Boris Johnson on LBC: fact checked
29th Nov 2019
This morning Conservative party leader Boris Johnson took part in an audience phone-in with Nick Ferrari on LBC Radio. Full Fact was at LBC’s offices to fact check the claims the Prime Minister made. (LBC has also invited Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson to do similar phone-ins, and we will fact check them as well.)
Brexit and trade deals
The Prime Minister was asked by one caller how many trade deals the UK had signed or were in the process of signing up. He said “I can’t give you the answer as to how many deals are actually formalised”, and when pushed by Nick Ferrari added: “I’ll have to come back and give you a number”.
The UK cannot yet legally begin formal negotiations on ‘new’ trade deals (for example with Australia, India, New Zealand and the USA) as Mr Johnson alluded to when he said “we can’t conclude deals”. It can only do so once it has formally left the EU—either entering the transition period, or leaving on no deal terms. These deals will then only come into force once the transition period ends.
The UK has, however, been able to hold preliminary discussions with countries about issues that might arise in formal trade deal negotiations (such as those detailed in the documents Jeremy Corbyn referred to a few days ago, about discussions with the USA.) According to a National Audit Office document published in May this year, the Department for International Trade has also consulted on four proposed free trade agreements: with the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a bloc made up of eleven countries, including Australia and New Zealand). So when Mr Johnson said “I imagine we have about a dozen that we’re currently working on” he got the number right, although the official negotiations have yet to begin.
At the moment, the UK has signed 18 "continuity" trade deals covering 48 countries or territories. These only replicate existing EU trade deals (which the UK is allowed to do before leaving the EU) and will come into force after Brexit.
Asked about his commitment to leave the EU on 31 October this year, Mr Johnson said: “Unfortunately the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP got together to pass a law that effectively forced me to break that promise. They gave Brussels the power to decide how long we should remain in the EU.”
This refers to the so-called Benn Act passed in September. The Act said that if parliament had not either approved a no deal exit, or approved some form of withdrawal agreement by 19 October, then the Prime Minister had to ask the EU for an extension to the Brexit date (then set for 31 October).
But it’s not correct that the EU had the power to decide how long the UK should remain in the EU after that. If the EU suggested an extended exit date other than 31 January 2020, the government could have asked parliament whether or not it approved of that proposal, and parliament could have chosen to reject it.
The next caller wanted to know about the NHS and what the Conservatives would do for nurses. In his response Mr Johnson said: “The money going into the NHS as you know, it's the biggest increase in living memory, a £34 billion increase.”
The Prime Minister has made this claim repeatedly on the campaign trail, often phrasing it as the biggest increase “in a generation” or “in modern memory”, or as a “record” amount.
Once you adjust for inflation (which is the most meaningful way to look at spending increases) the “£34 billion” is a spending increase of £20.5 billion between 2018/19 and 2023/24. The last time spending increased by at least that amount over five years was between 2004/05 and 2009/10. We’ve written about this more here.
(It’s also worth noting that the NHS was founded within living memory—on 5 July 1948, just over 71 years ago.)
Moving onto the Conservatives pledge of 50,000 more nurses for the NHS in England he said: “There will be a substantial increase, I think from 280,000 to 330,000 nurses.”
In August 2019 (the most recent figures we have) there were roughly 287,000 full-time equivalent nurses and health visitors in the NHS in England. That’s the highest it’s been in any August over the last ten years. This pattern hasn’t repeated across all different types of nursing though, some areas, for example mental health nurses and learning disability nurses have seen their numbers fall over the last decade.
Another 50,000 nurses would bring the number of nurses per 1,000 to the highest level it has been since at least 2010. However, as we wrote in our fact check of the Conservative manifesto, the funding pledged for this effort to increase nurse numbers in the manifesto costings document is not sufficient in itself to pay for the cost of this many extra nurses.
And finally he added that: “40 new hospitals will be built”.
This is a claim we’ve covered a lot. Six hospitals in England have been given the money to upgrade their buildings within the next five years. The rest are being given a total of £100 million in “seed funding” to develop plans for their hospitals between 2025 and 2030, but no money for any actual building work. The current plan is for works on these hospitals to take place between 2025 and 2030. You can read more about this in our fact check here.
After the NHS the conversation moved on to social care. Mr Johnson said: “This new government... we’re putting £1.5 billion in to help councils with the cost of social care and we’ll put another billion in every year for the next five years.”
In the 2019 Spending Round the government announced that another £1 billion would be given to local councils to split between adult and children’s social care in England. It also announced that it would consult on an adult social care precept of 2%, paid through council tax, that would generate another £500 million for councils. That’s in addition to the existing council tax charge that councils can make to pay for adult social care. At the time the King’s Fund health think tank said: “£1 billion extra for adult care is the minimum needed to prop up the system, and will not even get us back to the levels of care a few years ago.
The Conservative manifesto then announced another £1 billion a year for social care over the next parliament. In response the King’s Fund said: “the additional £1 billion to give a short-term boost to social care services for both adults and children is not enough to meet rising demand for care while maintaining the current quality and accessibility of services”.
Asked about his plans to combat crime and the fall in the number of police officers since 2010, Mr Johnson said: “I'm also proud that we're putting 20,000 more police out on the streets”.
This would return the number of police officers to almost, but not quite, the total in 2010.
All else remaining the same, recruiting another 20,000 police officers (assuming they were full-time) would leave the number of police officers per person 8% lower than it was in 2010, factoring in projected population increase and the government’s recruitment timetable. We wrote more about this in our roundup of the Conservative manifesto here.
The next caller wanted to know about climate change and Mr Johnson praised the UK’s record on this, pointing out that the government was committed to being carbon neutral by 2050 and that since 2010 CO2 emissions had been reduced by 20%.
The Government has amended the Climate Change Act 2008 to commit the UK to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The UK’s stated ambition to reduce emissions goes further than most other countries, and the UK is generally considered to be a world-leader in setting targets into law. A few other countries have set similar or more ambitious targets.
Up until now the UK has been exceeding its own targets and reducing emissions faster than any other major advanced economy in the G7. But that progress isn’t fast enough at the moment to meet even the previous 80% target. We’ve written more about this here.
CO2 emissions have actually reduced by 27% between 2010 and 2018—however this doesn’t take into account other gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. These are accounted for in total greenhouse gas emissions, which reduced in the UK by 25% between 2010 and 2018.
Mr Johnson then turned to education, saying: “we're lifting up funding for every school in the country.”
School funding is quite a messy topic so statements like these need much more context to avoid being misleading. “Lifting up funding” is ambiguous and could mean increasing a factor in the national funding formula (the formula that calculates the notional core funding allocated to schools) rather than schools actually receiving additional funding.
The Conservative government made several school funding commitments to be implemented from 2020/21. It is possible, Mr Johnson is referring to the commitment that schools will be allocated an increase in their pupil-led funding (the part of their funding influenced by pupil numbers, for example the number of pupils eligible for Free School Meals). The government committed to increase this by at least 1.84% per pupil (between 2019/20 and 2020/21). This is in line with predicted inflation.
However, this only covers the funding that changes with pupil numbers. It does not cover funding allocated under the national funding formula that doesn’t change with pupil numbers.
This means there are schools where the total per pupil funding will have declined in real terms (accounting for inflation) in 2020/21 compared to 2019/20. To identify these schools by constituency you can use the House of Commons Library online tool.
The government has also committed to increasing the minimum per pupil funding level in primary and secondary schools across England in 2020/21 (and committed to a further increase for primary schools in 2021/22). This will raise the minimum that schools are allocated per pupil (if they are currently allocated less than that amount.)
We’ve written more about what’s happening to school spending here.
Grenfell tower and cladding
The next caller’s question related to the fire at Grenfell Tower. When asked by Nick Ferrari how many buildings still had the same type of aluminium cladding on them, Mr Johnson was unable to provide a figure.
There are 118 high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings in England that have completed works to remove and replace aluminium cladding. This leaves a total of 318 high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings with aluminium cladding unlikely to meet building regulations yet to be worked on.
Mr Johnson also seemed to make a new pledge on taxes during the phone-in. He said: “Read my lips, we will not be raising taxes on income or VAT or national insurance… for the lifetime of the parliament.”
In saying that, the prime minister seems to have gone beyond what his party’s manifesto promises.
The Conservative manifesto says “We promise not to raise the rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT. This is a tax guarantee that will protect the incomes of hard-working families across the next Parliament.” The Institute for Fiscal Studies described this promise at the time as “a constraint the chancellor may come to regret”.
But promising not to raise these taxes at all goes further than the pledge to not raise the rates of these taxes. Income tax and National Insurance, for example, could be raised without increasing the rates by changing the thresholds at which different rates are paid. VAT could be raised without changing the rates by reclassifying certain goods (as was the case with the so-called “pasty tax” in 2012, when then-Chancellor George Osborne attempted to clarify the rules around hot takeaway foods like pasties and sausage rolls, so that they were charged at the standard VAT rate of 20% rather than being zero-rated.)
Speaking of sausage rolls, the final question was on the price of Greggs’ sausage rolls, which the Prime Minister recently claimed to be a regular and enthusiastic consumer of. Mr Johnson replied: “I don’t know, £1.90? I’ve no idea.” Nick Ferrari replied that the actual cost is £1, which is broadly accurate, although we understand the price varies across the country. However it’s worth noting that Greggs also offers the “breakfast sausage roll” (sausages in a bap, as distinct from the classic sausage roll and its vegan variety), which is closer to the price Mr Johnson stated.