4 February's BBC Question Time, factchecked

Published: 5th Feb 2016

On the Question Time panel last night were Conservative minister Amber Rudd MP, Labour's Shabana Mahmood MP, UKIP's Paul Nuttall MEP, Liberal Democrat Baroness Brinton and the journalist Isabel Oakeshott.

We factchecked their claims on migrants' benefits, Norway and the EU, English speakers, and the Northern Powerhouse.

Benefits for EU migrants

"This idea of capping in-work benefits on migrants just doesn’t add up to a row of beans. I mean, the Guardian today has said it will affect very few people indeed, around 28,000.”—Paul Nuttall MEP

This is incorrect. The Guardian reported yesterday that 84,000 EU migrant families claiming tax credits would have been affected by newly proposed restrictions, had they been in place in 2013/14 (what David Cameron has called an ‘emergency brake’).

The draft deal agreed with the EU contains measures to restrict EU migrant workers’ access to in-work benefits for four years, provided other EU countries agree.

The 84,000 figure comes from a freedom of information response from HM Revenue and Customs. It shows that, in 2013/14, 84,000 households which claimed tax credits contained someone from the European Economic Area (EEA) who had arrived in the UK in the previous four years—or at least been issued a National Insurance (NI) number in that time. We can’t say for certain this many households would have been affected by the restrictions as they’re being proposed at the moment.

The research institute NIESR said that compared with over a million NI number registrations for EU nationals over the same period, the figures indicate the policy would have a relatively modest impact on the benefits received by migrants from the EU.

We’ve previously looked at the evidence for whether restricting in-work benefits to EU immigrants would reduce immigration.

“There’s some crazy crazy European rules. For instance, somebody could come from Romania over here, a worker, and they can claim for their children who are still in Romania, where in Romania they get £2 a week child benefit - over here they can actually claim £20 a week”—Audience member

"A point that's being addressed, yes."—David Dimbleby

Migrants from the EU are able to claim child benefit for dependent children in their home countries thanks to EU law.

Benefits law doesn’t allow this in most circumstances, but EU law effectively overrides this.

We don’t have a figure for child allowances in Romania, but child benefit for the eldest child in the UK is £20.70 a week. The UK doesn’t necessarily pay this full amount to EU immigrants that qualify for child benefit here, if they’re already getting a lower amount from their home country. It’ll just top up the difference.

Mr Dimbleby is correct that the Prime Minister’s EU negotiations may change this. If passed, a new EU law will be proposed giving governments an option to take the cost of living in different member states into account when making payments for children abroad. Adjusting the amount paid in this way could deal with concerns about the discrepancies between different countries’ payment rates.

Norway and the EU

“I do not want us to end up in the position of Norway who pay 75% of their share as if they were in but have absolutely no say about negotiating.”—Baroness Brinton

We’ve been in touch to ask Baroness Brinton for more information about what she means: the 75% figure most often associated with Norway is that it takes on 75% of EU laws despite not being a member (although others say it’s less than 10%). Here's an explanation of the dispute.

Certainly Norway does have to implement EU laws about the single market despite not having a vote on them. The degree of influence it has at the EU table is contentious, though, and “absolutely no say” is probably putting it too strongly. The House of Commons Library, in its research on the subject, concludes that Norway has “little say”.

A 2015 paper for the think tank Civitas argues that Norway has plenty of opportunities to make its voice heard when the EU makes decisions, and can in theory refuse to apply EU laws in extreme cases.

By contrast, a 2012 report for the Norwegian government said that the situation was “problematic”, although not a deal-breaker for that country. As it says: "there have been few real problems in the Norway-EU relationship during the period 1994-2011".

“Norway is the 10th largest contributor to the EU budget even though they’re not in the European Union”—Shabana Mahmood MP

We haven’t been able to back up the claim that Norway is precisely tenth in the list of contributors, although it seems like it’s in the right ball park.

It might come from a 2013 report by the Confederation of British Industry, but the report doesn’t explain exactly how it’s arrived at this conclusion. We’ve asked the CBI for more details.

Because it isn’t a member, Norway’s contributions aren’t really comparable to those of EU members. But it’s reasonable to assume that Norway sends more money to the EU than it gets back, and only 11 EU members are in the same position when it comes to their own contributions.

Norway currently pays to participate in EU programmes and gives grants to EU countries that are linked to its access to the single market. Ignoring some smaller administrative costs, these payments come to around €700 million a year.

Some of this money will come back—for instance, the Norwegians pay to take part in the EU’s science research fund, and are successful in getting funding out of it. The Norwegian government calls this a “return on Norway’s investment”.

English speakers 

“Frankly the Prime Minister’s case would have had more force if he was not the Prime Minister that presided over huge cuts to the ESOL, English for speakers of other languages, budget in the first place. He massively cut that budget and now he offers £20 million”—Shabana Mahmood MP

It’s correct to say that funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) has been cut over the past few years.

Most funding for English language training comes through the Adult Skills Budget, and provision for ESOL through this is estimated to have more than halved between 2009/10 and 2014/15. It fell from £224 million, in 2014/15 prices, to £104 million. We don’t have the data for funding before 2009/10.

A smaller amount of funding comes from the Department of Communities and Local Government. £8 million was allocated by the government for the community-based English language programme between 2013 to 2016.

On top of these sets of funding there is the “ESOL Plus” scheme which requires job seekers identified as having poor spoken English skills that prevent them from finding work to attend ESOL courses.

The Skills Funding Agency announced in July last year that funding for this scheme would be withdrawn for 2015/16. It said this was “in light of low levels of participation to date”.

Last month, the government announced a new £20 million “community-based English language training offer” which it hopes will start from 2016/17. Membership organisation the Association of Colleges has said this move fails to make up for the reduction in funding.

“It’s about targeting the most vulnerable. If 22% of Muslim women have very poor or no English - incidentally, compared to 10% of men - isn’t it right to target the money that we have to help them?”—Amber Rudd MP

Whether you judge this to be correct depends on your idea of what counts as “very poor” English. The figures are based on people’s own judgements of their ability, and the wording of the survey was about speaking English well or not well, rather than people having “very poor” English.  

In the 2011 census 190,000 Muslim women living in England said they could speak English “not well” or “not at all”. That’s 22% of all Muslim women over 16. About 90,000 Muslim men, or 10%, said the same.

In total 863,000 people said they couldn’t speak English well or at all.

Read more here.

The Northern Powerhouse

“One of the Sheffield offices for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills [BIS] has now shut down. Its job was to deliver the Northern Powerhouse and those jobs have been shifted straight back to London”—Shabana Mahmood MP

BIS has indeed announced that it plans to close its Sheffield office by 2018, but it’s not clear how many jobs will end up ‘shifting’ to London. The department is one of a few working on projects promised as part of the government’s “Northern Powerhouse” plans—the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Transport are among others involved.

Over 200 jobs could be affected, according to the Financial Times. It’s not clear how many of these roles will be replaced by positions in London or elsewhere.

All regions of the UK have seen cuts to the number of civil servants since 2010, according to analysis by the Institute for Government. At 9%, the fall in London has been the lowest and compares to cuts of 20% or more in the East Midlands, East of England, and North West.


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