Claim: “Scotland under the SNP is plagued by Victorian diseases and rat problems” – Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, September 7

Doorstep Answer: So-called Victorian diseases like rickets are on the increase across th whole UK. These are diseases caused by poverty. Their real cause is Tory austerity policies.

Who is Penny Mordaunt?

Penny Mordaunt MP ran twice for the Tory leadership and was defeated both times, first by Liz Truss and then by Rishi Sunak.  

After taking a second-class degree at Reading she went into the public relations business. For a time, she was communications director of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. According to Lord Moylan, who was the then deputy leader of the Tory council: “We had to get rid of her after a few months because she was incompetent.”

Mordaunt was elected to Parliament in 2010. In 2013, she deliberately spoke in a debate on poultry welfare so she could use the word “cock” as a forfeit she received during Naval Reserve training. She used the word "cock" six times and "lay" or "laid" five times. Clearly Mordaunt has a sense of humour though quite whether Parliament is the best place for it is open to debate.

Mordaunt was minister of state for trade policy during the Brexit negotiations. Lord Frost, the chief Tory negotiator, publicly criticised Mordaunt, saying that "she did not master the detail that was necessary when we were in negotiations". Famously, Mordaunt carried the Sword of State during the coronation of King Charles.

The National:

READ MORE: Scotland reacts to Penny Mordaunt's 'Victorian disease' and rat comments


At business questions on September 7, Mordaunt replied to SNP spokesperson Deidre Brock: “She invites me to tell this House what I’ve learned in my very pleasant trips to Scotland over the summer … I was shocked to learn that Victorian diseases have actually returned to certain cities in Scotland such as rickets. That Glasgow’s rat problem is now so bad, it is precluding binmen actually accessing certain streets because it’s too dangerous for them.”

Mordaunt went on to make a long list of similar accusations without pausing to offer proof. She concluded by saying that the SNP is “never short of a grievance” but “it is now running out of excuses.” She finished: “I look forward to next week what those excuses might be, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Highland Clearances, the 100 Years’ War?”

Mordaunt obviously has a high regard for her own wit though she clearly does not know that the 100 Years’ War was between the English and the French. For the record, business questions is supposed to give MPs an opportunity to discuss the schedule for forthcoming parliamentary business, not for political grandstanding. 

READ MORE: Douglas Ross panned for 'no credibility' in fiery FMQs exchange

Victorian diseases

Mordaunt may not know it but NHS England now collates and publishes figures regarding the incidence and prevalence of so-called “Victorian diseases” south of the Border. These cover all patients admitted to hospital with gout, tuberculosis, malnutrition, whooping cough, measles, scurvy, typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, mumps, rickets, cholera, and vitamin D deficiency, even if this was not the primary reason for admission. These conditions largely disappeared in modern times as housing, sanitation and diet improved. However, after a decade and more of Tory austerity – now coupled with inflation – these Victorian scourges have returned with a vengeance.

NHS figures show that patients in England were diagnosed with one of 13 “Victorian” diseases when admitted to hospital on 421,370 occasions in the year to March 2022. Perhaps the most frightening statistic relates to malnutrition and its offshoot, the bone deficiency disease known as rickets. NHS data shows that cases of malnutrition have trebled since the Tories came to power. While the overall numbers for rickets remains in the hundreds, the numbers are up compared with pre-austerity times. From 2022 to April 2023, almost 11,000 people – 312 of whom were children – were hospitalised for malnutrition in England. Of these, 171 were treated for scurvy and 482 for rickets, 405 of them children.

The number of scurvy, rickets and malnutrition cases in English NHS figures do not indicate the cause of someone’s illness, meaning they could be caused by the struggle to afford a nutrient-rich diet, or by other conditions. However, the growing number of people falling ill due to vitamin deficiencies coincides with soaring reliance on food banks. The Trussell Trust now gives out more than 2.5 million food parcels, dwarfing the 40,898 handed out in 2010, when David Cameron entered Downing Street.

Another “Victorian” ailment is gout. Last year, the NHS in England issued a warning regarding a sudden increase in admissions for gout. Cases have risen by 20% in only the last three years with approximately 250,000 people admitted to hospital.

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The situation in Scotland

It should come as no surprise that Tory austerity policies have had a similar impact in Scotland as in England though the SNP government has been able to mitigate this in part through anti-poverty measures including the Scottish Child Payment and relatively more social housing. However, there is evidence that some Victorian diseases have shown an increase. But the blame is at Westminster, not Holyrood.


As for Mordaunt’s reference to rats, there is no compelling evidence that Scotland has a worse infestation than elsewhere in the UK – quite the contrary. The best data to hand comes from collating local authority recorded infestations. A freedom of information request by the Direct Line insurance company, published earlier this year, revealed that the municipality with the highest incidence of rat infestation is Swansea, in Wales, with 16,767 cases in 2022. This was followed by the London borough of Southwark with 16,664. Glasgow came in fifth overall in the UK with 10,323 infestations recorded in 2022. Which suggests that Mordaunt is again exaggerating for political effect.

Mordaunt is MP for Portsmouth North. A report in her local press points out that the rat population of Portsmouth soared to over 450,000 during lockdown, according to pest control experts. Which means there are around 2.2 rats for every person in the city. Perhaps it is time Mordaunt got out her sword and started a little rodent control of her own.

Fact check rating: 

The National:

A big, fat zero. We agree with Lord Frost that Ms Mordaunt is not good with the details.