Sunak v Starmer first TV election debate: What are the facts?

Sunak v Starmer first TV election debate: What are the facts?

By: siri christiansen&
emmi kivi&
nikolaj kristensen&
June 5 2024

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
Sunak v Starmer first TV election debate: What are the facts?

(Source: Reuters)

On Tuesday night, the two men competing to be the next U.K. Prime Minister – Conservative leader Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer – went head to head in the first TV debate of the general election campaign, ahead of the polls on July 4. 

During the one-hour TV debate on ITV News, the candidates clashed on topics including the economy, taxes, health and social care, education, immigration, climate and foreign policy. We take a look at the biggest claims made by both candidates. 


Sunak: Labour will raise taxes by £2,000 for every working household

At several points during the debate, Sunak claimed that the Labour Party planned to raise taxes by £2,000 for every working family. After ignoring several repetitions of the claim, Starmer eventually refuted it, explaining that Sunak had submitted "pretend Labour policies" to the Treasury. "And then they get a false read-out," he said. The claim was also refuted on X (formerly Twitter) by Pat McFadden, Labour's campaign director, who said, "Labour will not put up taxes on working people."

According to the BBC, the Conservatives arrived at the figure by adding up the total cost of Labour's spending commitments—£38.5 billion—and dividing it by the number of U.K. working households. 

The figure has been a talking point for Conservatives in the campaign so far, often accompanied by the claim that Treasury officials calculated it

In a recent letter sent to Labour, seen by the BBC, the chief Treasury civil servant James Bowler said the Conservatives' assessment of Labour's tax plans shouldn't "be presented as having been produced by the civil service" and that he had "reminded Ministers and advisers that this should be the case."

The assumptions for the calculations were made by special advisers, who are temporary civil servants and are political appointees not expected to be impartial in the way that regular civil servants are, the BBC writes

Paul Johnson, director of the independent economics think-tank Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), posted on X that "the £2,000 per working household that the Conservatives are suggesting that Labour is committed to is not independently arrived at or verified. It has been calculated based on Conservative party assumptions about Labour's spending plans." He added that "it looks more likely than not that either party would need to raise taxes if they want to avoid serious spending cuts and meet the fiscal rules to which they have both signed up."

Starmer: Sunak is part of a government that has put up taxes 26 times, and taxes are at the highest level they've been for 70 years

At one point in the debate, Starmer called Sunak the "British expert on tax rises," claiming taxes are at the highest level for 70 years. 

It's true that national account (as share of GDP) taxes for 2022/23 were the highest since 1949, according to Office for Budget Responsibility data. However, in 2023/24, the tax level dipped slightly from 36.3 percent the year before to 36.1 percent. In 1949, the tax level stood at 36.7 percent.


Source: Office for Budget Responsibility

Early in the debate, Starmer also claimed Sunak had taken part in raising taxes. "This is the Prime Minister who's been part of a government that has put up tax 26 times," Starmer said.  

It was not immediately clear which tax rises Starmer referred to. Logically Facts has reached out to the Labour Party for clarification. 

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility's policy measures database - which tracks tax changes, both cuts and rises, announced by the government - there have been hundreds of announced tax cuts and rises since the fall of 2022.

When asked for comment, the IFS referred us to a recent article on the subject by British fact-checking organisation Full Fact in which the Institute commented: "Fundamentally, counting the number of tax rises isn't very interesting or meaningful. It doesn't take into account whether they're big or small, or anything else."


Starmer says waiting lists are up, Sunak says they've gone down

"Rishi Sunak stood 18 months ago," Starmer said, when the debate turned to the subject of health care and the NHS, "and said that those waiting lists, which are now nearly 8 million, he said he would get them down. He made a promise; he said he'd be held accountable. They were 7.2 million at the time; now they are 7.5 million." 

A little later Sunak replied, "We are now making progress; the waiting lists are coming down."

Waiting lists peaked in England in September 2023 at 7.77 million people and have since decreased month by month, NHS England data (including NHS estimates for missing data) shows. It's worth noting that these figures do not cover unique people as some patients may be counted more than once.  

According to the data, in March 2024, the latest data point was that 7,538,800 million people were on waiting lists. 

In October 2022, when Sunak became Prime Minister, 7,214,182 people were on waiting lists. 


Source: NHS England

The NHS notes that from February 2024 data onwards, community service pathways should no longer be reported in datasets, which makes data points for February and March 2024 not directly comparable to previous months.

An NHS analysis suggests the waiting lists have been somewhat affected by the recent healthcare worker strikes, while the COVID pandemic also increased pressure on the waiting lists. 


Sunak: Over the last 12 months, the number of crossings [by small boats] is down a third

A similar statement by Sunak was fact-checked by Full Fact in May 2024.

The claim would be correct when looking at small boat arrivals in 2023 compared to the previous calendar year, but arrivals in 2024 so far are higher than during the same period in 2023 and the previous year. 

According to government statistics, 29,437 people arrived in the U.K. by small boat crossings in 2023 compared to 45,774 in 2022. This amounts to a decrease of 36 percent. 

However, provisional figures show that in the first quarter of 2024, 5,435 people arrived by small boat, compared to 3,793 in the first quarter of 2023. This is an increase of 43 percent.

Starmer: The levels of migration are record high at 685,000. It has never been that high, save in the last year or two

Starmer omitted that net migration decreased by 10 percent in 2023 compared to the previous record year. 

Net migration is the difference calculated between immigration and emigration and displays the contribution of migration to population growth. Indeed, net migration to the U.K. was estimated at 685,000 in the year ending December 2023, according to numbers by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The record year for net migration was 2022, at 764,000, still fitting in Starmer's timing of "record high" migration levels. However, it is too early to tell if the decrease commences a new downward trend.

Sunak's statement on the lawfulness of the Rwanda plan under international obligations

Debate moderator Julie Etchingham asked Sunak if he would remove the U.K. from the European Convention on Human Rights if the Rwanda plan was "blocked by the courts."

Sunak responded that he believed, "all our plans are compliant with our international obligations." According to the Rwanda asylum plan, "illegal" asylum seekers entering the U.K. from a safe country could be sent to and have their asylum claims processed in Haiti.

The plan has faced multiple legal challenges since it was initiated in 2022. The U.K. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Rwanda's asylum policy was unlawful in November 2023, finding that it breaches domestic laws and international agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Refugee Convention. A key concern for the court was the compliance to the non-refoulment principle and concerns over Rwanda's poor human rights record. The U.K. is a signatory to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Refugee Convention.

Etchingham also asked Starmer if he would consider processing asylum claims in a third country. Starmer remarked, "Yes, if that was possible to do in compliance with international law, of course."


Sunak: The Labour Party has not matched the Conservatives' increase in defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP 

In April, Rishi Sunak announced that the Conservative Party is planning to enlarge the defense budget from the current 2.1 percent of GDP to 2.5 percent by 2030. During the ITV debate, Sunak claimed that Labour has yet to match this promise. However, this is slightly misleading – while the Labour Party has not set a specific timescale, it has committed to increasing spending to 2.5 percent of GDP "as soon as resources allow." 

Sunak: Starmer has "worked for extremists like Abu Qatada and Hizb ut-Tahrir"

During a heated exchange over which candidate is best suited to managing Britain's defense, Starmer highlighted his time "dealing with terrorist plots" as Director of Public Prosecutions while Sunak was "at the time making money betting against the country" during the financial crisis. 

In response, Sunak said, "I'd rather have my job than work for Abu Qatada [and Hizb ut-Tahrir]" and urged viewers to "Google it."

The radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada faced terrorism charges and deportation after being accused of being a key U.K. figure in Al-Qaeda-related terror activity. In 2008, Starmer did represent him in one of his deportation-related court hearings during his role as a defense barrister specializing in human rights.

Starmer also gave legal advice to the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir as it sought to reverse Germany's prohibition of the group in 2008. Rishi Sunak has previously mentioned this to suggest that Starmer is a "terrorist sympathizer," and it has also been used in Conservative social media campaigns.

These cases, however, do not indicate Starmer's personal opinions but rather reflect the British justice system's "cab rank principle," which means barristers cannot refuse a case if they are available and fairly remunerated. 

A Labour spokesperson clarified that Starmer did not represent Hizb ut-Tahrir in court but was asked to give advice related to European human rights law, as lawyers are expected to represent a wide range of clients – regardless of whether or not they agree with them.


Sunak: The U.K. will be less energy secure if it bans North Sea drilling

Responding to an audience question on how the two candidates plan to address climate change, Sunak said that Starmer's pledge to block new North Sea oil and gas exploration would make the U.K. less energy secure.

While Keir Starmer is campaigning to stop granting new licenses for new oil and gas field exploration in the North Sea and prioritize clean energy projects, the Conservative government granted 100 new licenses last year and plans to continue doing so over the next years.

However, according to parliamentary research from 2022, an increase in North Sea drilling is unlikely to substantially affect Britain's energy security as 83 percent of its oil is exported. Similarly, a BBC fact-check found that "there is no guarantee that the extra domestic production would stay in the U.K." because the extractors are private companies who sell the oil on the open international market. There are no plans to force them to allocate the production for domestic use.

Follow Logically Facts' coverage and fact-checking of the U.K. Election here.

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before