Alex Cunningham and Boris Johnson both used the wrong figures about health inequality

24th Jan 2020


Men in Uxbridge and South Ruislip live 14 years longer than they do in Stockton North.


Men in one very deprived ward of Stockton have an average life expectancy of 64. Most men in Stockton North have a much longer life expectancy, however. The figure for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is for the London borough of Hillingdon as a whole, which is 80.


Men in Teesside have the same life expectancy as those in Ethiopia.


Men in one very deprived ward of Stockton have the same life expectancy as men in Ethiopia, according to figures from the World Bank in 2017. This isn’t the case for Teesside as a whole.


The gap in UK life expectancies is falling.


Not true. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor, and between the northeast and London, is rising.

Claim 1 of 3

“Men in [Boris Johnson’s] constituency live 14 years longer than in mine… Just when is he going to end this scandal, that means that Teesside men have the same life expectancy of those in Ethiopia, and tackle the health inequalities in our area.” 

Alex Cunningham MP, 22 January 2020 

“His point is absolutely valid, and the discrepancy in life expectancy in this country is a disgrace. But it is coming down and it will come down. Life expectancy overall is at an all-time high.” 

Boris Johnson 22 January 2020

During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the MP for Stockton North, Alex Cunningham, said that men in Boris Johnson’s constituency “live 14 years longer than in mine”. As a result, he added, “Teesside men have the same life expectancy of those in Ethiopia”.

Alex Cunningham’s office told us that this figure came from a BBC report about the large life expectancy gap within Stockton-on-Tees. This mentions Stockton Town Centre, a ward in Mr Cunningham’s constituency where male life expectancy is 64. The BBC article is correct, although the figure has since risen to 65.

This is about the same figure that the World Bank recorded for men in Ethiopia in 2017. UK life expectancy figures are not published by constituency, but men in the London borough of Hillingdon, which contains the prime minister’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, have a life expectancy of 80.4. That’s about 15 or 16 years higher than the ward in Stockton. Mr Cunningham’s office said they chose 14 as a conservative estimate because the BBC article was slightly dated.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these figures don’t mean that men are predicted to live as long as 64 or 80.4 years in these areas, because health and mortality rates are usually expected to improve by the time men born today reach these ages.

How low is a life expectancy of 64?

A life expectancy of 64 is extremely low for the UK, where the latest average for men is 79.3, so it is understandable that Mr Cunningham and the BBC would want to bring Stockton Town Centre to public attention.

However, the adult population there makes up less than a tenth of registered voters in Stockton North, so Mr Cunningham is wrong to suggest that their story represents his constituency in general, let alone Teesside as a whole. In fact, men in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees have an average life expectancy of 78.1, just two years less than in Hillingdon and 14 more than in Ethiopia. 

Life expectancy discrepancies aren’t coming down

In his reply, Boris Johnson called the discrepancy in life expectancy in the UK “a disgrace”. “But it is coming down and it will come down,” he added.

It is not clear whether the Prime Minister had in mind the discrepancy in life expectancy between rich and poor, or between the North East and London, but he is wrong in either case. Life expectancy in the North East continues to rise more slowly than it does in London, widening the gap between them all the time.

Measuring the life expectancy gap by income is more complicated, but analysis by scientists on the Longevity Science Panel shows that it was widening, at least until 2015, which is the most recent data in the analysis.

It is true that UK life expectancy is at an all-time high, but it is now rising much more slowly than it has in the past, and at different rates for different people. We’ve looked at these figures in more detail before.