During the 2016 EU referendum, a central figure underlay the Vote Leave campaign. It was used in their leaflets, in campaign broadcasts, in television interviews, and in large lettering on the side of their battle bus:
We send the EU £350 million per week; let’s fund the NHS instead.
This article examines some arguments made in defence of the misleading ‘£350m a week’ claim. Whether any politician has ‘lied’ about this matter is beyond the scope of my article.
What actually happens
In a reiteration of my article in September, there are four figures to discuss when talking about the UK’s EU contribution:
- Pre-abatement gross contribution: If the abatement did not exist, this would be the amount the UK government sends to the European Union;
- Post-abatement gross contribution: This is the actual amount the UK government sends to EU institutions;
- Net contribution (after public sector receipts): This amount reflects the direct effect of EU membership on UK government finances;
- Net contribution (after public and private sector receipts): This amount reflects the direct of EU membership on the UK economy.
These figures have different uses. However, the amount we “send the EU” is the post-abatement gross contribution.
Despite its name, the EU does not send the ‘rebate’ back to the UK: it is deducted based on the size of last year’s contribution.
As the Treasury Select Committee clearly states:
The rebate does not leave the UK or cross the exchanges.
The Office for National Statistics, HM Treasury, the House of Commons Library and Full Fact all confirm this fact. To suggest we could spend the entire pre-abatement gross contribution elsewhere is to suggest the EU would pay us money after exiting.
Even more counter-arguments
In light of a private prosecution against Alexander Johnson (the summonses have already been quashed), Andrew Lilico defended Vote Leave’s claim in The Telegraph. A 2017 article by ‘Steerpike’ in The Spectator was also re-shared.
‘The rebate is paid to the UK by EU member states’
Dr Lilico asserts:
The rebate is paid to the UK by the member states, not by the EU. The EU does not give us a discount on our membership fee; rather the member states pay us something in return.
The rebate is formally called the Fontainebleau abatement: it is a deduction. Lilico is incorrect — the rebate is not “paid to the UK by the member states”.
‘You should add in the liabilities’
Dr Lilico writes:
A little over half the £40 billion or so “divorce bill” takes that form. If we spread £23 billion in such “liabilities” over five years and add the weekly sum of that to the £250 million or so weekly sum, net of the rebate, then we come to about £340 million per week “sent to Brussels” as an overall net figure.
The ‘reste à liquider’ component of the UK’s financial settlement refers to outstanding commitments at the end of 2020. These are agreed commitments which have not yet been funded.
If the UK stayed in the EU, this amount we would paid as part of its contribution. Adding this figure to our current contribution is plainly double-counting.
‘If we stayed in long enough, it would be true’
From Dr Lilico’s article:
If we had stayed in the EU long enough, that would have been roughly the actual overall net weekly figure we would have sent to the EU in respect of the years Boris and Vote Leave referred to.
That suggests it is false today.
‘It drives the other side loopy’ as ‘it is valid but misleading’
So why did Boris use the gross figure, when the convention is to use the net figure? Simple: it drives the other side quite loopy.
Johnson and others used the wrong gross figure. It is not valid.
Annoying your political opponents should not be the aim of political debate — particularly when achieved through statistical inaccuracy. Nor are other campaigns when misleading statistics have been used an acceptable defence.
We should be seeking to raise the standard of public debate, not bury it.
‘We do not control the rebate’
Contributions are part of the multi-year financial framework, which must be unanimously agreed. Nor was Vote Leave’s claim about ‘control’: it was a false claim about how much we “send the EU”.
‘Gross figures are used all the time’
People do talk about their gross salary and their take-home pay. However, if we received a deduction in our council tax, we would not suggest we ‘sent’ the council that pre-deduction amount. This is the right analogy: it is a discount.
‘Whether the rebate is applied at source is semantic’
It is not semantics. The slogan refers to the amount “we send the EU”. That figure should be accurate.
Let’s assume that the rebate is not applied immediately, and the money does cross exchanges. Where does the “semantic” argument lead us? The purpose of the slogan was about how much money could be used to fund healthcare. That should drive us to use the post-abatement contribution.
‘Any single sentence summary will not be the whole story’
Steerpike asserts: “Any single sentence summary of this situation will not be the whole story.”
Challenge accepted (using the 2014 figures in the ONS Pink Book¹).
The UK would have sent £19.1bn to the EU: our discount meant we sent £14.7bn and our net contribution was £9.6bn.
Brevity is not an excuse for falsehoods. The correct gross figure should have been used.
Statisticians and data analysts should help counter mistakes and misunderstandings in public debate.
¹There is a small disparity between HM Treasury and the ONS Pink Book for our EU contributions.