The BBC and ITV seven-party debates, fact checked

Published: 2nd Dec 2019

On Friday and Sunday nights, the BBC and ITV broadcast two televised seven-way debates between leaders and other representatives of the major parties running in Great Britain: the Conservatives, Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and the Brexit Party. You can watch the BBC debate here and watch the ITV debate here, or below. In this article, we fact check some of the key claims and major topics from both debates. We also expect to write more about what the parties said over the coming days.

Brexit

Caroline Lucas of the Green Party said in her opening statement in the BBC debate on Friday that Boris Johnson’s deal would not get Brexit done and that it would be “the start of years more wrangling”. In hers, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon added that Brexit would “not in any sense be done” if Boris Johnson won a majority, calling it “the biggest con in this election” on Sunday night.

By contrast, in his closing statement in the ITV debate on Sunday, the Conservatives’ Rishi Sunak asked the viewers “Do you want Brexit sorted in weeks, or more referendums taking years?”

As we’ve discussed before, “getting Brexit done” is a process, not an event. It’s correct that the UK will stop being a member of the EU if Boris Johnson’s deal passes Parliament and the country leaves on January 31 2020, which is just over eight weeks away. But that will not be the end of the Brexit process.

Negotiations with the EU on a future relationship would then take place during a transition period, during which time the UK will still follow EU rules and pay money into the EU budget.

The withdrawal agreement does not by itself secure a trade deal with the EU—that would have to be negotiated during the transition period. That period is set to run until the end of 2020, but it could be extended by either one year or two.

The Conservative manifesto says the government will negotiate a trade deal next year and makes a commitment that the transition period will not be extended beyond 2020. However experts have previously said (before the manifesto was published) that extending the transition period beyond 2020 “may prove unavoidable”. The decision on whether to request an extension of the transition period will need to be taken by July 1 2020.

In other discussion of Brexit, Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats said that “we know from the government's own analysis... that remaining in the EU will mean we have more money we can invest more in our public services”. We’ve looked at this claim before, including in our analysis of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, where they put the figure at £50 billion over five years.

It is a fair assessment of the best available forecasts, comparing Remain to a Brexit deal scenario. But those forecasts themselves contain a high degree of uncertainty, so we shouldn’t treat any figure as definitive.

Economy

On Friday, Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey said that Labour have “outlined the most detailed manifesto of all the parties” which details Labour’s spending and funding plans.

Rishi Sunak, meanwhile,  claimed that “our plans are the most detailed and costed plans that have ever been there… You look at people like the IFS, respected think tanks, they've described the Labour plans as simply not credible.” 

In fact the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that both the Labour and Conservative manifestos were not “properly credible”. 

“While the Conservatives continue to pretend that tax rises will never be needed to secure decent public services, Labour pretends that huge increases in spending can be financed by just big companies and the rich,” they added.

“In this respect, neither Labour nor the Conservatives is being honest with the electorate.”

Also in Friday’s debate, Rebecca Long-Bailey claimed there are “eight million people living in poverty in working households”.

The number of people in poverty in the UK, who live in households where someone works, either full or part time, was probably closer to nine million in 2017/18. That’s according to the Social Metrics Commission, an independent group of experts working to measure poverty. At the same time, there were 8.3 million working-age adults in poverty in the UK.

On Sunday, Nicola Sturgeon said there were “four million children living in poverty, it’s rising despite what the Prime Minister said falsely this morning”.

There are a number of different ways to measure poverty, but based on figures from the Social Metrics Commission there were 4.6 million children in relative poverty in the UK in 2017/18. Official government figures show a similar number of children living in poverty whether you look at relative or absolute measures (around four million after housing costs are accounted for).

She was presumably referring to Boris Johnson on Andrew Marr on Sunday morning saying that there are 400,000 fewer children in poverty than in 2010, which was wrong. Again, there are different ways of measuring child poverty, and they can sometimes tell contradictory stories, as we wrote last year. Looking at the number of children in absolute poverty, after housing costs, the estimated number has slightly declined from an estimated 3.8 million in 2009/10 to 3.7 million in 2017/18. But looking at most other measures the number has either stayed the same or increased.

On Sunday, Rishi Sunak said that 400,000 fewer people are in absolute poverty today than in 2010. That’s correct looking at the estimated number of people in the UK living in absolute poverty between 2009/10 and 2017/18 before housing costs. It dropped from 9.9 million to 9.5 million.

The NHS

In the BBC debate on Friday, the Rishi Sunak said: “We have outlined a plan for £34 billion more, that will go on putting 50,000 nurses on our wards, 50 million more GP appointments and upgrading hospitals.” 

In response, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas said: “Why would we trust Boris Johnson, who has been telling us that there will be 40 hospitals that turn out to be six, 50,000 nurses that turn out to be more like 30,000 if we are lucky?”

As we’ve written before several times, it’s correct that of the “40 new hospitals” promised in the Conservative manifesto, only six have actually been given money to start building works—and those are (as Rishi Sunak said) upgrades to existing hospitals. Up to 38 other hospitals (which will presumably be narrowed down to 34) have been given seed funding to prepare a business case for upgrades, but no money to actually begin building.

No money for building work on those 34 hospitals is included in the Conservative manifesto costings, and the current plan suggests that none of these hospital upgrades will be delivered before the next general election, as they are expected to happen in the period 2025 to 2030 (the Conservative manifesto does acknowledge that this will happen “over the next 10 years”.)

On the question of nurses, the Conservative manifesto promises “50,000 more nurses”, not “50,000 new nurses”, increasing the overall number of nurses in the NHS by 50,000 by 2024/25 from its current level (which was roughly 287,000 full-time equivalent nurses and health visitors in the NHS in England, as of August 2019). 

That is intended to include a target of 18,500 nurses already working for the NHS who will be encouraged to stay in their jobs rather than leaving. As we’ve written about before, the NHS has a significant turnover of staff, and improving the retention rate of nurses is a reasonable approach if you want to increase the number overall. 

The bigger question has been around the funding for these nurses. The Conservative manifesto costings commits less than £900 million to this increase in nurses by 2023/24, which as we’ve written is not enough to pay for 50,000 more nurses. Mr Sunak’s comments make it clear that this will come from the NHS budget rather than representing additional funding. 

In both Friday night’s debate and Sunday’s Adam Price of Plaid Cymru said that A&E waiting times in Wales are at their worst recorded level. 75.3% of attendances saw patients wait less than four hours in A&Es across Wales in October, the lowest proportion on record. In the same month 93.9% of attendances saw patients wait less than 12 hours, that’s a slight improvement from the September figure (which was a record low). 

On Friday Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “we’ve got 4.4 million people on waiting lists who can’t get operations”. This figure refers to the number of people on waiting lists in total, not just those waiting for operations. In September 2019 there were just over 4.4 million referrals for treatment on the NHS in England, where the treatment had not yet begun, according to the latest data. 

These “incomplete” treatments are often referred to as the “waiting list”. It’s possible the figure could be as high as 4.6 million though as not all hospital trusts submitted figures to the NHS. The size of the waiting list has generally been rising since 2011/12, when it stood at 2.6 million referrals in August 2011.

On Friday Jo Swinson also said that “we are already down 5,000 nurses from other EU countries in the last two years”. It is true that the number of nurses from the EU has decreased by around 5,000 since 2017, though the number of nurses and midwives in total is generally rising.  

Sian Berry of the Green Party also said on Sunday that 60,000 people from other EU countries work in the NHS. That’s correct for England—around 65,000 NHS staff reported they were from other EU countries in March 2019. GPs and GP surgery staff aren’t included in NHS statistics, so the total number of EU nationals working across all health services in England will be higher. 

Immigration

Richard Tice of the Brexit Party and Nicola Sturgeon clashed in Friday's debate over immigration, and its effect on wages.

Richard Tice claimed that “unlimited immigration in the last 15 years has depressed wages”, but Nicola Sturgeon countered, claiming “there hasn’t been unlimited immigration and it doesn’t cut wages”

Earnings have stagnated, if not fallen in real terms since 2010, and remain below their 2008 peak before the recession. There are lots of things that affect wages. The evidence suggests that immigration hasn’t had a big effect.

The impact of immigration on wages depends on who you are, where you are, and what you do. It’s not one story.

Studies broadly agree that the overall impact of immigration on wages is small, changing wages by less than 1%, and probably short term.

The people who lose out are most likely to be people on low wages, while people on medium or high wages might gain.

The group most affected are resident workers who are themselves immigrants, because they are the people most likely to be doing the kind of work that new arrivals might compete for.

Full Fact and Oxford University’s Migration Observatory wrote a full briefing on how immigration affects jobs and wages in 2017.

In September 2018, the government-appointed independent Migration Advisory Committee released a major report on the impact of migration due to free movement to do with the EU. It found “overall no evidence that EEA migration has reduced wages for UK-born workers on average”, and the same pattern of effects we’ve described with regards to lower-paid and higher-paid workers, although they caution that this is “subject to uncertainty”.

Criminal Justice

The first question of the Sunday debate focused on the criminal justice system, following the revelation that the London Bridge attacker had been previously convicted for terrorism.

Much of the debate focused on the specifics of that case, and we’ll address those issues in a fuller piece that we plan to publish soon. In this article we will just focus on the other claims made about criminal justice.

Rishi Sunak said “within weeks of taking office the Prime Minister announced a toughening up of sentences for violent criminals” referring to government policy to end the practice of certain criminals being automatically released halfway through their sentence. 

There is already a way for judges in England and Wales to hand down sentences to criminals that don’t have halfway automatic release, but this requires judges to make a decision on whether a criminal poses a risk to the public.

The government’s policy would remove this requirement. (There are some other differences, but this is the most impactful). 

The Ministry of Justice said that in 2018 there were around 4,000 criminals who were given standard sentences with halfway release who would have fallen under the government’s policy. By comparison, in 2018 judges in England and Wales handed down 398 extended sentences.

There is an open question over whether the policy would in fact lead to serious criminals spending more time in prison, because it’s possible that judges could change how they currently sentence.

We wrote more about this policy here.

Labour’s Richard Burgon then accused the Conservatives of having “made a mess of our prison service so that people are coming out of prison more likely to commit crimes.”

However, the latest data shows that the reoffending rate in England and Wales has remained fairly stable since 2010 and, if anything, fallen. Mr Burgon may have been referring to something different however; we have put the question to Labour. 

Mr Burgon also claimed that under the Conservatives, the number of police officers has fallen by 20,000.

It’s correct that the number of full-time equivalent police officers in England and Wales has fallen by over 20,000 since 2010 (excluding officers in the British Transport Police). 

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