BBC Question Time, factchecked

7th Apr 2017

Free school meals and educational performance

“Why is free school meals a good idea? First of all, there’s bags of evidence that it increases educational attainment for young children”

Tim Farron MP, 6 April 2017

A pilot programme giving all primary school children in parts of the country a free daily meal “had a significant positive impact on attainment”, according to an evaluation by social researchers.

Durham, as well as Newham in London, tried the scheme over two school years from September 2009.

Pupils in both those areas did better in all subjects than comparable children in areas where the pilot wasn’t happening. The differences weren’t all statistically significant when looking at test scores by the end of Year 2, but were “positive and significant” for pupils in Year 6. The report said that it was equivalent to two months’ expected progress at this stage.

That said, the researchers noted that the reasons for this aren’t clear. So they recommend caution, albeit not very prominently, when reading the results:

“The results presented in this chapter must be interpreted with some caution, however, as the mechanisms underlying these improvements in attainment are not clear. The universal pilot did not appear to significantly improve children’s behaviour or absence rates from school, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause of the improvements in attainment and thus which elements of the universal entitlement pilot are key to its success.”

This caveat was reiterated recently by one of the report’s authors, Lorraine Dearden. She told the BBC that “it would be overstating it quite a bit” to say that this study justifies a nationwide roll-out of free school meals for all pupils.

Another co-author told the Guardian a few years ago that "from the pilot evidence, we cannot definitely conclude that attainment will be raised through the universal provision of free school meals to reception, year one and year two children" [universal provision for these years has since happened].

The Liberal Democrats pointed us to other studies showing the benefits of free school meals, although they aren’t as directly focused on attainment.

They include an evaluation of a 2004 pilot in Hull, after which teachers reported improvements in their pupils’ “readiness to learn” and some other studies from the last decade that point (sometimes tentatively) to the educational benefits of improved pupil diets.

Will a hard Brexit cost £100 billion?

“The government's own figures say, never mind a £50 billion one-off, £100 billion extra a year debt because of the choice of a hard Brexit.”

Tim Farron MP, 6 April 2017

In March 2016, before the EU referendum, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that public sector net debt would be £1.74 trillion in 2020/21. In March this year the forecast said that public sector debt in that year would be £1.90 trillion. This difference—£164 billion—is what Mr Farron was referring to.

But the OBR told us that these figures don’t tell us what the impact of Brexit (hard or otherwise) has been on the forecast for public sector debt.

Lots of factors affect how the OBR makes its forecast, from policy decisions to new information being available. The OBR said that the further away from the referendum we get, the harder it is to single out the impact of Brexit on the figures.

But the OBR was able to do this in November, just five months after the referendum. The forecast back then said that the referendum and its outcome would mean a £15.2 billion increase in borrowing by 2020/21. This is as much as we can say has been added to the debt directly as a result of the Brexit vote.

The OBR hasn’t been basing its forecasts on the assumption of any particular type of Brexit, saying that:

“given the uncertainty regarding how the Government will respond to the choices and tradeoffs with which it will be confronted in the negotiations, there is no meaningful basis for predicting the precise end-point of the negotiations as a basis for our forecast. There is also considerable uncertainty about the economic and fiscal implications of different outcomes, even if they were predictable.”

The OBR is an independent watchdog, so these figures were not from the government as such, as Mr Farron said.

As for the size of any one-off payment to the EU once Brexit is negotiated, we don’t know how big this might be.

Experts and media reports have suggested that the size of the bill could be anything from €20 to 70 billion (or around £17 billion to £61 billion). Other experts have also cast doubt on whether we would have to pay the full amount to the EU anyway. We aren’t able to verify this one way or the other.

Are 40% of welfare claimants pensioners?

"People forget actually that maybe 40% of people on welfare are actually old-age pensioners... another 10% or 20% are taking in-work benefits."

Diane Abbott MP, 6 April 2017

We haven’t found figures to back up Ms Abbott’s claim. In fact there don’t seem to be any readily-available estimates of the age of people claiming welfare benefits overall. It’s possible to get this for individual benefits, but this doesn’t answer the claim. We’ve asked Ms Abbott’s office for the source.

The most claimed welfare payments are claimed entirely or predominantly by pensioners—provided you count pensions as welfare. Just under 16 million people got a Christmas Bonus last year (£10 paid to people who get certain welfare payments), 13 million got the State Pension and 12 million got a Winter Fuel Payment.

These figures just relate to Great Britain as the Northern Ireland Executive is responsible for welfare payments there.

There’s a huge overlap here: most people who claim the State Pension get the Christmas Bonus and Winter Fuel Payment automatically.

As a rough estimate we could be looking at around 13 million pensioners who claim welfare payments in Great Britain. So for Ms Abbott to be right, we’d need to find something like 20 million people of working age or children receiving other payments.

The biggest bulk of that would have to be the 7.4 million families claiming Child Benefit for nearly 13 million children, for example. You’d also have to consider big caseloads like tax credits and housing benefit. Again, we can’t produce an estimate here because some people will claim several of these at once.

Finally, it’s possible to get a clearer picture by just looking at what’s spent on welfare rather than who’s claiming it. An estimated 56% of all welfare spending in Great Britain goes to pensioners. That’s been rising since 2009 when it was 52%, as government spending policies since then have largely protected pensioners.

Unemployment under Labour

“Under Labour unemployment rose.”

Suella Fernandes MP, 6 April 2017

The number of people unemployed in the UK and the unemployment rate were both higher when Labour left office in 2010 than when it came to power in 1997.

That summary hides a varying trend during that time: unemployment was relatively low for most of Labour’s stint, but rose considerably during the recession in the late noughties.

When Labour won the 1997 election the unemployment rate for adults was 7.2%. When it left government in 2010, it was 7.9%.

The number of people who were unemployed rose from 2 million to 2.5 million.

Unemployment rates generally fell from the time of Labour taking power in 1997, rising after 2005. During the Labour government unemployment remained at around 5% for most of the 13-year period—in the ballpark of full employment, in practice.

The total number of people unemployed followed roughly the same pattern.

And Labour's time in government ended in a recession, which led to increased unemployment from 2008 onwards.

The main measure of unemployment in the UK is provided by the Labour Force Survey. This looks at “people without a job who have been actively seeking work within the last four weeks and are available to start work within the next two weeks.” It then shows this number as a share of the economically active population.