The ITV leaders' interviews: fact checked

20 November 2019

This week the leaders of the Lib Dems, SNP, Brexit Party and Green Party were interviewed by ITV News for the election. We fact checked claims from Jo Swinson on NHS staff, Nicola Sturgeon on Scotland's future currency, Nigel Farage on EU African tariffs and Sian Berry on bus funding.

Lib Dem claims about EU health workers and the NHS are generally true

In last night’s ITV interviews with party leaders, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said that there were “tens of thousands” of doctors and nurses in the NHS from other EU countries. She added that this number has been declining because of Brexit, saying “we are 5000 nurses down.”

It is true that the NHS has tens of thousands of employees from the EU; around 65,000 employees, or 5.5% of the NHS workforce self-reported as EU nationals in March 2019

Of these, 31,000 were doctors and nurses.

It is also 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.  

The House Of Commons Library pointed out at the time of publication that nurse numbers do seem to have been particularly affected by the referendum, as noted by Ms Swinson, though of course other factors may be at play. 

Ms Swinson was also correct to say that there has been a big drop in people in the UK applying for nursing places since the government scrapped a bursary; applications dropped by 20% in 2017, the year following the announcement by then Chancellor George Osborne, and then again by 13% in 2018.

It’s unclear whether an independent Scotland could be forced to join the euro as an EU member

During last night’s ITV election interviews, First Minister of Scotland and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was asked whether a hypothetically independent Scotland would be forced to join the euro once it negotiated EU membership as an independent state.

After the interviewer questioned whether “You’d be forced, somewhere down the road, to take the euro, wouldn’t you?” Ms Sturgeon answered “No we wouldn’t”.

Almost all EU member states, including all new members, are “required” to adopt the euro at some point. Only two EU members—the UK and Denmark—have opt-outs established by treaty which mean they’re not required to join. 

In practice though, it’s unclear whether members would or could be forced to do so against their will. Nicola Sturgeon cites the example of Sweden, which has been an EU member since 1995 but still doesn’t have the euro. 

Ms Sturgeon also cites European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker who said in 2017: “I don't intend to force countries to join the euro if they are not willing or not able to do so”.

Ultimately we don’t know what an independent Scotland would negotiate with the EU. If it follows the example of recent countries who’ve joined, it will be expected to sign up to adopt the euro in principle, once it has met the economic criteria for doing so. But then there’s no way of knowing whether or when Scotland would meet those criteria.

Most African countries can export goods to the EU tariff free

“As part of the European Union we've put these barriers up against African countries and many others from selling their produce to us, freed from the European Union we can do more good to help Africa and the third world.”

Nigel Farage, 19 November 2019

In last night’s ITV election interview with Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party mentioned trade barriers the EU puts up against African countries which prevents them from selling their produce. 

So how punitive are these trade barriers?

African countries have a range of different trading arrangements with the EU and it’s difficult to count precisely how many face trade barriers. Of the 55 African countries, we’ve counted 44 which don’t seem to face any tariffs on goods under EU schemes designed to support the least developed countries. 

Of the remaining 11:

  • Four North African countries have a free trade deal with the EU which eliminate tariffs with some exceptions for food (though a limited volume of food products can still be imported tariff-free), and one more country (the Western Sahara) has the same arrangement
  • One (Cape Verde) can export around two-thirds of goods tariff free
  • Two (Nigeria and the Republic of Congo) can export around two thirds of products with reduced tariffs (for example Nigerian imports of cocoa powder face a 2.8% tariff, but with no arrangement the tariff would be 8%)
  • One (South Africa) has its own tariff arrangements with reduced tariffs on some goods
  • Two (Libya and Gabon) have no preferential trade terms with the EU

So Mr Farage has a point that the EU has some tariffs on African imports, but the vast majority of the African continent can export goods tariff-free to the EU.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard claims like this before on the EU’s trading relationship with Africa and while Mr Farage is not technically wrong on this occasion, the general argument is sometimes expressed inaccurately.

It’s also worth noting that the EU’s scheme of preferential tariffs with African countries reduce tariffs more than similar schemes offered by other trading powers, including the USA. 

Tariffs aren’t the only form of trade barriers. BBC Reality Check said last year: “There may be other barriers—such as regulations, product standards and customs documents to complete - but that also applies to goods from other countries outside Europe's single market, including the US, Japan and Canada.”

Public spending on buses not down by half in a decade

"Our buses have been cut back by nearly half"

Siân Berry, 19 November 2019

The final guest on ITV’s leaders’ interviews last night was Green Party co-leader Siân Berry, who claimed that “our buses have been cut back by nearly half.”

This claim doesn’t include all public funding for buses

The Green Party told us this refers to what has happened to councils’ bus budgets over the last decade.

Specifically, a 2018 report by the Campaign for Better Transport found that, between 2010/11 and 2017/18, local authorities’ “supported bus budgets in England and Wales have been cut by £182 million - a 45 per cent reduction”. Once you factor in inflation, the fall is 51%.

This refers to local authority spending on bus services. But that’s not all the public money that goes into bus services.

A larger chunk of funding goes directly from central government towards supporting commercially-run services. 

More recent estimates suggest the overall fall is less than half

A more recent report from the Campaign for Better Transport looked at both local authority spending and central government funding. It found that local authority spending on buses in England, excluding London, fell by £162 million (43%) between 2009/10 and 2018/19, after adjusting for inflation. 

It also found that central government funding, between 2009/10 to 2017/18 across the same area, had fallen by £234 million, or 19%.

So the central government spend, which is a bigger pot of money, (worth over £1 billion in 2009/10, compared with £381 million of local government spending), has fallen by far less than 50%. 

Most funding for bus services comes from fares

Even then, it’s worth mentioning that fares are a bigger part of bus funding than public funding, making up 59% of bus operator revenue in 2017/18 across England excluding London. This has increased from 52% in 2009/10.

Looking more directly at what’s happened to bus services, the number of journeys taken in Great Britain fell from 5.2 billion in 2009/10 to 4.8 billion in 2017/18, a fall of 7%.

The number of miles a year travelled by local buses in Great Britain is down 10% since 2009/10.

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