28 April's BBC Question Time, factchecked

Published: 29th Apr 2016

On the Question Time panel last night were Conservative communities secretary Greg Clark, Labour's shadow home secretary Andy Burnham, former leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, former director of the Centre for Policy Studies Jill Kirby and hedge fund manager and chairman of the ARK chain of academies Paul Marshall.

We've checked their claims on EU trade, immigration, benefits for EU immigrants and our EU membership fee.

EU trade

“The EU has a unique approach to movement of peoples. Every other free trade zone in the world does not have any requirement about free movement of people”—Paul Marshall

A free trade agreement is usually about lowering or removing barriers to trade in goods and services across borders, and doesn’t typically set up the free movement of people as in the EU.

The free movement of people does extend a little beyond the EU. It applies in the European Economic Area, so Norway and Iceland have it, as does Switzerland in a separate agreement.

But other high-profile free trade areas don’t. The North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, for example, has a chapter on temporary visas for businesspeople, but that’s about it.

There is at least one example of something like free movement of people operating outside Europe. In South America, a residence agreement set up by the countries in the MERCUSOR trade group has “effectively establish[ed] an open border area in the region”, according to one expert.  

While there are plenty of differences between this and the EU version, the MERCUSOR countries say they want to create “a free movement policy for persons in the region” in future.

“If we were to leave the EU and wanted the trade benefits, we'd have to accept free movement.”—Andy Burnham

This is a reference to the fact that non-EU countries with access to the group’s single market mostly accept free movement of people. If we wanted to join the European Economic Area, that comes with free movement of people (except for small Liechtenstein).

But Leave campaigners don’t necessarily think we should do this. Vote Leave has said that there is “no arbitrary existing ‘model’ which we have to accept in order to prosper”. That is a fair point. It would be up to the government to negotiate the best deal it thinks we can get with the EU after leaving.

Immigration

"We get at the moment about 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants a year from the EU, which we can't do anything about. That means that Theresa May is having to restrict other types of immigrants from other places that we actually need."—Paul Marshall

Immigration of citizens of other EU countries is estimated at over 250,000 a year, and closer to an estimated 300,000 just looking at people coming from EU countries, regardless of their citizenship. These are either at or close to record historical levels.

The UK can’t directly control the immigration of citizens from the rest of the EU under free movement rules.

It can—and has—introduced restrictions on the immigration of non-EU citizens through the visa system. This contributed to a dip in the estimated net migration of non-EU citizens in 2012 and 2013, but it’s now back at similar levels to 2010.

Whether these restrictions cut back the numbers of immigrants the country ‘needs’—from an economic perspective—is less clear-cut. Visa routes allowing certain skilled migrants and former international students were closed, while new ones were introduced to admit smaller numbers of graduate entrepreneurs and people with ‘exceptional talent’.

“People coming in overall are net contributors. They tend to be younger, they tend not to have dependents, they add to the British economy.”—Andy Burnham

There’s no single right answer to this question. A lot depends on the assumptions researchers make when they try to tackle this.

That said, most studies suggest the impact on the economy is small either way, costing or contributing less than a penny in the pound of what the country produces.

There are always winners and losers underneath these broad, national figures, although the effects are still considered to be small. Research on wages has suggested that people who earn less are more likely to lose out.

It makes a difference if you’re looking at all immigrants, or just those from the rest of the EU. Andy Burnham doesn’t specify if he’s just talking about immigrants who are citizens from other EU countries, but studies consistently find they are more likely to make a positive financial contribution than citizens from outside the EU. So are recent immigrants from both in the EU and outside.

Recent arrivals tend to be younger than those here for a longer time, and this can mean they’re less likely to be receiving state assistance. And if people come here when they’re working-age and leave before they get old, they’re much more likely to be putting in more than they take out.

Non-EU immigrants are more likely to have children, and the cost of their education can count towards their costs on the balance books.

Benefits for EU immigrants

“As part of the negotiation, we have for the first time  the ability to require people to contribute to the benefits system before they can draw out, that is a very significant change”—Greg Clarke

The Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation deal included temporary limits on in-work benefits for new EU immigrants, although this doesn’t apply to everything. EU immigrants are entitled to Jobseeker’s Allowance after three months, for example.

EU leaders agreed on a so-called ‘emergency brake’. This would allow the UK, or any member country, to apply to EU lawmakers for authorisation to stop paying in-work benefits to new EU immigrants. This is only for an “exceptional situation”, and permission doesn’t have to be given, but in the UK’s case it’s essentially been signed off in advance.

The emergency brake could be pulled for up to seven years. During that time, new EU immigrants wouldn’t get benefits like tax credits when they first start working, but would start to get a reduced payment that gradually increases until they become entitled to the full amount four years after they started working in the UK.

An EU law still needs to be passed to make this happen, and then the UK would need to make the formal application for authorisation as promised.

We’ve got full details on the emergency brake here.

EU membership fee

“[If we leave] we won’t be handing over £350 million every week [to the EU]”—Jill Kirby

This mainstay claim is not correct. The figure doesn't take into account the fact that the UK gets a rebate, which is applied straight away—before the money goes anywhere.

In 2015 the UK paid just under £250 million a week, and we also get some money back, mainly through payments to farmers and for poorer areas of the country such as Wales and Cornwall.

The UK Statistics Authority said that it is “potentially misleading” to use this figure without explaining that it doesn’t include the rebate or money that comes back, and suggesting this money could be spent elsewhere.


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