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