25 February's BBC Question Time, factchecked

26 February 2016

On the Question Time panel last night were Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss, Shadow International Development Secretary Diane Abbott, journalists Julia Hartley-Brewer and Giles Fraser, and screenwriter and Conservative peer Julian Fellowes.

We've checked their claims on EU trade, humanitarian aid for Syria, civil service impartiality, the UK's contributions to the EU budget, and weekend deaths in NHS hospitals.

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EU trade

“And the fact is that Europe exports 7% of its products to Britain, and Britain exports 44% to Europe.”—Elizabeth Truss

That’s what the figures show.

In 2014 about 44% of goods and services exported from the UK went elsewhere in the EU. That proportion has been falling for a while.

It rises to 50% just looking at goods and not services.

Those figures may be slightly high due to goods being shipped to the rest of the world through Europe, but the ONS has said this is “extremely difficult” to measure.

In the same year the UK received about 7% of all goods—not services—exported from other EU member states, according to figures from the European Commission.

Figures for services are a bit harder to pin down—there are some discrepancies in the official data. We’re in touch with the European Commission about which are the right figures.

Syrian aid

“We are the second biggest bilateral donor in Syria.”—Elizabeth Truss

That’s right according to UN figures.

The UK has contributed around $1.6 billion in humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis so far. That’s more than any other individual country bar the United States, which has put in $4.7 billion.

It's slightly less than the $1.8 billion put in by the European Commission, which gets money from the UK through the EU budget.

The Civil Service and the EU

“Given that the Government has said civil servants can’t brief people who are against staying in the EU and can only brief ministers who are in favour, is anybody going to trust this assessment, because... the Prime Minister has said they are going to stay in?”—David Dimbleby

“They are able to provide facts to all ministers, regardless of whether those ministers have taken the decision that they want to leave the official Government position. They are able to provide facts.”—Elizabeth Truss

“But Heywood specifically forbade giving information to people in favour of coming out, or that’s what we are told in the papers.”—Julian Fellowes

“I can assure you that in DEFRA we have ministers of both sets of opinions, and all ministers are provided with the facts by civil servants and civil servants are impartial.”—Elizabeth Truss

The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has said in a letter that civil servants shouldn’t assist ministers who want to leave the EU by providing them with briefings or speeches on the topic. But they can check facts for these ministers when requested to.

Elizabeth Truss said on the programme that the government is producing an economic analysis of the different options available in the EU referendum. David Dimbleby’s question was about whether this analysis could be trusted, in light of restrictions to civil servants’ ability to assist ministers campaigning to leave.

Civil servants are bound by rules requiring them to be politically impartial. The rules say this means serving the government of the day, not letting your own political beliefs get in the way and not getting involved in party politics. The government’s official position is that the UK should stay in the EU. So civil servants will be serving the government to help it achieve this aim.

At the same time, civil servants are required to “accurately present the options and facts” and the rules explicitly state that civil servants must not ignore “inconvenient facts”.

Government statistics are overseen by an independent body to help make sure people can trust them. It’s not clear that anyone independent will be involved in producing the government’s economic analysis of remaining in or leaving the EU. We’ve asked the Prime Minister’s office.

The UK's EU membership fee

“We pay 50 million a day to the EU. We get some of it back, of course when they let us, and in the way they want…”—Giles Fraser

The UK never pays this much because of our rebate. Since 1985 this has given us an instant discount on the contributions we owe. This claim is very similar to ‘£55 million a day’ or ‘£350 million a week’ claims we’ve looked at before, which also miss this out.

£18 billion a year—roughly £50 million a day—is what we would pay into the EU budget if we didn’t have the rebate. But because we do, the money we send to the EU is more like £35 million a day.

And as Giles Fraser says, the government also gets some money back. Taking that into account, our net contributions are £23 million a day.

The money we get back is spent mainly on payments to farmers and poorer regions in the UK.  The government may or may not choose to fund these kinds of payment if we left the EU.

“Let's hit this thing on the head of 50 million. The National Audit Office figure is 15 million net of what is given back. This quote of 50 million, it is easy on the ear, but it’s not accurate, is it?”—David Dimbleby

“We are down 11 billion a year for being in Europe… So we give it out and we get some back, which is what I said to start with.”—Giles Fraser

“It’s 7 billion, Giles.”—Elizabeth Truss

These claims are also talking about what the UK pays to or gets back from the EU budget. They seem to be using figures from the European Commission, which were quoted by the NAO recently.

If you'd rather just get an overview of what we pay to the EU budget, we've written about it here.

The figures being debated aren’t the same as the Treasury’s, which underpinned the “50 million a day” figure. The Commission accounts for our contributions and receipts differently, in particular by including payments the EU makes directly to private companies in the UK, not just to the government.

David Dimbleby says we pay £15 million more than we get back. This is a per day figure. It’s from an NAO document showing our net contribution in 2014 was £5.7 billion per year, which actually works out nearer to £16 million a day. To put this in context, total public spending in the UK was just over £2 billion a day last year.

Giles Fraser then said we are down £11 billion a year. This is from the same set of figures as David Dimbleby used, but only includes what we pay out, not what we get back—and it’s per year.

It’s not obvious where Elizabeth Truss’s “7 billion” figure comes from and we haven’t been able to get a confirmation from the government. The closest we can find is a figure of €7 billion—the same as the £5.7bn net contribution above, but in Euros.

Weekend deaths

“Well, the thing I don't really understand about these strikes is, obviously, when it was discovered that you had a far greater chance of dying if you went into hospital over the weekend, clearly someone had to do something about it... It's now gone from 6,000 extra deaths we’re told yesterday to 11,000 extra deaths.”—Julian Fellowes

“11,000 more people do die over the weekends in hospitals. The reason - let me finish - the reason they do die is because they arrive at hospital sicker than the people who arrive Monday to Friday. They are almost all emergency cases. It is absolutely clear. The editor of the BMJ said Jeremy Hunt is publicly misrepresenting the study that he keeps quoting about 11,000 and he is misusing the data to mislead the public.”—Julia Hartley-Brewer

Last year Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that 6,000 people were losing their lives due to poorer hospital care at weekends.

The evidence he said backed this up wasn’t published at the time. When it was, it said 11,000 (£) more people die in England each year within 30 days of admission to hospital on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, compared to the other days of the week.

We don’t know what causes these deaths. The research didn’t say the deaths were because of inadequate services, or sicker people arriving at the weekends.

For that reason the editor of the BMJ wrote to Mr Hunt to ask him to “publicly clarify” the statements he’d made, saying, as Julia Hartley-Brewer referred to, that:

“We all want the very best health service for patients and the public. Misusing data to mislead the public is not the way to achieve this.”

We are pursuing a correction to the record from Mr Hunt.

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