Fact-checking the Sky News U.K. leader debate

Fact-checking the Sky News U.K. leader debate

By: arron williams&
naledi mashishi&
kari nixon&
emilia stankeviciute&
June 13 2024

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Fact-checking the Sky News U.K. leader debate

(Source: Stefan Rousseau/Reuters/Composite by Logically Facts)

On Wednesday night, Sky News hosted the third debate of the U.K. general election campaign. This was the second debate featuring only Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer. 

The format of the approximately 90-minute debate differed from traditional head-to-head formats. Instead, the two politicians appeared on stage separately. Sky News Political Editor Beth Rigby interviewed them first, and then the residents of Grimsby, in the north of England, asked audience questions.

Trustworthiness and political track records

Rigby opened the night by targeting Starmer on his track record of keeping his word to voters and his support of Jeremy Corbyn in previous years—support which he appeared to walk back this week.  

Rigby said Starmer had dropped "six or seven" of his original ten pledges to voters, which Starmer said was "not entirely true."

Starmer's adherence to his 2020 campaign pledges has been previously fact-checked by The Independent, which noted that by May 2023, he had dropped pledges to abolish tuition fees and to raise taxes on the top five percent of earners. 

Starmer's contradictory statements since 2020 about a possible national energy company have been a notable point of scrutiny, one which he himself brought up on Wednesday. In his 2020 pledges, Starmer promised to nationalize energy. By 2022, however, he had begun to back market regulation instead of public ownership. 

Preemptively addressing this on Wednesday evening, he defended this previous change of direction, arguing that when he looked into the numbers for nationalizing energy, he found that it "ran into tens of billions of pounds," which he says would have only been enough to "pay off shareholders… but not [enough] to reduce" home energy bills. Nevertheless, Labour's manifesto appears to re-align with Starmer's previous pledge, including plans for a publicly owned Great British Energy company (GBE). Starmer reiterated this pledge on Wednesday night. 

Regarding the potential significance of the plan as a whole, however, numerous organizations have highlighted the importance of properly understanding exactly what GBE would and would not be. Starmer told BBC Radio Scotland that the company would be "an investment vehicle, not an energy company." Thus, Great British Energy is not an energy company. Additionally, the creation of such a public company is not equivalent to Starmer's designation of a form of "nationalization," as he implied when describing his changing opinions on the matter Wednesday.

Taxes

Taxes have been a major issue of concern for both parties during the election campaign. Sunak and Starmer have traded blows since the first debate about Sunak's claim that the Labour Party planned to raise taxes by roughly £2,000 – a number that quickly became repeated as its own point of contention and was fact-checked previously by Logically Facts as misleading.

In his one-on-one with Rigby, Starmer repeatedly insisted that his party's manifesto did not involve an increase in taxation. Later, Starmer specified that "income tax, national insurance, and VAT" are the taxes that are promised not to rise. Overall, Labour's manifesto includes £7.3 billion tax rises, but these fall on things that Labour claims will largely not impact the majority of citizens.

Rigby pressed Starmer on the fuel tax freeze, which Conservatives have historically supported. Rigby noted that reinstating fuel duties would be an easy – and possibly suspected – way in which Labour might tax "working people." In response, Starmer confirmed his commitment to similarly upholding fuel tax freezes.

The Financial Times, however, has noted that the significance of fuel taxes for citizens and potential government revenue could ultimately be a moot point, as the exponential rise of electric vehicles drastically limits the amount of fuel duty that arises. Fuel duty freezes also jeopardize commitments to climate justice Starmer has pledged against previously.

NHS pay disputes

Starmer emphasized Labour's commitment to resolving the ongoing dispute with NHS doctors, saying that the party's strategy would include immediate dialogue and compromise to prevent prolonged conflicts, allow doctors to return to work, and ensure patients receive the necessary care. Starmer condemned the current government's management of the issue, highlighting the resulting chaos and division that has intensified patient anxiety.

"I don't know a period in history," Starmer stated, "where almost everything is now in a worse state than when they started in government."

While Labour acknowledges the need for a path to pay restoration, they insist it must be balanced against economic constraints. The British Medical Association (BMA) has been pushing for a 35 percent pay rise since late 2022

However, Labour argues that such a significant increase is not affordable given the current economic situation. For example, in Scotland, the approach to resolving healthcare worker disputes has included substantial pay offers within economically viable limits, leading to junior doctors accepting a 12.4 percent pay raise for the 2023-24 period following negotiations.

The demand arose from the BMA's assessment that junior doctors had experienced a 26 percent real-terms pay cut since 2008/09 due to inflation. To restore their pay to its previous value, the BMA calculated that a 35 percent pay increase would be necessary, at a gross cost of £1.65 billion and a net cost of £1.03 billion, accounting for additional income tax and national insurance contributions from the increased salaries.

The current Conservative government argues the cost would be over £2 billion, considering all junior doctors, including those in GP settings. Yet, this gross cost does not consider potential fiscal returns from increased tax contributions.

However, the broader economic context is crucial. The U.K. has faced significant economic challenges due to Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent global economic instability. These factors have strained public finances, making large-scale pay increases more contentious.

VAT policy shift

Labour has stated that it plans to remove the 20 percent VAT exemption on private school fees to generate additional revenue for state secondary schools. This move is intended to ensure that every child has qualified teachers in essential subjects and to address the current deficiencies in the education system.

Starmer has repeatedly pointed out that the lack of proper education in essential subjects at GCSE level can severely impact a child's future opportunities. By removing the VAT exemption, Labour aims to redirect funds towards improving the state education system.

"Now, this is difficult stuff, but I'm not going to tolerate the fact that we haven't got the right teachers in our state secondary schools," Starmer said during a Sky News leaders' event. "That's the position we're in now. It's a disgrace, that position."

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report estimates that this move could generate approximately £1.6 billion per year. According to IFS, the average number of children in private schools has remained steady at 7 percent over the past 20 years despite consistent real-term fee increases. Therefore, the proposed taxation would impact only a small proportion of students and parents.

Critics argue that this policy could lead to the closure of smaller private schools already operating on thin financial margins, thereby forcing many students to transition to state schools, which could strain public education resources and potentially cost taxpayers more in the long run.

Several private schools have recently closed, attributing their closures to various factors, including the impending introduction of Labour's VAT policy on private school fees, which might be dissuading some parents.

However, according to Starmer, the closures have nothing to do with Labour's policy to charge 20 percent VAT, as "hundreds of private schools have closed over the last 14 years."

Additionally, the Labour Party is not in power, so this policy has not been implemented.

NHS dentistry crisis

Labour has acknowledged the significant shortage of NHS dentists, which has affected access to dental care for both adults and children. To address this crisis, Labour has proposed a plan to incentivize new dentists to establish NHS practices in underserved areas. This approach aims to rebuild NHS dental services and ensure accessibility for all.

Labour intends to attract dentists to areas with a critical shortage by offering financial subsidies and other benefits.

"The first [thing that we would do] is to make the money available for 700,000 urgent appointments in NHS dentistry, including 100,000 for children, which is desperately needed," Starmer promised during a Sky News leaders' event.

The shortage of NHS dentists is a well-recognized issue. Due to the inability to secure timely appointments, many people are resorting to extreme measures, such as DIY dentistry​.

The British Dental Association (BDA) reports that around 12 million people are currently looking for an NHS dentist. The U.K. has the lowest rate of dentists per 100,000 inhabitants among G7 countries.

Many dentists find the current NHS contract system unworkable, leading to financial losses for practices offering NHS services. This dissatisfaction has resulted in many dentists leaving the NHS to pursue private practice, where they can earn more and manage their workload better.

There have been calls for substantial change and increased funding to make NHS dentistry viable and attractive for dentists. Without significant changes, experts warn that NHS dentistry is at risk of collapsing entirely.

Various reforms were recommended to address the NHS dentistry crisis before, including increasing the Unit of Dental Activity (UDA) value from £23 to £28 and introducing "new patient" payments of £15-£50​. Other incentives, such as "golden hello" payments up to £20,000, aim to attract dentists to underserved areas​.

Labour has blamed the Conservatives for the NHS dentistry decline. They have committed to obtaining an extra £111 million annually to address the crisis by abolishing the non-dom tax status if elected.

However, ​the crisis in NHS dentistry in the U.K. could be attributed to the introduction of the 2006 dental contract, which was implemented by the previous Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair.

This contract reformed how dentists are paid, switching from a fee-for-service model to a system based on UDAs. The change has been widely criticized for disincentivizing dentists from taking on NHS patients, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and attrition among dental professionals. 

National debt

Since Sunak took office, the national debt has increased from £2,492.1 billion, or 99.4 percent of the U.K.'s annual gross domestic product (GDP), in January 2023 to £2,720.8 billion, or 101.3 percent of the U.K.'s annual GDP in December 2023. The Prime Minister had previously vowed to cut national debt as part of his January 2023 pledges, and when questioned about this, he said, "[National debt] was always forecast to be higher. I was never saying it would come down overnight."

This is not accurate. An official transcript of his January 2023 address, in which he made the pledges, shows that he stated, "We will make sure our national debt is falling so that we can secure the future of public services." While he never said the debt would come down "overnight," he did not previously indicate that it would rise before it fell. 

Nonetheless, he argued that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) had recently forecast that the national debt would fall within the next five years. This is accurate, as a publication released on April 25, 2024, shows that the OBR expects the national debt to reach 98.8 percent in the 2024-2025 fiscal year before falling gradually to 94.3 percent in 2028-2029. 

However, the national debt has previously exceeded OBR forecasts. For example, in April 2024, the government borrowed £6.6 billion more than the OBR forecast. 

Small boat arrivals 

Immigration has become a major issue ahead of the 2024 elections, and Sunak was taken to task over his pledge to stop irregular migration through small boats. Logically Facts previously found that small boat arrivals made up approximately 10 percent of total net migration figures.

When questioned about the increase in small boat arrivals since he made his pledge, Sunak responded, "They were down last year by a third, and they're down over the last 12 months by a little less than that this year. What we've seen is one particular country, Vietnam, accounting for the majority of the increase."

But these figures don't match official statistics. ONS data shows that there were 28 percent fewer irregular migrants in March 2024 compared to March 2023. However, Vietnamese migrants only made up 8 percent of irregular migrants detected at U.K. ports. The majority of small boat arrivals came from Afghanistan at 19 percent, followed by Iran (12 percent) and Turkey (11 percent). 

The NHS

NHS funding and waiting lists emerged as one of the top issues prior to the election campaign. In January 2023, Sunak pledged, "NHS waiting lists will fall, and people will get the care they need more quickly."

However, waiting lists have remained high. When questioned about this, Sunak said, "We are now making progress, and the number you gave is just over 200,000 lower than it was a few months ago."

This appears to be mostly accurate. NHS England publishes data on "incomplete pathways," which refer to lists of patients waiting to begin treatment. According to their most recent publications, waiting lists have declined from a peak of 7.74 million in September 2023 to 7.57 million in April 2024, representing a decline of approximately 172,000 patients. 

However, data from the House of Commons Library shows that the 18-week treatment target has not been met since 2016. Waiting lists increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic and have remained above pre-pandemic levels. 

Sunak was also asked, "What would you do to restore pride in the NHS?" He responded that the Conservatives have provided record sums to the NHS. However, this is not entirely true and depends on whether inflation is taken into account. In 2018, the government announced that the funding for the NHS would be increased by £20.5 billion, while figures stated by Boris Johnson and in other reports at the time stated the amount would be £33.9 billion. This latter figure is only the highest if inflation is not taken into account. When inflation is considered, the increase is 20.5 billion, which would not be the biggest increase. The period between 2004/5 and 2009/10 saw the biggest increase at £24 billion. Therefore, the current figures are only the record sum if inflation is not considered.

Another key takeaway is that NHS spending has risen less quickly than planned at the last election. In the 2019 general election, the Conservative government suggested that the day-to-day health budget would rise by 3.3 percent per year over this parliament, but the average annual growth is slower, implied through current plans to be 2.7 percent per year.

Mortgages and housing

In response to questions about housing and young people struggling to pay mortgages, Sunak stated that he wants everyone to own a home and that the best way to achieve this is to lower interest rates. 

He claims this is why it's a priority to bring inflation down, which will allow the Bank of England to cut interest rates. The Bank of England is not a government entity, but it is responsible for setting the U.K.’s base interest rate and adjusting interest rates to control inflation based on evidence they review.

While it is true that inflation has decreased from 11 percent to just over 3 percent, the Bank of England tries to keep inflation at 2 percent, which is considered the "normal" rate. It is projected that it will continue to decrease until it is closer to 2 percent.

He also claims that other parts of the Conservative manifesto, such as abolishing stamp duty for first-time buyers who are buying homes for up to £425,000, would be a tax cut of thousands of pounds of deposit. However, there is no evidence that cutting stamp duty would lower mortgage rates.

Sunak's closing point on the matter is that people are actually struggling to save up to pay for a deposit rather than struggling to afford the mortgage. It is true that first-time buyers are struggling to save a deposit, with the average time it takes to save for a home deposit rising to 10 years in England. Fewer young people are becoming homeowners due to the rising costs of a deposit and the expense of mortgage rates. Both deposits and mortgages are an issue for new homeowners and make it difficult to afford housing.

National Service and "rip-off degrees"

The final question of the debate concerned the Conservatives' recent plans to reintroduce national service. Sunak maintained his enthusiasm for national service, which he believes would "provide skills and opportunities" for young people, "foster a culture of service in our society, and bring long-term resilience and security." 

The plans to reintroduce national service for 18-year-olds by either taking 12 months of a full-time military placement or volunteering one weekend a month for a year has received significant backlash from both political opponents and Conservative MPs. It has also created division among the U.K.'s military leaders, with several questioning the cost and effectiveness and the difficulties in training "conscripts." It has also divided young people, with some supporting the decision, but many others stand against it, stating it will impact working-class young people the hardest, that they can gain skills elsewhere, and that they feel like they were not consulted on these plans.

Sunak also stated that he wants to provide opportunities for young people and curb the investment in "rip of degrees," which he says lets young people down. He wants to replace these degrees and fund 100,000 high-quality apprenticeships. These degrees are considered "low quality," and under the plans, the legislation would grant more power to the Office for Students. This would enable them to close degree courses that are underperforming based on drop-out rates, job progression, and future earnings potential.

It's also not clear how this might negatively impact specific fields over others, given certain fields lead to higher income earning potential than others. Professors have also stated concerns that it could pose risks to creative subjects

Sunak's plans to pay for the 10,000 apprenticeships come from shutting down these underperforming courses. The Conservatives state that establishing these apprenticeships would cost £885 million by the end of the next parliament and that shutting down the "rip-off" degrees would save an estimated £910 million.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies also stated that, in reference to there being no limit on the number of overall students that universities in England can admit and that universities could recruit students from closed courses and swap them for other degrees, it is unclear if savings from scrapping these courses would be large enough to fund the Conservatie's plans.

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