Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer BBC debate: fact checked

27 June 2024
What was claimed

There are nearly eight million people on the NHS waiting list.

Our verdict

That’s not what NHS England data shows. There are 7.6 million cases on the list involving around 6.3 million patients—some are waiting for more than one thing.

What was claimed

Under a Labour government families will pay an extra £2,000 in tax.

Our verdict

This is misleading—the figure is unreliable and based on a number of assumptions.

What was claimed

Labour’s manifesto plans are fully funded and fully costed.

Our verdict

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has challenged this, casting doubt on whether either Labour’s manifesto or the Conservatives’ has been fully costed.

What was claimed

The UK’s economy was the fastest growing in the G7 in the first quarter of 2024.

Our verdict

This is correct, but the UK’s annual growth last year was among the worst in the G7.

What was claimed

Rishi Sunak has raised taxes 26 times.

Our verdict

It’s unclear how Labour arrived at this exact figure.

What was claimed

Labour will introduce a “retirement tax”.

Our verdict

This refers to what the Conservatives say pensioners would have to pay under a Labour government compared to under their ‘triple lock plus’ policy. Labour's plans would retain the existing rules around the personal allowance.

What was claimed

Pensioners would be paying tax for the first time under a Labour government.

Our verdict

This could be true for some on the state pension. But some pensioners whose income is not solely from the state pension already pay tax on their income.

What was claimed

Migration is at record numbers under Rishi Sunak.

Our verdict

Although net migration did reach record levels in 2022, when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, Office for National Statistics data shows it fell by around 10% in 2023.

What was claimed

The number of small boat crossings has come down over the last 12 months.

Our verdict

It’s true that numbers are down in the last 12 months, compared to the previous year. Provisional figures show 2024 has set a new record for the first six months of a calendar year, however.

On 26 June the Prime Minister and Conservative leader Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer took part in a BBC debate—the last scheduled head-to-head debate before the election on 4 July. 

The debate took place on BBC One, live from Nottingham, and was hosted by Mishal Husain.

Here’s a round-up of some of the claims from the debate that we’ve fact checked.

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Tax 

Tax was unsurprisingly a key focus throughout the debate.

Mr Starmer claimed Rishi Sunak has “raised tax 26 times”. We fact checked a similar claim earlier this year—that there had been 25 tax rises since the last general election.  

As we wrote at the time, it’s unclear how Labour arrived at this exact figure. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says it’s likely there have been hundreds of specific tax rises (and cuts) since 2019, and what’s more significant is that this is “the biggest tax-raising parliament in modern times”.

Mr Sunak said “for everyone in work we are going to continue cutting National Insurance, £900 this year”.

The £900 figure is how much someone on the average salary—not “everyone in work”— will save in National Insurance contributions this year. It doesn’t account for other tax changes, however. The IFS has said once the impact of all tax changes since 2021 are factored in, including ongoing threshold freezes, the average worker will save £340 in 2024/25. 

Mr Sunak also said “we have started cutting your taxes and I will keep cutting your taxes”. 

As mentioned above, National Insurance contributions have been reduced from 12% to 8% since January. But the so-called ‘tax burden’ is high—in 2022/23 it was the highest since 1949—and it is forecast to rise further. The effective personal tax rate is at its lowest since 1975, but that doesn’t include all the taxes people pay. 

And during his closing remarks, Mr Sunak asked: “Can you afford to pay £2,000 more in tax [under a Labour government]?” 

That’s a reference to one of the most prominent Conservative claims we’ve heard throughout this campaign—that families supposedly face a £2,000 tax rise under Labour. But as we’ve written previously, that’s misleading because the figure is unreliable and based on a number of questionable assumptions. We have now written to the Conservatives asking them to correct this claim and stop repeating it.

NHS waiting lists

Mr Starmer said “nearly eight million people are on the waiting list”.

But that’s not what NHS England data shows. There are 7.6 million cases on the waiting list, involving about 6.3 million patients.  

There are always more cases than people in the data, because some people are awaiting treatment for more than one thing

We’ve written to Labour asking it to correct this claim and not to repeat it—we have seen Labour make similar errors a number of times in this election campaign

It’s worth noting there are several different kinds of waiting lists, so the NHS data we’ve mentioned doesn’t include everyone waiting for anything. In April, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the results of a survey which suggested almost 10 million adults in England were waiting for something on the NHS. 

Health is devolved, so the UK government is only responsible for the NHS in England. However over the course of the election we’ve also written about NHS waiting lists in Scotland.

Immigration

Immigration was another topic that featured in the debate. 

Mr Starmer said “migration is at record numbers under this Prime Minister”. 

Net migration did reach record levels in 2022 (Rishi Sunak became PM in late October 2022). Data from the ONS shows it’s estimated to have fallen by around 10% in 2023, however. 

The leaders also discussed the number of small boat arrivals, which Mr Sunak said had “come down over the last 12 months”. 

On this, he was right—the numbers are down in the last 12 months, compared to the previous year. But the figures by calendar year paint a different picture.So far in 2024 provisional figures show the number of small boat arrivals is up 16% compared with the same period last year. 

Talking about these figures, Mr Starmer said they were “record numbers”. That’s correct—2024 has set a new record for the first six months of a calendar year. 

‘Fully costed’ manifestos

Speaking about manifestos, Mr Starmer said that Labour’s plans are “fully funded” and “fully costed”. 

While we’ve not looked at this in detail ourselves, that claim was challenged by the IFS earlier this week, with the think tank saying it was doubtful whether either the Labour or Conservative manifesto was fully costed.

GDP growth 

During the debate, Mr Sunak said the UK’s economy in the first quarter of this year was the “fastest growing in the G7”. 

GDP figures for the first quarter of 2024 show this is right. But the UK’s annual growth last year was among the worst in the G7, and the UK has seen comparatively slower growth since the pandemic than most other G7 countries, including the US.

‘Retirement tax’ 

Rishi Sunak also claimed Labour would introduce a “retirement tax”. That refers to what the Conservatives say pensioners would have to pay in income tax under Labour, compared to under the Conservatives’ “Triple Lock Plus” plan.

Both parties say they would maintain the state pension triple lock and keep the income tax personal allowance frozen until 2028. 

But Labour would not set up a higher personal allowance for pensioners, as the Conservatives have pledged to with the Triple Lock Plus. 

We’ve written a fact check on this specific claim, as well as an explainer unpacking the numbers behind the Triple Lock Plus policy more generally. 

Rishi Sunak also said that pensioners would be “paying tax for the first time” under a Labour government. This could be true for some on the state pension. However, some pensioners whose income is not solely from the state pension do already pay tax on their income, if their total income exceeds the personal allowance. 

Trust in politics

Finally, it’s worth noting that the debate opened with a question about “integrity and honesty in politics today”, with Mr Sunak and Mr Starmer asked about recent allegations of election betting by members of both their parties and officers from the Metropolitan Police.

We’ve covered some of the questions raised in our new explainer about the rules on political gambling.

We also wrote to the Conservatives during the debate to ask them to remove the “Tax Check UK" rebrand of the @CCHQPress account on X (formerly Twitter). This misrepresents posts on the account as an impartial fact checking service.

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