A trillion pound black hole: Tory vs Labour claims

As they vie for public support ahead of the UK general election, both Labour and the Conservatives have accused their opponents of plotting secret tax rises and uncosted spending plans.

Between them, the two parties have bandied allegations that amount to more than a trillion pounds of financial black holes over the coming parliament.

But many of the sums are based on policies that are exaggerated, have been abandoned or are simply made up.

A claim by Rishi Sunak — repeated more than 10 times during Tuesday evening’s debate — that Labour will raise taxes by £2,000 for each household was vigorously denied by Sir Keir Starmer’s party.

The sum stems from a dossier presented by Jeremy Hunt, Tory chancellor, on May 17 in which he claimed to have identified a £38bn fiscal hole in Labour’s spending plans following “independent, official costings” of 50 Labour policies.

The figure was calculated by dividing the £38bn by the number of earning households in the UK, and is cumulative over four years. However, the chief civil servant at the Treasury, James Bowler, wrote to Labour earlier this week to say that he had told ministers and their advisers they should not present their costings of Labour’s tax and spending plans as “having been produced by the civil service”, according to a letter released on Wednesday.

Labour called the findings “desperate”, saying the figures produced by Treasury officials were based on assumptions provided by political advisers, rather than civil servants. Labour also said the figures included a dozen factual mistakes.

Yet the £2,000 alleged tax rise is only one of many contested figures to have been deployed so far in the election campaign.

First, the Conservatives said Labour’s planned employment reforms would cost businesses £205bn over five years. Then, Labour said a Tory government would cost households £68bn in higher energy bills. 

Meanwhile, Labour claimed the Tories had made £71bn in unfunded spending commitments. In turn, the Tories claimed Labour’s own wish list could cost £196bn a year. 

All these claims include misleading assumptions or even, in some cases, policies that simply do not exist. 

While politicians have never been strangers to making bold claims while campaigning, experts said the latest set of figures stretch public credulity.

Ben Zaranko, an economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the goal appeared to be stacking up huge numbers to “beat the other party with”.

More worryingly, the race to concoct the largest number is distracting from the genuine need to debate real gaps in spending commitments made by both sides.

“There is a big gap in the debate that is going to be addressed post-election, but that’s not being focused on because we’re arguing about who has the biggest commitment,” Zaranko added.

Labour, on May 29, presented journalists with mock costing documents, made up to look like official Treasury papers, claiming the Tories had made £71bn in annual unfunded spending commitments in the campaign. 

If funded by borrowing, this spending avalanche would increase interest rates by 2.5 percentage points, claimed Darren Jones, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

The problem with this dossier was that it included significant “policies” that are not actual Tory pledges. 

Labour claimed a Conservative ambition to scrap national insurance would cost £46bn a year, while axing inheritance tax would cost another annual £10bn. While the Tories have stated an ambition to abolish both taxes, they have yet to offer them in this year’s election.

Zaranko said it was unreasonable of Labour to include the £46bn NI costing in the calculation.

A Conservative party spokesman described Labour’s analysis at the time as “shoddy documents with made-up figures”.

But within hours, the Tories hit back by costing Labour’s supposed “wish list” of unfunded policies at an even higher £196bn a year, suggesting this would lift interest rates by almost 7 percentage points. 

This rival attack dossier from the Tories also included an array of non-existent Labour policies.

These included £33.5bn to unfreeze income tax personal allowances, which Labour has not promised, and £49.8bn for cutting corporation tax to 12.5 per cent, which is not Labour policy.

“Everything in our manifesto will be fully funded and fully costed,” said a Labour spokesperson. “All the Conservatives can offer is more chaos.”

In the first week of the campaign, the Conservatives suggested Labour’s employment “new deal” — a package of pro-worker policies — would land businesses with £205bn of costs over five years. 

Labour pointed out that the £41bn-a-year claim contained an array of non-existent policies. A spokesperson called the sums “absolute nonsense,” adding: “The Conservatives have once again costed a policy that isn’t Labour’s.”    

But on June 4, Labour produced its own questionable sum when it argued taxpayers could be “footing a bill as big as £68bn if the UK remains dependent on international energy markets” under a Conservative government. 

This calculation was based on the premise that only a Tory-run administration would be vulnerable to the kind of global energy shock that occurred when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Gemma Tetlow, of the Institute for Government, a think-tank, noted that in the Netherlands, political parties were able to submit their manifestos to the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis for independent scrutiny, helping to improve general debate.

Chris Morris, chief executive of the Full Fact fact-checking website, said claims were “swirling around in a way that will make voters unsure what to believe”.

“The bottom line is that politicians must resist the temptation of treating the election campaign like an information free-for-all in which anything goes. If they want to restore trust in politics, they need to lead by example.”

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