a look into the article.

I'd had some hopes that the new government was going to drop some of the previous government's panic about the "obesity crisis". Sadly not (while the Minister was speaking in a personal capacity, her opinions presumably indicate something about how she thinks her department should be run). She talks about "personal responsibility", which completely ignores the social and especially class-based issues regarding access to good food or exercise, and the genetic diversity of body shapes.

As is usual for assumptions that are embedded so deep into the majority culture that they can barely be spotted, this makes absolutely no sense with even cursory thought. The Minister's contention is that people will take more "personal responsibility" for their weight if they are told about it in terms they find insulting.

Let's falsely assume that:

  • All patients will in fact find "fat" more insulting than "overweight" and "obese".
  • There is a general health benefit to be gained from weight loss. While some health conditions are more common in heavier people some are more common in lighter people, and the overall effect on life expectancy is basically zero. Some people might benefit from losing weight. Other people of the same weight might not.
  • There is a way to cause long-term weight loss that doesn't have side effects worse than the health benefits of weight loss to this person. In other words, there's a "personal responsibility" that people can usefully take in the first place.

Even with those assumptions the idea that intentionally insulting your patients makes it more likely that they will follow your advice (as opposed to avoiding doctors entirely, or for those with sufficient privilege and luck finding a doctor who was awake in the "bedside manner" classes) is absurd.

Doctors have been advised to call their mountain-climbing patients 'sky-heads' to try to encourage them to avoid the hobby.

Patients will find "sky head" more insulting than "mountain climber". Even though they've never heard the term before because I just made it up. Mountain climbing generally increases health risks, and most people can easily choose not to do it. Nevertheless, no-one's going to suggest this approach.

Even for other cases where slurs previously existed related to a medical condition (plenty of disablist slurs to choose from here) or health-risk-increasing activity (lots of insulting terms for people addicted to drugs, for instance) it's not usual for ministers to hold up doctors who use them to their patients' faces as examples of best practice, as if there's some sort of debate to be had over whether it's a good idea.

(Ministers have other more socially acceptable ways to harm disabled people, drug users, and so on, which they'll use instead)

Yet another demonstration of how not only the "fat as super-dangerous" narrative is embedded, but also how the "fat-shaming is good" narrative is embedded.

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Sunday, 25 July 2010

I'll believe it when I see it

[trigger warning]

The Telegraph is reporting that "Coalition plans to give anonymity to men accused of rape are to be abandoned".

Well, maybe. The report is based on this speech by Crispin Blunt MP in which he says:

[...] it was agreed on both sides of the House when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 went through Parliament that all people charged with offences ought to have their identity protected until the point of charge. That is the guidance that the Press Complaints Commission put into effect in 2004. There is an issue around the strength of that guidance and, as I said in the debate 12 days ago, we are not satisfied that it is strong enough. We want in the first instance to try to find a non-statutory solution [...]

I don't think this is an abandoning of the plans as such. It doesn't surprise me that they want a non-statutory solution, since it was made clear that they probably didn't have the votes for it. The coalition has a majority. The male coalition MPs (not all of whom support this either) do not on their own form a majority. They might still want to do it, but they're not going to risk "government defeated in Parliament" headlines over it while the opposition to it is so strong.

It probably doesn't have universal support even in the Cabinet, which may be where the talk of "fairly free" votes is coming from.

I can't find the Press Complaints Commission guidance referred to - this one is close but not the right one. At any rate, they could ask the media to self-regulate, it could refuse (though contempt of court laws make most of the pre-trial reporting that might cause problems somewhat risky for journalists)

Given that there are so few cases reported, naming a suspect, pre-charge (or indeed pre-trial) this would however provide the coalition with an easy way out. They can talk to the PCC, the PCC can bring out some guidance, the papers can ignore the guidance (because the PCC has no useful enforcement power), hardly anyone will actually be named in reports pre-charge anyway (because they aren't being at the moment) and the government can claim victory for doing nothing.

The Telegraph also notes:

The MoJ had planned to bring out a report this week giving statistics on false allegations of rape – the main reason put forward by campaigners for letting men charged with serious sexual offences remain anonymous

This appears to be the promise of the report, which was supposed to contain "an independent assessment of the current research and statistics on defendant anonymity in rape cases". That's not what the Telegraph reports it as being, though. Either way, it's not surprising that it's been delayed while they look for actual evidence.

Parliament returns from recess in September, so it should definitely be available after that. The contents of the report will probably be a far better indication than the Telegraph article of what the coalition really intends.

Given that the government so far has not managed to get its Ministers to give consistent answers - it will be for all sexual offences - it will be for rape only - it will be until conviction - it will only be until charge - it will be legislated on soon - it will be a "fairly free" vote but not soon - it will not be a matter for legislation - then I'm not going to take the anonymous sources and inferences from speeches as a definite sign that it will be abandoned either.

It might be a "U-turn", or it might just be more of the coalition's total lack of coherence on the issue. Either is good news, of course.

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Friday, 23 July 2010

Friday Links

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Only in a very narrow sense is this not a gender issue

[trigger warning]

"This isn't a gender issue" was a sentiment expressed a few times during the defendant anonymity debate.

As with many simple assertions, whether or not it's accurate is something that depends on what definitions you are using.

Firstly, looking at the numbers, estimated from the British Crime Survey and from Kelly, Lovett and Regan, the chance of being a victim of rape is considerably higher than the chance of being a victim of a false accusation for both government-recognised genders.

For adult women, the annual chance1 of being raped is approximately one in 375, and the annual chance of being falsely accused is basically zero. 2.

For adult men, the annual chance of being raped is approximately one in four thousand, and the annual chance of being falsely accused is at most one in 120 thousand (the chance of being charged as a result is at most one in 2.4 million, which is realistically the first time one's name might appear with the case in the press).

So for both government-recognised genders the plan is intended to protect a very small number of people (no women, and probably no falsely-accused men either) at the expense of a much larger group. In that very limited sense, it's not a gender issue, it's just a truly terrible idea.

On the other hand, the proposed law will also protect rapists, who are (to within rounding errors) all male. The studies cited in Lisak's summary suggest that around 6% of men3 will commit rape at least once (with serial rapists being more usual).

In that sense, it's very definitely a gender issue. The rapists the proposed law would protect are all men. Around 90% of the rape victims the proposed law would harm are women. A law doesn't have to say that its effects only apply to one gender for it to have a disproportional effect on people of that gender.

The most convincing proof that this is a gender issue, however, is to look at who is talking about it. For something that wasn't a gender issue, you'd expect that the proportion of people taking a particular side would not be dependent on gender.

Here's - up until the start of this week - the gender balance of those speaking for and against the issue in the House of Commons (the balance in the Lords is similar, but the numbers involved on either side are much smaller)

I'm including written questions and answers in this where they are relevant, and am counting all seven of the MPs in the coalition negotiations as "Against" (or one of them would have picked it up). Some of the judgements, especially around the "Neutral" category, are a little subjective, so don't be surprised if you get slightly different results on recounting.

Numbers, and percentage of MPs of that gender
For0 (0%)15 (3%)
Neutral3 (2%)5 (1%)
Against24 (17%)6 (1%)

In EDM signatures, 38% of the women in the Commons have so far signed EDM105, but only 9% of the men. Of the Labour MPs, 65% of the women have signed, but only 26% of the men.

In the media, and in debates on the internet, the picture is much the same. When women write about the issue, they are nearly all opposed to the proposals. When men write about the issue, opinions are more split, but a significant majority are in favour.

If it wasn't an issue that had significantly different effects on different genders, that would be very unlikely to happen, especially to the highly visible extent that it has. The support numbers of course mean that in a gender-balanced Parliament this proposal would get nowhere, which is yet another clue that it is definitely a gender issue.

1 Setting out an average risk for the millions of adult women in the UK is not necessarily particularly meaningful, of course. There are several groups particularly at risk from rapists for whom the chance of being attacked by one will be much higher.

2 It's probably safe to say that while it's not impossible, the number of women accused specifically of rape (as opposed to other serious sexual offences) in most years will be zero. The number of false accusations will be even smaller.

3 This means that, assuming undetected rapists are no more or less likely to enter politics than anyone else, there are approximately 30 undetected rapists sitting as MPs in the Commons, and another 30 undetected serious sexual offenders. In other words, an MP is statistically more likely to be an undetected serious sexual offender than they are to be a Liberal Democrat. No wonder it's difficult to get anti-rapist legislation through Parliament.

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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

An initial attempt at quantification of harm: hundreds to one

[trigger warning]

In previous posts (one, two, three) I tried to quantify how many falsely-accused suspects would actually be helped by the reporting restrictions.

Because it's so rare for a false accusation to lead to a trial, before which press reporting naming a suspect is extremely rare, the upper bound is probably around one person every three years, and the actual figure may well be significantly lower.

In exchange for this, how many does it directly harm by reducing the methods available to the police to gather information or identify a suspect.

Reporting restrictions between arrest and charge probably won't cause a problem in practice. Suspects can only be detained for 24 hours (36 with senior authorisation) without charge, which means that by the time the press deadlines come round, they'll probably either have been charged or released. If charged, the restrictions no longer apply. If released, the press are unlikely to report anything for fear of contempt of court and/or libel cases.

Before arrest, however, there might be more of a problem. I searched Nexis for cases in the past 12 months where an e-fit had been released and reported in the press or other media (among other similar anonymity-removing detection methods). I found 9 distinct cases, some reported multiple times. In at least one of these cases a conviction was secured.

Allowing for the possibility of cases where a description was reported but not an e-fit (and so the search didn't find the report), and where the suspect has not yet been caught and convicted but will be in future, this seems to give 1 a year as a reasonable lower bound on the number of rapists caught and convicted through these methods, with the actual number likely to be higher.

If only between 10% and 15% of rape victims make a report, and only around 4% of rapes are reported, this means that the average convicted rapist is likely to have committed many more rapes or other serious sexual offences before being caught. Weinrott and Sayler (1991) suggests that the mean number of rapes committed is around 10 times the number charged for, and some of the previous studies they reference suggest a higher value.

This is not surprising - the combination of low reporting rate (for which there are very good reasons, by the way) and the high attrition rate (for which many of the reasons are not good) means that the justice system selects for the most prolific serial rapists in its convictions. (And then sometimes gives them lenient sentences and lets them go to commit more crimes, but that's a topic for another time).

So, we can probably assume that by successfully imprisoning a particular serial rapist, we not only get justice for their previous victims, but also prevent numerous other victims of rape, other sexual assaults, and other non-sexual crimes (consistent with Lisak and Miller, Weinrott and Sayler found that these convicted rapists had also committed numerous non-sexual crimes).

So, if the coalition's proposals prevent the use and press reporting of e-fits, the proposals as a whole will protect one victim of false accusations every three years at best, and allow at best tens of additional crimes.

In other words, in the absolute best-case scenario, for every person this proposal helps, hundreds of people will be harmed1. Anyone voting for it or supporting it must be held fully accountable for that harm.


If the proposed law ends up worded such that it avoids this problem and allows the police and press to continue co-operating as they do on distributing information about wanted criminals, then it is vanishingly unlikely to directly do anything at all.

Indirectly it will still contribute to rape myths and rape culture (though the effect of this will be harder to quantify) and should still be opposed even in that case.

1 Since some of these harms will be relatively minor non-sexual offences, and some of them will be rapes, it's probably not even worth trying to determine how severe the harm prevented versus harm allowed is beyond the number of victimisations.

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Monday, 12 July 2010

A more ineffective law would be hard to design

I had another "yet another way these proposals make no sense whatsoever" realisation today.

[trigger warning]

The coalition's proposals are to introduce reporting restrictions up to the point of charge, for the crime of rape only.

So, if someone is arrested, but not charged, it will not be legal to report on this. The same applies, here and below, to people suspected/questioned/investigated but not [yet] arrested by the police.

It will be legal, however, if they are arrested for assault by penetration, sexual assault, or any of the other numerous serious sexual offences defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

So, in the case where the press wants to report that someone was arrested but not charged with rape, they only need to report on it as being arrested but not charged with sexual assault, which will also be true1. So in that situation the law2 is utterly useless.

There's a further oddity which is that the police might arrest someone on suspicion of assault by penetration. The press could entirely legally report this2, and if after gathering more evidence while the suspect was arrested, it was decided to place a charge of rape, then the press could also legally report this, but it would perhaps have become retrospectively illegal to make the report about the arrest.

Conversely, if you say that anonymity applies for anyone arrested who might potentially be charged with rape, well, that's anyone who is arrested (they might, in the process of being questioned on suspicion of fraud, admit to rape and be charged with that instead or as well). If you wait until they're released, then it's technically true that they were arrested but not charged with rape and again the law2 either covers everyone or no-one.

You get the same problems, incidentally, for larger lists of crimes, since there'll always be a crime on the edge of the list for which there's a nearby crime outside the list which is an alternative possibility, but with the number of crimes that are similar enough to rape to also be colloquially called rape, the impossibilities become more obvious.

1 Because penetration is explicitly defined as also being touching (in the legal sense), it's not actually possible to commit rape without also committing sexual assault. Similarly, because a penis is a part of the rapist's body, in many cases rape will also be assault by penetration. So anyone arrested on suspicion of rape has also been arrested on suspicion of sexual assault by definition.

2 Where I refer to "the law" here, I mean the specific change to the law proposed now by the coalition. There are other laws. Prejudicing a future trial by releasing information that might not be evidence made available to the jury, or which might make the jury more or less likely to believe other bits of evidence, can lead to a contempt of court charge. Other reporting not protected by reporting privilege surrounding a case might lead to a libel charge. It's hardly surprising that the number of cases reported on in any identifying detail before they reach court is very small.


It's becoming quite clear that the law as now proposed is unlikely to make any changes whatsoever to what actually gets reported in the press with the exception of situations where the police want the public's help to track down a suspect. (I'm going to take a closer look at that situation soon.)

If that was also amended out, that would mean the law probably did absolutely nothing in practice. However, it's still worth opposing, because the principle of it, the decision to prioritise rapists3 over their victims, is still utterly abhorrent.

3 A law so comprehensively ineffective at helping those accused of rapes they didn't commit can hardly be said to be prioritising their needs. It might, however, because of the reinforcement of rape culture inherent in the law, help the rapists.

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Friday, 9 July 2010

Friday Links

Finally, because it's been a long week: Meerkat groups have 'traditions' (the science reporting isn't great, but the cute meerkat pics mean for once I'll overlook that)

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The big anonymity debate in Parliament

[trigger warning]

The big debate on rape defendant anonymity was yesterday. The transcript is now out. There's still time to sign the petition or write to your MP, among other actions.

I've updated both the timeline and the common bad arguments post.

On the debate itself...

There's been a lot written about this debate elsewhere, including

Simon Hughes MP (Lib Dem, Bermondsey & Old Southwark) made various interventions such as this one, suggesting that it was the means and method rather than the name that would be useful in catching serial rapists.

Does the hon. Lady agree that, as the police say, it is often not the name or physical identity or picture of the suspect that brings people forward but the knowledge of the method of operation? I speak as the MP of John Worboys, who operated as a cab driver. The knowledge that the offender was a cab driver was enough to encourage others to come forward. It could be knowledge that the person committing the offence usually climbs through a window at 1 o'clock in the morning. The point is that is often the operation, not identity, that is important.

For "stranger" rapists this is probably true. For the more common acquaintance rapists, Lisak and Miller found that the methods used were so similar that it wouldn't really help. If police released a report that someone was behaving in a manner of the typical serial predators they described, then either thousands of victims would come forward, naming a wide range of rapists who vaguely matched that description, or more likely none would.

I don't doubt that it's a valuable method for catching certain serial rapists, but as the only available method it might not be so useful.

Aidan Burley MP (Conservative, Cannock Chase) makes a speech that is basically a long repetition of this bad argument. This was his first speech in the Commons. For his constituents' sake it will hopefully also be his last.

Caroline Flint MP (Labour, Don Valley) makes an excellent speech later in the debate that contains this rebuttal to that argument.

Equality before the law does not and cannot mean identical treatment for defendant and complainant. There is a vast array of ways in which the criminal justice system already, and rightly, treats defendants and complainants differently. Both should be treated fairly, but that does not mean identically; if that were the case, presumably we would no longer afford the defendant the advantage of the burden of proof, and complainants would have to be held on bail or in custody before their case came to court. The suggestion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why victims of rape are given anonymity in the first place, and that has been expressed very eloquently by colleagues in today's debate.

Finally, Robert Buckland MP (Conservative, South Swindon). He makes some good points - that the debate should be about "reporting restrictions", which is what they are, rather than "anonymity", which gives a highly misleading impression. He also says some things that are not so useful.

I will give the House a simple example. Where the act took place can often be a powerful indicator of whether consent or the lack of it can be proved. For example, if the act took place on a floor or an area that would not be consistent with consent, scientific evidence can often help to prove a case, particularly if the defendant and the complainant disagree about where the particular act of intercourse or sexual misconduct took place.

He goes on to make a good point about how police should be doing a better job of treating the places where rapes took place with the care they would treat other crime scenes, but is he really trying to say that the floor is definitionally inconsistent with consent?

Slightly later, saying that the decision on anonymity should be left to the judge, he says:

It would also allow a properly informed judge, faced with an unmeritorious application from a defendant who perhaps did not deserve the protection of reporting restrictions as much as someone of good character, to make a decision based on all the information before them.

Given that "of good character" is usually a euphemism for "white, male and middle-class", I'm not sure this would be a good addition to the process. There are already enough problems with judges treating domestic violence cases as not particularly serious (the tea poisoner, for instance)

Later on he intervenes to ask

The hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there is a trade-off between the effect on an innocent person and rape being undetected and victims not being served by the system, is he?

Geraint Davies MP (Labour, Swansea West) gives the obvious reply that of course there is a trade-off. The harder you make it to convict defendants, the more innocent defendants will be acquitted (or not charged, or not arrested), but clearly too the more guilty defendants will escape justice and often go on to commit crimes against more victims.

This is why I don't believe "it is better to acquit 100 guilty suspects than to convict a single innocent one". If you convict an innocent one, you've created one victim, plus however many additional victims the real offender then causes. If you acquit 100 guilty ones, that creates many more victims. I'm not sure where the balance should lie, but one could probably work out the victim-minimising ratio for any particular crime based on the amount of serial offenders.

General lessons

One very useful thing about this debate, apart from exposing some discontent from at least some coalition backbenchers (mainly the women: have I mentioned that a gender-balanced parliament would almost by definition make better decisions?), is that it sets out exactly what the government intended that line in the coalition agreement to mean.

  • Reporting restrictions
  • For the crime of rape only
  • Up until charge

Up until charge means that the number of people falsely accused who will actually be protected by this is tiny - reporting in the press pre-charge is extremely rare indeed. I stand by my estimate of one every 3-4 years, based on Kelly, Lovett and Regan - and the Ministers have accepted that the false reporting rate is not higher than 10%, which makes the KLR data for the actual number of named suspects usable - and on the Daily Mail sample that Hannah Mudge put together.

For the crime of rape only gets an extension to this particular bad argument, because as several MPs pointed out from all sides during the debate, this makes no sense. If the consequences of an accusation of rape are so serious, why are they so much more serious than a range of other violent sexual offences, some of which are clearly viewed as more serious by the public, and others of which get colloquially but not legally called rape as well.

Next debates to watch out for

Justice is back for questions on 20 July, and Equalities on 22 July, so probably there will be more questions asked there.

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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Writing to the government

Some letters I've sent recently regarding recent issues. Specifically:

Letters below.

[trigger warning]

As usual, please feel free to use these for inspiration for your own letters, though remember that letters in your own words are more powerful than copies of other letters, if you have the time and energy to do so.

Regarding RASASC

I sent this by email to

Dear Mr Fisher,

You have recently announced that the funding for RASASC, the Croydon Rape Crisis Centre, will be cut by 27,000 pounds a year. This is a significant amount for a rape crisis centre, and it is likely to lead to the centre being unable to support hundreds of rape victims a year.

As the only rape crisis centre for the London area, the service it provides to victims is invaluable, and the effects of reducing its funding will spread well outside your own Council's boundaries. By running a helpline, supporting survivors of rape through counselling and through legal assistance at trials, it not only provides a vital public service, but provides a highly cost-effective way for your Council to support victims of crime.

The government have promised to improve the funding provided centrally for rape crisis centres, but it is not clear when - or even if - this promise will be fulfilled. Until then, it is necessary that others such as your Council play their part in keeping these services open. With thousands of rapes occurring in London each year, RASASC's ability to help additional victims is crucial.

Please restore RASASC's funding.

Yours sincerely,


Letters regarding children's weight

I sent this using the contact form on the Department of Health's website.

Dear Andrew Lansley MP, Health Secretary

I understand that you are looking for programmes run by the NHS and other health providers within your remit that could be reduced or eliminated without impacting the quality of front-line service.

I would like to suggest the sending of letters regarding the weight category of children, which is carried out as part of the National Child Measurement Programme. While the general aims of that programme are not in question, and the statistical data it gathers is perhaps worth much more to your department than the cost of gathering it, this particular application is not a good use of limited resources.

There have been a few reported cases - for example one last February reported at and one recently reported at - where letters telling parents that their child is overweight and warning of dire consequences, have been sent out to the parents of children who were physically active, eat healthily, and nevertheless happen to be marginally above the guidelines set out by the previous government for a person's required weight.

It is extremely likely that these cases are only the tip of the iceberg and there are many more letters being sent out in similar circumstances. The mechanism used to determine who gets the letters guarantees this.

Firstly, the letters are sent out based on Body Mass Index. This measure was developed as a way of providing a statistical estimate across a wide population of adults. It has never been appropriate to use as an individual measure, has not necessarily coped well with the increase in average height over the century since its introduction, fails to account for normal racial and sexual variations between individuals, and other forms of normal genetic variation, fails to distinguish between fat and muscle mass, and certainly was never intended to apply to children, whose shapes vary considerably and rapidly as they grow, especially in early puberty when the second set of measurements for the NCMP takes place.

Secondly, the children in regard of whom these letters are being sent are at a young and impresssionable age. It may have been the aim of the previous government in introducing these letters to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits to start early. In practice, of course, the effect can be quite the opposite - the child in the second article above refused to eat their meal when they discovered that - as is of course natural and desirable for growing children - their weight had increased since the NCMP measurement. This is something that could very easily turn into a serious eating disorder.

Thirdly, the science regarding weight is inexact. Multiple research studies - Orpana et al 2009 in Canada (doi:10.1038/oby.2009.191), Lenz et al 2009 in Germany (doi:10.3238/arztebl.2009.0641), or the NHANES studies in the USA (Flegal et al 2005) have shown that - at least in Western industrial societies - the mortality risk of people with a BMI in the 25-35 range is not statistically different to that of those in the current government-recommended 18-25 range (indeed, there may be a marginally lower risk for those in the so-called "overweight" 25-30 range). This is the research for adults, suggesting that the BMI guidelines set out by governments for them may not be correct. There is no similar research I know of for children - because, regardless of their weight, children very rarely die of weight-associated conditions other than eating disorders - but it seems very unlikely that the BMI guidelines set for them are correct either.

Fourthly, even if increased weight is correlated with an increase in risk for various health conditions, and even if that correlation is causative, which has generally not been shown, there remains no reliable long-term method for reducing weight in the long term. The few 5-year follow-up studies that have been done show that dieting is ineffective. Exercise certainly improves general health, but does not appear to cause weight loss. Early indications are that the surgeries currently being trialled have a greater chance of causing early death than any of the health conditions associated with above-average weight.

As you have gathered, I would like to see a general move away from the overemphasis of the crude BMI measure, and from the excessive conflation of weight and health carried out by previous governments, in general.

For now, however, I would appreciate it if the money used to produce and send these letters was reallocated into other more useful areas of your department's activities.

Yours sincerely,


Equality Act exceptions

And finally this one to the Equalities Office general enquiries address, to see what they know. I'll post up the response if I get one.

Dear Government Equalities Office,

I have a number of questions regarding the Equality Act 2010, that are not answered by the explanatory notes provided. Could you please provide me with the Goverment Equalities Office's current opinions on these matters.

The wording of Section 12 is not completely clear to me. While the application of legislation would ultimately be a matter for the courts, does the Government Equalities Office believe that this section would protect those people who identify as asexual (i.e. they are not sexually interested in people of any gender) as well as the bisexual, heterosexual and homosexual people that it more obviously protects?

In the areas of dual discrimination (Section 14), the protected characteristics of "marriage" and of "pregnancy" are excluded. Does this mean that an organisation that did not in general discriminate against people who were married, and did not in general discriminate against women, would still be allowed to discriminate against married women? If so, could you outline a situation where it would be desirable for this to be legal for an organisation to do?

The same characteristics are excluded from Section 26 (harassment). Could you outline a situation where the harassment (as defined in 26b) of a person or persons due to their marital status or pregnancy would be desirable, please?

In Sections 29.8, 33.6, 34.4, 35.4, 85.10, and 103.2, sexual orientation and relgious belief are excluded from the Section 26 harassment prohibition. For each of these situations, could you explain why it might be both necessary and desirable for a relevant organisation to carry out harassing behaviour against LGB people or people of a particular religion?

Section 85.10 also allows harassment on the grounds of gender identity. Again, please could you outline a situation where this is desirable?

Section 85.10 applies to the admission and treatment of primary and secondary pupils. Section 91, which covers the treatment of students in Further and Higher Education, does not contain a similar exception. Could you explain why it is not necessary for tertiary education providers to be allowed to harass LGBT applicants, given that this is apparently necessary for primary and secondary education providers?

Section 95 states that the chapter on General Qualifications Bodies does not apply to marriage or civil partnership. In what case would a qualifications body wish to do make use of this (for example by withdrawing qualifications from people when they were married) and why is it required?

With regard to the above questions, if the Government Equalities Office cannot provide an example of a situation in which a particular exception would be desirable, could you tell me if there are any current plans by the government to remove that exception.

Thank you

Yours faithfully


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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Computer says "lose weight, fatty"

[trigger warning]

The government continues its campaign to give every child their very own unhealthy relationship with food. The complaints about their plan only make the news - as in this case from February, or this one yesterday - when the child is fit and active and only just above the threshold at which the letters are triggered, but of course that doesn't mean that the letters actually make sense.

According to this earlier article [trigger warning: full of unchallenged fat hatred], letters are sent out to parents after measurements of 4-5 year old children and later of 10-11 year old children.

As a general principle, the National Child Measurement Programme is a good idea. Getting this sort of broad statistical information - and being able to compare it across years and decades - lets you track changes in the population and adjust accordingly (by making door frames taller as height increases, for instance)

This particular application of it, on the other hand, is absolutely terrible.

There are so many things wrong with the idea it's hard to know where to start, but for example:

  1. BMI was designed as a population statistic measure. Since it's being used in a population statistics assessment, that's not unreasonable. However, it was never designed to be applied to individuals and has a number of extensively documented flaws for those who try.
  2. Among those flaws is that it is designed for adult humans rather than the rapidly varying body shapes of children in early puberty or pre-puberty growth. Even if it was semi-meaningful for adults, it makes no sense for children at all.
  3. Children tend to gain weight in early puberty anyway, which then often gets converted into energy to gain height later on. That's what's supposed to happen.
  4. The letters seem to be sent out based on a point cut-off. So in the February article, we have:

    ... said that for a young girl, this meant she was 1% outside the healthy category and could be at risk of heart disease and cancer.

    There is not - obviously to anyone with any grasp of anatomy, medicine, or even basic statistics - any sudden step change in risks as you cross the arbitrary and suspiciously round number of the heavy edge of the government-mandated weight zone. (It's furthermore - as I've mentioned previously - not even clear that the risk gradient is upwards at this point). It's a hopelessly broken idea anyway, but applying this sort of step cut-off is absurd.
  5. Equating health with weight and nothing else is as usual totally wrong, which is just obvious enough that the "but my child does ten different forms of regular exercise" stories make the news, but not quite obvious enough in UK culture that the rest of the logical conclusions get made.
  6. As usual, it's going to completely ignore anyone who can't exercise for whatever reason, whether that is disability, a lack of local facilities, lack of time, or something else.
  7. While there is a correlation in older adults between weight and some health conditions, it's not yet been shown that there the weight causes the conditions: for many it's more plausibly a symptom. Furthermore, of course, there's no known correlation between weight as a child and gaining these conditions in later life, certainly no correlation between weight as a young child and childhood incidence of these conditions, and people's body shapes and BMIs gradually change - sometimes quite significantly - over the years anyway.
  8. The advice given, as the articles make clear, is going to be counter-productive. Exercise is all very well, but only for those people who can actually do it. Putting children on diets - or worse, permanent "weight-loss" surgery - will usually actively harm them, either through childhood malnutrition (which is strongly correlated with a bunch of nasty health conditions), or causing an eating disorder, or both).

I wonder if the coalition could be tempted into making an "efficiency saving" in the NHS and stopping sending out these letters. At about 1.8 million children in the relevant age bands, "most" of whom are surveyed and presumably receive a letter, that's potentially quite a bit of money saved.

Making a rough guess that the cost of sending the letter, not counting any costs that would have been incurred by the useful bits of the programme, is about £1 for the envelope, bulk postage rate, paper, printer ink, additional wear and tear on equipment, and staffing costs, that's around 1 million pounds a year that could be spent on either hospital equipment and staff, or on an effective and useful public health initiative.

The coalition so far hasn't said much on the "obesity epidemic" and neither party mentioned it in their manifestos. The Health Secretary rightly criticises the approach of Jamie Oliver, which seems to have been as counterproductive here as when he was temporarily exported to the USA. So perhaps there's a chance that this policy could be dropped.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Why is this still legal? The Equality-on-a-good-day Act

Why is this even legal? According to the BBC:

Residents of Firhall, built in the early Noughties on the outskirts of Nairn in the Highlands, must abide by certain rules. The deeds for their properties prohibit the keeping of ducks, rabbits, pigeons and bees. Households are allowed to have one dog - but controversially no resident children. To own a house in Firhall you must be over 45 years old. Grandchildren and the children of friends can visit and stay, but there are even limits on how often this happens.

It's not the only thing that's surprisingly legal, either. So much for the grand claims that the Equality Act would protect those most vulnerable to discrimination.

Looking at the Equality Act 2010, this appears to be entirely legal:

4 [...] The following characteristics are protected characteristics [...] age [...]

Part 4: Premises [...] 32.1 [...] This Part does not apply to the following protected characteristics [...] age

Looking at section 17, the terms would be unenforcable for the first 26 weeks of a child's life if their mother was already there, but that's all. (Of course, it would be relatively rare for a mother over the age of 45 to be living there, but not impossible). Otherwise, they seem to be within the exceptions the law provides.

Another unpleasant exception in this section, that I found in my "how is this possibly legal" search - you are allowed to harass people occupying or applying to occupy (as tenants) on the grounds of their sexual orientation or religion.

There's a similar but slightly broader exception in the Education section (which only applies to schools, not to FE colleges and Universities1), the same exception in the Provision of Services section, and in the membership of associations section.

So Labour and the Lib Dems get an LGB-friendly reputation for supporting this legislation (the Lib Dems, to be fair to them, did attempt to amend some of these bits out), which mostly seems to consist of "You must supply these services to LGB2 people, but you can '[create] an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for [them]' as much as you like in the process."

Additionally, neither "marriage and civil partnership" nor "pregnancy and maternity" are characteristics to which the harassment section applies at all.

There were some good bits in the Equality Act that hadn't been there before, such as the pay audits and the recognition of the existence of intersectional discrimination, and it's not as if by having these exceptions it was removing protections that previously existed, but it still hardly deserves the name. It's not as if this was a drafting error and an unnoticed loophole was left in until it was too late to take it out (though that, in its casual disregard, would be bad enough) - because of the way the Act is worded, someone had to specifically insert these exceptions.

Additionally, you can use these terms to push a lot of other things through. The Act doesn't say how wide an age group has to be, so you can legally say "Sorry, I don't rent to people who were born on 3rd April 1972 between 2am and 2:30am", and provided you then apply that rule consistently to later default tenants, you have a perfectly legal reason3 not to rent to any non-default person you like.

Other things that are entirely legal under the Act and really shouldn't be (or at least, if there is a real need for an exception, it should be the exception that is legal, not the rule):

  • Pregnancy and maternity, and marriage/civil partnership, are excluded from the intersectional discrimination laws. So discrimination against all married people is disallowed, and discrimination against all women is disallowed, but discrimination only against married women is apparently fine (barring explicit exceptions elsewhere in legislation, of course)
  • Refusing to provide a service to married and civilly-partnered people. (You can't, at least, just pick one and sneak in some homophobia) Similarly for single people.
  • Same things for premises
  • Same things for education (yes, your university can refuse to provide an education for single and/or unofficially partnered people, and I have no idea why, and likewise a qualifications board can legally withdraw qualifications from people when they get married/civilly-partnered, though what possible reason4 they'd have to want to I don't know)
  • Additionally, the exception for harassment in schools applies to gender identity as well as the sadly usual pair of sexual orientation and religion
  • The exceptions for what can't be required as a "reasonable adjustment" for disabled people are extensive.

The only area that doesn't seem to have masses of exceptions is employment. I may have missed some other exceptions, since there are a lot and the phrasing used for them varies.

1 Yes, seriously. Apparently homophobia in admissions is essential, and banning it would have terrible consequences for the rights of bigots at the primary and secondary stage, but at the tertiary level the rights of bigots are unimportant. This makes even less sense than usual.

2 It's not at all clear to me whether any of the Act applies at all to asexual people. It can be read either way. The explanatory note suggests that it doesn't apply to them, but I think a good lawyer could probably convince a judge that it did.

3 Disclaimer: not legal advice. If you try this argument you deserve everything you get.

4 "We've been homophobic for centuries and we're not going to stop now" is not a good reason, nor one that governments should be supporting people in, but you can at least understand which group of bigots lobbied to have that exception included. Some of these it's not at all clear why anyone would ask for them.

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Saturday, 3 July 2010

Season's Greetings!

Season's Greetings! Happy Northern-Hemisphere temperate summer to you all!

The last two months have not generally been filled with good news, so it's time for some more plant photos.

Giant foxglove Most plants we've done have only seemed to really come into full flower the year after they've been planted, but the foxglove has really grown rapidly in its first year. The roots are binding the soil together nicely, too.

Pansies The pansies are still doing well. We planted these just before winter to get some late autumn colour. Most of them survived the winter, and they've been flowering very strongly since spring. These yellow ones are especially nice.

Scabious The scabious is one that basically sat there doing nothing last year - I think we planted it a little too late. This year it's put out these really long stalks with lovely pink flowers on the end, and though it's not particularly clear from the photo, some more purple ones on shorter shoots.

More flowers I've forgotten exactly what these blue-purple flowers are, but there's now a lovely mat of them across the wall and another at the front of the flower bed.

Supporting Alternative Vote

A referendum on switching to the Alternative Vote (AV) system will be held - assuming that the coalition holds together long enough to pass the legislation and that the Lords vote for it - on 5 May. The details remain to be seen, but I will unequivocally be supporting a "Yes" vote for a change to AV.

Firstly, while Alternative Vote is not a Proportional Representation (PR) system, where the political views of the MPs match the votes of the country, it is still a significant improvement on First Past the Post (FPTP).

I would much prefer a PR system such as Single Transferable Vote (STV) or open-list PR. However, that's not what is being offered, it is not going to be offered - the Conservatives would simply not vote for any Parliamentary amendment to that effect - and it would be extremely unwise to include it in the referendum anyway due to the risk of splitting the pro-reform vote.

Alternative Vote is, however, one of the best constituency-level systems. If you are going to keep single-MP constituencies, and that's not likely to change for a while, it allows people to vote their true preferences, avoids the majority of the need for tactical voting, and reduces the number of 'wasted' votes.

Voting against an improvement on the current system - even if it doesn't go as far as I'd like - seems absurd. If the referendum is won by the "No" vote, then the political classes will not say "Maybe the voters are telling us this was unacceptably small - let's discuss PR". They'll say "There is clearly no public demand for voting reform" and we are unlikely to get another opportunity in the next few decades.

AV would get people (in England) used to preferential voting systems, as well, which would make a later step to STV or the suggested AV+ much easier.

Secondly, the system would significantly reduce the number of "safe" seats, making it easier for unpopular or corrupt MPs to be removed from office. There are seats where the incumbent MP has over 50% of the vote anyway, which would be unlikely to change hands under Alternative Vote, but even they would be vulnerable if the MP did something particularly wrong, as there would be no risk of splitting the vote against them.

Because of this, it would be important not just to get as many first preferences as possible, but to ensure that your party is an attractive target for second preferences. Certain forms of negative campaigning that detract from the public opinion of politics but nevertheless are effective would cease to work. Parties would have to be able to pick up those second preferences, which means not being too negative towards the first preference party of those voters.

Rather than attacking other parties on the grounds that they wouldn't be any good, there would instead be a requirement to convince voters that your party's policies would be better at solving a particular problem, or at least almost as good.

The electoral experiences of Papua New Guinea are a strong indication that this would change how campaigning and political positioning occurred, and for the better.

This, incidentally, is one reason that I don't hold too much faith in "what would have happened under AV" calculations for the recent general elections (though they are worth doing to get an idea of the minimum effect). You can calculate the effects of transferring votes easily enough, but that doesn't take into account that the second preferences - and perhaps the first preferences - would be different in a different electoral system.

People often use these figures - pointing, for instance, at the 1997 Labour landslide and saying that AV can be less proportional than FPTP. Firstly, campaigning would probably have been a bit different under AV. Secondly, if the 1992 election had also been held under AV, it would probably have resulted in a Lab-Lib coalition. Kinnock doesn't resign, and the 1996 general election would have been contested on an entirely different basis.

Thirdly, a move to AV for general elections would probably also cause local elections to be run under AV (or perhaps even STV for the multi-member wards), and almost certainly also replace the bizarre Supplemental Vote system used for electing mayors. This would go some way towards reducing the number of different electoral systems in use in the UK, and simplify things for voters.

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Friday, 2 July 2010

Friday Links

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Two private member's bills

There is usually very little opportunity in the House of Commons for anyone other than the government to present legislation. A rare opportunity for an ordinary MP to put forward changes in the law is the Private Member's Bill. Only at most 20 MPs a session can put forward a bill this way (chosen randomly), and usually not all of those will get a chance.

Even when a bill is put forward, it is of course extremely unlikely that it will pass - or even get beyond the Second Reading stage for further consideration - without government support. Nevertheless, they are a guaranteed way to get an issue debated at some length in Parliament, and depending on the support, can influence future government policy or even on rare occasions pass into law.

A couple of the ones that have got onto the list this session:

A lot of focus has been on the proposed Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill from Philip Hollobone MP (Conservative, Kettering), which according to to the BBC would make it illegal to wear full-face Islamic veils. Oh, and balaclavas. Mustn't look too racist. Operation Black Vote has more analysis of why this is a terrible idea.

I don't have anything substantive to add to that, except to say that living in the colder North of England, as opposed to Mr Hollobone's more southerly constituency, I often go out during the winter wearing a hat and a scarf pulled over my mouth and nose, exposing much the same area of skin as a full-face veil does. I have not once been criticised for this, told I should keep my face uncovered in public, or had MPs challenge my right to dress in that way. I expect that if I did wear a full-face veil, however, I would get all three. So, the MP's attempt to hide his racism (and indeed sexism) by also criticising my dress really doesn't work.

Fortunately, his Bill is 17th on the priority list, so it's unlikely to get the time it needs scheduled.

At 6th on the list, however, where it might actually get debated, is Anna Soubry MP's (Conservative, Broxtowe) bill: Anonymity (Arrested Persons). The Second Reading has been scheduled for the 4 February 2011, and it's unlikely that the full text of the bill will be available until shortly before then. For now, there's the summary:

A Bill to prohibit the publication of certain information regarding persons who have been arrested until they have been charged with an offence; to set out the circumstances where such information can be published without committing an offence; and for connected purposes.

It's already not police practice to reveal the names of pre-charge suspects who they have arrested, so the times this occurs generally break down into the following categories:

  1. The arrest took place in public and the suspect's allies are encouraging the reporting to draw attention to what they view as a wrongful arrest. Arrests of people who were protesting, for instance.
  2. The suspect's name or identity has already been revealed, because the police needed to do so to locate them. People who've been arrested after a stand-off, for example, or after an appeal to locate someone alleged to be a dangerous criminal.
  3. The crime is incredibly high profile, and half the neighbourhood already knows who has been arrested for it. The press don't even have to ask the police, except to get confirmation that a "37-year old man" was arrested.
  4. The suspect is very famous for other things, and someone in the police leaks the information to the press (directly, or more likely indirectly via a friend).

In the first case, no-one actually wants anonymity, except perhaps the police and the government, of course. In the second case, their identity is already public and there's no point in avoiding revealing that they've been arrested. In the third case, the rumours will spread fast enough anyway, and it's probably best to stop any incorrect rumours that someone else was arrested by allowing the press to report on the matter.

The fourth case is less clear - this shouldn't really happen, and celebrities shouldn't have less of a right to privacy than other people, true. It could also make it easier to find a jury who haven't been influenced by press reporting. I can't, however, think of a way to rule out this case that doesn't take out the third case as well, which could be a problem. Perhaps the Bill, when the full details appear for Second Reading, will have found a clever way to draft the details.

I wonder why this Bill was introduced. I can't work out whether it's been introduced to give more support - and possibly bring forwards - the proposals to give anonymity to rape defendants, or if it's been introduced as a way to distract from them by introducing something that looks good and would keep certain people happy without actually interfering with police operations.

If it's the former, of course, it'll bring the plans forward quite a bit, which means there's less chance of the coalition government collapsing or deciding they have better things to do, and that would be very bad indeed.

If it's the latter, I think it's in theory quite clever - between arrest and charge is a maximum of 24 hours (if they're arrested and released, it's fair enough not to report their name, I think), so that's not really time for the police to do anything useful with publicising their name, so they won't. Pre-arrest it won't cover, so it won't interfere with police investigations and evidence gathering. Post-charge it won't cover, so it won't interfere with the CPS preparing a case. So it can be debated and passed, the coalition can feel that it's achieved enough of the anonymity proposal to count it as done and avoid a bigger fight, and in practice very little will actually change.

There is of course the catch that having been introduced the government or the Lords could easily amend it into something more unpleasant, so if this is the idea I don't think it's a particularly safe way of doing things.

The full text of the Bill, which might give some clue as to what the intent is, probably won't be available until shortly before the Second Reading. The Bill's sponsor is a new MP, so doesn't really have any voting or speaking record to analyse yet. I'll keep monitoring it to see what happens.

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