LONDON — Claims of ruinous spending sprees and twisted truths are flying in during campaigning for Britain’s Dec. 12 election, in which all 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs. The main parties are touting ambitious spending plans while warning of the alleged economic damage that would be wrought by their rivals.
Here’s how some of the statements made by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn stack up with the facts:
JEREMY CORBYN, speaking to Johnson in a Nov. 19 debate: “You’re going to sell our National Health Service to the United States and big pharma.”
THE FACTS: It’s an overstatement to say the state-funded National Health Service as a whole would be up for sale, as Labour has alleged will happen if Johnson’s Conservatives win the election and try to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. The vast majority of doctors, nurses and other staff are paid out of the public purse and there is little chance this will change.
Labour is, however, correct to say the service, which provides free health care to all Britons, could be a bargaining chip in U.S.-U.K. trade talks. At present, the NHS often can negotiate low prices from drug companies because it is so big. The U.S. could try to demand during trade talks that Britain pay American pharma firms more for drugs. Medicines became a big issue in negotiations on a revamped North American free trade deal, as the U.S. pushed for a ban on Mexico and Canada developing generic versions of U.S.-patented drugs.
Some services provided by the NHS are already performed by private companies. The government says payments to private companies made up 7.3% of public health spending in England in 2018-19, though some health charities say that the true figure is probably higher.
U.S. firms can currently bid for contracts if they have European subsidiaries. A future government could increase the amount of private-sector involvement or let U.S. companies bid directly. This wouldn’t amount to “selling off” the NHS since British taxpayers would still be footing the bill.
BORIS JOHNSON, speaking at a factory Nov. 13: “With every month of pointless delay (to Brexit) … it’s costing this country an extra billion pounds a month.”
THE FACTS: The claim is not true. Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union was delayed from Oct. 31 to Jan. 31 after lawmakers became deadlocked on the departure terms. Johnson, who blames Parliament for the failure to leave on time, has repeatedly said that the three-month delay means Britain has to pay the bloc an extra 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) a month.
Britain paid the EU just over a billion a month in gross terms last year, but that fell to about 740 million pounds a month once payments back to the U.K. from the bloc were deducted.
And, even if the U.K. had left the bloc on Oct. 31, it would still be paying the same amount. The divorce deal negotiated by Johnson commits to making the same payments during a transition period lasting at least until the end of 2020.
Even though it is inflated, the 1 billion a month figure is lower than the 350 million pounds a week that Johnson claimed Britain paid the EU during the 2016 EU membership referendum campaign. That misleading figure was infamously emblazoned on the side of a “leave” campaign bus.
JEREMY CORBYN, in Labour’s election manifesto: “Labour will deliver free full-fiber broadband to all by 2030.”
THE FACTS: Experts say the scale of the project is extremely ambitious, and the cost estimate is disputed.
Labour is promising that if it wins the election it will give free, fast internet access through fiber-optic cables to all British homes and businesses by 2030, at a cost of 20.3 billion pounds.
That figure for setting up the network comes from a study consultancy Frontier Economics carried out for the British government last year, and is based on a completion date of 2033, three years after Labour’s proposed deadline.
Others have come up with higher estimates. BT chief executive Philip Jansen estimated a nationwide fiber-optic network would cost as much as 100 billion pounds once operating costs are factored in.
Labour says operating costs will be paid for by tax on multinational firms operating in the U.K. The party initially said operating costs would come to 230 million pounds a year, but now acknowledges the amount could be as much as 579 million pounds a year.
The project’s cost also doesn’t include the price of buying BT’s internet arm, which Labour proposes to nationalize as part of its plan.
BORIS JOHNSON, speaking to business leaders Nov. 18: “(Labour) would wreck this economy with a 1.2 trillion pound spending splurge.”
THE FACTS: This is an overestimate.
The Conservatives claim Labour’s policies would cost 1.2 trillion pounds — $1.55 trillion — over five years. The figure was arrived at by adding together estimates of the cost of everything pledged by Labour during the 2017 election as well as policies adopted by the party at its annual conference this year.
Some of the calculations seem unreasonably high. The Conservatives say Labour’s pledge to reduce the working week from 40 hours to 32 would cost the government 17 billion pounds a year in extra public sector wages, for a total of 85 billion over five years. But Labour says the policy would be brought in “within a decade,” not implemented immediately.
And several of the policies included in the 1.2 trillion total are not in Labour’s election platform, which was released Thursday. An earlier Labour proposal to abolish all private schools, which the Tories say would cost 35 billion pounds as state schools had to take on thousands more pupils, has become a promise to close such schools’ tax loopholes.
The Conservatives also said Labour would spend 4.5 billion pounds on piloting a plan to give everyone a universal basic income plan, but the manifesto only says a Labour government would “explore” the idea.
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Jill Lawless, The Associated Press