Prime Minister's Questions, factchecked

16th Nov 2016

Free trade outside the EU customs union

“[Boris Johnson said] that the UK is likely to leave the EU customs union post-Brexit but still wants to trade freely afterwards. In response, his colleague from the Netherlands has said that that option ‘doesn’t exist’ and is impossible. Both of these things cannot be correct.

Angus Robertson MP, 16 November 2016

“The right honourable gentleman doesn’t actually seem to understand that the customs union is not just a binary decision”

Theresa May, 16 November 2016

“Pravděpodobně budeme muset opustit celní unii”, Boris Johnson told Czech newspaper Hospodářské Noviny the other dayor so it was translated. Rendered back to English, it reads:

“We'll probably have to leave the customs union, but it is a question that will be discussed. I believe it can be done while maintaining free trade”.

It’s correct that Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem responded negatively to those remarks. He told Newsnight that:

“To say [the UK] could be inside the internal market, keep full access to the internal market but be outside the customs union [is] intellectually impossible [and] politically unavailable”.

Mr Johnson didn’t quite say that he wants to be in the single market but out of the customs union.

He spoke of “maintaining free trade” and “access to” the single market outside the customs union. It’s possible to imagine a fairly free trade arrangement with the EU that doesn’t require single market or customs union membership.

Being a member of the EU customs union means charging the same taxes on imports from outside the EU as all other members—the “common external tariff”.

It’s different to being part of the EU single market. Turkey is an example of a country that’s in a customs union with the EU for non-agricultural goods, but isn’t an EU member and isn’t part of the single market. Customs union membership limits its freedom in negotiating trade agreements with other countries. So on that basis, it does look like there’s quite a “binary decision”: “in” or “out”.

Daniel Thornton, a Programme Director at the Institute for Government who has written about the customs union, agrees. He points out, as does EU law professor Steve Peers, that under World Trade Organisation rules customs unions are supposed to cover “substantially all the trade” between participating countries.

So the UK would have limited room to pick and choose which products were subject to customs union, and which weren’t.

The Department for Exiting the European Union referred us to comments made by Mrs May’s spokesperson to journalists recently. These were to the effect that there are various aspects to the customs union, including tariffs, customs paperwork and rules of origin. It’s fair to say that with a trade agreement, some of these barriers to trade could be reduced without being in a full-on customs union.

The biggest cause of death depends on how you count them

“Dementia is the single greatest health crisis faced by this country. New figures by the ONS reveal that dementia and Alzheimer's disease are now the leading cause of death”

Judith Cummins MP, 16 November 2016

The leading cause of death depends on how broadly you categorise the main illnesses.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were the leading cause of deaths in England and Wales in 2015, accounting for 12% of all deaths, provided you count each type of cancer separately.

If you look at broad groups then cancer as a whole was the most common cause, accounting for 28% of deaths.

The number of deaths per million people caused by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, taking age into account, has increased since 2010, in part driven by changes to how its recorded as a main cause of death. The same measure for other common diseases, such as coronary heart disease, strokes and lung cancer, has been falling.

People are tending to live longer and healthier lives, so more of us are living long enough to develop dementia. Improving diagnosis rates and a better understanding of the disease have probably also increased the recording of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease on death certificates.

Unemployment is at a 10-year low

“The employment figures show the strength of the fundamentals of our economy, with the employment rate never been higher, the unemployment rate the lowest than it has been for more than a decade”

Theresa May, 16 November 2016

It’s correct that the employment rate has never been higher on record (since 1970). 75% of people aged 16-64 are doing paid work, government sponsored training, or unpaid work for a family business (including people who are temporarily away from their job). It’s also at record levels counting people up to state pension age.

And it’s correct that the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been for over ten years. That means fewer people have been looking for a job in the past month, or are waiting to start one in the next two weeks, than at any point since 2005.

But it can’t possibly be correct that:

“ the past year, employment in [Wendy Morton’s] constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills has gone up by 88,000.”

Theresa May, 16 November 2016

There are only about 78,000 people living in the Aldridge-Brownhills constituency, according to latest estimates.

Around 39,000 people were employed from July 2015 to June 2016. That’s about 4,500 more than the previous year. It’s not clear whether this is statistically significant.

We’re not sure where Mrs May found her claim for the size of the increase. The ONS told us this is the most recent published data for employment by constituency.

What's happening to social mobility?

“In their State of the Nation report her government’s Social Mobility Commission today issued a damning verdict on progress. Things are getting worse. They concluded that the key drivers of social mobility—quality in early education, narrowing the educational attainment gap, and access to work and housing—are all going backwards under her watch.”

Lucy Powell MP, 16 November 2016

“I note that the Social Mobility Commission has reported today that more working class youngsters are benefiting from higher education than at any point in our history. The government’s invested record levels in childcare and early years, and the attainment gap as the report acknowledges has actually narrowed.”

Theresa May, 16 November 2016

The Social Mobility Commission today issued a report which concluded that in Great Britain “for this generation of young people in particular, it [social mobility] is getting worse not better.” It also said that it wasn’t just the poorest in society who faced barriers to progress.

While Mrs May and Ms Powell portrayed the report very differently across a whole range of areas, one issue the report raised seems particularly contested. Just what did the Social Mobility Commission say about the educational attainment gap? Can it be “going backwards” and narrowing at the same time?

The simple answer is that the Prime Minister is correct when she says that the Commission found the attainment gap in schools in England has narrowed. The report says that the difference in exam performance between children eligible for free school meals and their relatively wealthier classmates has decreased in the last ten years.

But it isn't quite that clear cut. The Commission also says that there is still a link between income and academic achievement which it describes as “clear and strong”. It also says the attainment gap increases the further through school a pupil goes.

Although it welcomes the focus the government has placed on the poorest pupils, the Commission says that “arguably” not enough has been done to wipe out the attainment gap  across all income groups.