'In-breeding' comment no laughing matter

From TV's Alan Partridge to the infamous “conker bonkers” saga, Norfolk has been the butt of more than a few jokes over the years. But for one of the county's own MPs to talk about “inbreds” is far from a laughing matter, writes PAUL HILL.

From TV's Alan Partridge to the infamous “conker bonkers” saga, Norfolk has been the butt of more than a few jokes over the years. But for one of the county's own MPs to talk about “inbreds” is far from a laughing matter, writes PAUL HILL.

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There was, in the end, an apology of sorts. Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, took to the airwaves yesterday morning to “unreservedly apologise” for linking the high levels of type 1 diabetes in the county to “inbreeding”.

Or, rather, Dr Gibson apologised for his choice of language rather than retract the point he was trying to make about genes and diabetes. But by then, the damage had been done.

National newspapers, websites, radio programmes had all featured the story of the county MP who “thinks Norfolk folk are sicker because they are inbred”, as the Daily Telegraph put it.

Oh, some will say, surely we should be able to laugh at ourselves?

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But think of all the taxpayers' money spent each year trying to promote Norfolk as a fine place to work, live and prosper.

Is that the message that will stick in the public mind or the minds of businesses looking for a place to invest or holidaymakers looking for somewhere to take a break?

Or will the rest of Britain think of Norfolk as a backward county of inbred folk, where a council supposedly went “conker bonkers” in 2001 by threatening to cut down healthy trees or where the authorities once painted a 45in-long double-yellow line on a main road? The truth, sometimes, is not as enduring as a caricature.

Indeed, glance at an internet guide book for student doctors and you will find a tongue-in-cheek mention of two acronyms - FLK and NFN - which can be used on patients' medical notes.

The first means “funny looking kid”, the second stands for “normal for Norfolk”, which apparently is “used as an explanation for the FLK with no other medical problems”.

The great irony is that Dr Gibson has championed Norfolk's cause since entering Parliament.

But the question now is has he undone some of that good work in one lapse?

The other irony of Dr Gibson's public apology yesterday, is that he had already been offered the chance by the EDP earlier in the week to retract his comments - a chance he passed up.

When asked on Wednesday by the EDP's public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe if people would be offended by his comments, Dr Gibson said: “Probably, but they are inbred. If you look at the names in Norfolk, there's a lot that are the same.

“There is an inbreeding complex in villages - people inter-marry. That might mean more of them have got the same gene which predisposes them to it.”

Yesterday, Dr Gibson told the Today programme on Radio 4: “It has obviously caused a lot of offence and for that I unreservedly apologise”.

The MP - former dean of biology at UEA - added: “Words like in-breeding and out-breeding are very professional, genetic terms.

“We use them all the time but to the public that has connotations which they don't understand, or feel that it demeans them and I understand that and that is why I apologise.”

But in the light of research showing that 345 children in Norfolk suffer from type 1 diabetes - more than double the 160 predicted cases for the county - Dr Gibson continued: “I just hope in the study that is taking place they will look at the genetic influences and take it into consideration when they come to understand the structure of the genetic pool in an area like Norfolk.

“This is a particular form where there is some evidence that there is a genetic component and you have to unravel the interaction between the genes and the environment, which is a very difficult area.”

There is a serious scientific and sociological debate to be had about links between the genetic make-up of communities and the prevalence of certain illnesses. But to talk of “inbreeding” has clouded rather than clarified the issue.

Of course, the Norwich North MP is no stranger to controversy.

He has been one of the Labour government's most persistent critics - on identity cards, foundation hospitals, private finance and, most conspicuously, as the leader of the backbench rebellion on university tuition fees.

Being a fully-fledged member of the Parliamentary Labour Party's “awkward squad” has, it is fair to say, put his relationship with fellow city MP, Charles Clarke, under no small amount of strain.

Dr Gibson has also, in his time, set his sights beyond Downing Street and fired the odd volley at Highgrove. When Prince Charles aired his concerns about nanotechnology, Dr Gibson said: “He has every right as an individual to speak out.

“But he is more than just an individual, he can fashion viewpoints.

“If I were him I would stick to modern architecture and issues like that rather than those which need to have a depth of understanding.”

The MP has also never been shy of poking public figures in Norfolk with a rhetorical sharpened stick.

The private finance deal to build the new Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital been an abiding concern and in the late 1990s Dr Gibson doggedly pursued the case of David Bennett, a black patient who died while being restrained by staff at the Norvic Clinic on the outskirts of Norwich.

Of course, in an age of spin doctors and sound-bites, MPs who speak their mind are a rare and valuable species indeed.

But insulting your own city, county and - most crucially - your constituents is probably not the wisest political move to make.