Prime Minister's Questions, factchecked

26th Oct 2016

Will leaving the EU customs union mean border checks?

“Will we continue membership of the customs union, or are we going to see border checks introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic?... On Monday, the Prime Minister said the [EU] customs union was not a binary choice. I can't think of anything other than a binary choice is [sic] whether you have a border or whether you don't have a border.”

Jeremy Corbyn, 26 October 2016

“The fact that he seems to confuse a customs union with a border, where they are actually two different issues, shows why it is important that it is this party that is in Government and not his.”

Theresa May, 26 October 2016    

It seems odd to say that a customs union doesn’t involve borders.

A 'customs union' is a free trade area whose members apply the same taxes and quotas on imports from countries outside it.

The most famous example of a customs union, as the OECD puts it, is the EU’s version (although some non-EU countries are also part of it, notably Turkey). It’s different to the ‘single market’, which is about the EU’s internal trade rules rather than its relationship with external countries.

All EU countries charge the same taxes on imports from outside the EU—the “common external tariff”, as it’s known. The reasoning is as follows (using an example poached from the Economist):

“If France had zero tariffs on Japanese whisky, but Britain had a 10% tariff, then it would be a profitable wheeze to export Japanese whisky to France, and thence (freely) to Britain. So Britain would have to carefully monitor whisky imports from France, and slap a tariff on any Japanese stuff sneaking in (so-called “rules of origin” regulations).”

Such rules of origin checks are in place between the EU and Norway, for example, because the latter isn’t in the customs union. That suggests that if the UK were outside the customs union, but Ireland remained within it, the same would have to happen on the Northern Irish land border.

The government took this view as recently as February, as do other researchers.

Does all this constitute a “border”? As a general concept: yes. It’s a legal barrier between countries.

In practical, physical terms: not necessarily. As we’ve discussed before, customs checks between Sweden and Norway are fairly light touch. There will have to be checks on products crossing the Irish border, but they might not be particularly intrusive.

Mrs May could be saying that people travelling between countries won’t experience a “border” in these circumstances. It’s true that passport controls are a different issue.

Update (15 August 2017)

The government has produced a position paper on what the UK wants its future customs arrangements to look like. We’ve written about it here.

The UK is now the second or third largest donor of aid to Syria

“It is this country that is the second biggest bilateral donor in relation to humanitarian aid in the Syrian region.”

Theresa May, 26 October 2016

According to the United Nations’ Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs the UK used to be the second largest contributor of aid to Syria since the conflict began last year, something we wrote about at the time.

But the UN now reports that the UK was the third largest donor over the last five years, behind the United States and Germany. It puts the UK’s aid at just under $2 billion compared to Germany’s $2.4 billion and the United States’ $5.9 billion.

Based on the average exchange rate for 2015/2016, the UK has contributed roughly £1.3 billion. This tallies with what the Department for International Development says it has allocated as of August 2016.

DfID told us that the UK is still the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid, which is what the Prime Minister was talking about. It said that much of the aid Germany provides is for longer term development rather than basic necessities such as food, water and sanitation.

It may be that this is one of those situations where it all depends on exactly what you measure. We’ll look into it further.

Spending on mental health services

“The Prime Minister just told us that there are record levels of spending going into our mental health services… why is it then than 57% of CCGs in our country are reducing their proportion of spend in mental health?”

Luciana Berger MP, 26 October 2016

"The fact that I set out that we are spending record levels in the NHS on mental health is absolutely right”.  

Theresa May, 26 October 2016

We don’t know for certain whether the amount of money being spent on mental health services in the NHS is at ‘record levels’. There’s no definitive source on it. The government used to publish statistics on changes in mental health funding, but it hasn’t since 2013.

The idea that we are aiming to spend ‘record’ amounts on mental health services is plausible. Five years ago the government was spending half the £11.7 billion that’s planned for 2016/17.

But as we said last week, there are concerns about whether all this money is in fact reaching the front line. Ms Berger’s analysis of Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) spending reflects this.

For the past three years, Ms Berger has been submitting Freedom of Information requests to ask Clinical Comissioning Groups (CCGs) what percentage of their budgets they spend on mental health services, and whether they plan to spend more or less in the coming year.

128 out of the 211 CCGs in England have responded to the latest request so far. 73 of them (57%) plan to spend less of their total funding on mental health this year compared to 2015/16.

Overall, the proportion of spending across these CCGs on mental health is just under 10%, and that’s hardly changed in the last year.

This still leaves things we don’t know. In particular, we don’t know if the CCGs that didn’t respond have similar spending patterns to those that did. Ms Berger told us that in her experience, CCGs who planned to spend less on mental health services tend to be slower to respond to these FOI requests. If we had complete data on other CCGs, we might see a higher proportion planning to reduce their spend on mental health (assuming the pattern continued).

There were big variations in how different CCGs planned to change their mental health budget. One CCG planned to increase the share of their budget on mental health by 22%, the biggest increase, whilst another planned to cut it by 15%, the biggest decrease.

Changes in the share of the budget will tell you about the relative priority that a CCG puts on mental health services. But it’s different from whether the total amount they’re spending is rising or falling. If you take inflation into account, then overall these organisations are spending less on mental health than they were last year.



This article was corrected on 26 October 2016 at 8.00pm. It originally stated that CCGs provide about 80% of frontline mental health services. This is incorrect as it confuses CCGs with mental health trusts. Mental health trusts provide about 80% of all mental health care, according to the Kings Fund. Other typographical errors were also corrected.