Sky News Conservative leadership Q&A: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss fact checked
Sky News has hosted a live televised Q&A with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, as the Conservative leadership contest continues and party members prepare to decide who will be the next Prime Minister.
The wide-ranging ninety-minute discussion took in the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, the NHS and more. We’ve taken a look at some of the key claims.
As part of Full Fact’s coverage of this event, we’ve been working with the Sky News Politics Hub to share our live fact checking.
We’ll continue to cover the leadership contest in the coming weeks. We also covered the Channel 4, ITV and BBC debates. In partnership with Full Fact, UK in a Changing Europe has published a guide to the policy landscape of the Conservative leadership debate, including the fiscal challenges facing the new Prime Minister. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has also written an analysis of Mr Sunak and Ms Truss’s tax and spending plans.
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Liz Truss on public sector pay, Brits fighting in Ukraine and corporation tax
Challenged on her now-scrapped policy to save up to £8.8 billion from the public sector wage bill through regional pay boards, Ms Truss said: “What I am clear about is that policy was not about teachers and doctors.” Ms Truss also claimed that her proposals had been “misrepresented”.
However as we found earlier this week, and as was subsequently pointed out in the Q&A, Ms Truss’s own press release said that the £8.8 billion figure referred to “the potential savings if the system were to be adopted for all public sector workers in the long term”.
Under Ms Truss’s proposals, decisions on public sector pay would have been put in the hands of regional pay boards, with rates decided based on the cost of living in respective regions. This means that civil servants and public sector workers in poorer regions would have been paid less than their counterparts in wealthier regions.
In the detail of her proposals, Ms Truss didn’t commit to pay cuts for existing civil servants or public sector workers—in fact, she explicitly said that the changes would only apply to new recruits, and they would have to be rolled out “over a number of years”.
However, given Ms Truss’s press release talked of £8.8 billion savings if the system applied to “all public sector workers”, this would either involve cutting or freezing existing public sector salaries or phasing in the changes over a very long period.
Ms Truss was also challenged on her previous comments about Britons going to Ukraine to fight. She claimed that she had “always been clear that the travel advice is that British people should not go to Ukraine”.
But this isn’t true. On 27 February, she was asked on BBC One's Sunday Morning programme about whether or not she would support individuals travelling from Britain to Ukraine to fight.
In response, she said: "I do support that, and of course that is something that people can make their own decisions about.
"The people of Ukraine are fighting for freedom and democracy not just for Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe because that's what President Putin is challenging."
As presenter Kay Burley pointed out during the Sky News Q&A, at the time Ms Truss said this, Foreign Office advice was warning: ”If you travel to eastern Ukraine to fight, or to assist others engaged in the conflict, your activities may amount to offences against UK terrorism or other legislation and you could be prosecuted on your return to the UK.”
A transcript of Ms Truss’s Sunday Morning appearance shows she did not make any mention of the Foreign Office travel advice during her interview, and there was no mention of it in much of the subsequent media coverage about her support for those travelling to fight, for example on the BBC, MailOnline or Independent.
At no point during the interview did she make clear that her own opinion deviated from the official advice issued by the department she headed up.
Finally, it is true the UK’s planned corporation tax rise will take rates to around the same level as France, as Ms Truss claimed during the programme.
In March 2021, the main rate of corporation tax in the UK was set at 19% for 2022, rising to 25% of profits over £250,000 in 2023.
France meanwhile has been reducing its corporation tax rate in recent years, hitting 25% in 2022.
However, as we’ve written before, data collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for 2021, shows that other G7 countries such as Japan, the US and Germany all have corporation tax rates higher than 25%.
Rishi Sunak on defence spending, Covid-19 support and the NHS levy
Mr Sunak said that, as Chancellor, he oversaw the largest increase in the defence budget since the end of the Cold War.
But it’s a claim we’ve struggled to verify as it’s hard to make comparisons over time, due to how accounting methodology has changed.
What we do know is that in real terms (ie, taking inflation into account), the defence budget rose by £2.7 billion between 2020/21 and 2021/22. But the rise in inflation means that by the end of the four-year period, defence spending is forecast to be only £1.5 billion above the 2020/21 level in real terms, according to a House of Commons Library briefing published in April.
By comparison, the defence budget actually rose more in real terms in the year before Mr Sunak became Chancellor, from £41.7bn in 2019/20 to £43.3bn in 2020/21.
(All these real-terms costs are in terms of 2021/22 prices.)
Later in the programme, when talking about his record as Chancellor during the pandemic, Mr Sunak claimed that support packages he put in place “ended up protecting over 10 million jobs” and “saved over a million businesses”.
A total of 11.7 million employee jobs were furloughed through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, at a cost of £70 billion, and in September 2021 (when around 1.5 million people were still on furlough) the Institute for Government think tank said it had “protected around eight million people from unemployment”.
The furlough scheme didn’t protect all jobs—figures calculated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that around one million people were made redundant between April 2020 and June 2021, compared to 550,000 for the same period in 2019.
Mr Sunak didn’t explain exactly what he was referring to when he claimed that his interventions had “saved over a million businesses”, but more than 1.4 million businesses were supported through government-backed lending schemes, not including those which may have benefitted from the furlough scheme only.
We’ve not immediately found the source of Mr Sunak’s claim that over a million businesses were “saved”. Research commissioned by the British Business Bank claimed loan guarantee schemes may have saved up to 500,000 businesses, though that may not include those “saved” by other support schemes.
There have also been significant concerns about losses related to the Bounce Back Loan scheme. In 2021, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimated that £17 billion (37%) of Bounce Back loans would not be repaid.
This was mostly attributed to the fact that businesses would not survive long enough to pay back their loans. However it should be kept in mind that these estimates are subject to wide margins of error and may vary as loan repayments continue.
It is also estimated billions of pounds worth of business support was lost to fraud and error.
Finally, Mr Sunak claimed that Ms Truss’s plan to scrap the “NHS levy” is one that “benefits the top 15% of earners”.
Again, it’s not entirely clear what Mr Sunak was referring to here. While the top 15% of earners would benefit from the change, so too would many earning less.
The Health and Social Care Levy, which this year takes the form of a 1.25 percentage point rise in National Insurance which came into effect in April, is paid by workers and employers.
As an employee, you pay National insurance on earnings above £1,048 a month, or around £12,500 a year, so it's clear reversing the rise in National Insurance would not only affect the top 15% of earners.
Mr Sunak may be echoing comments made by former health secretary Sajid Javid to Sky News back in April, when he said the top 15% of earners will pay almost 50% of the increased tax take.
But if so, that’s not the same as saying only those 15% of earners would benefit from the policy being reversed
Update 5 August 2022
This article was updated to add a link to a transcript of Ms Truss’s February interview with the BBC about Ukraine.