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FactCheck: Brown's keynote

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 24 September 2007

There wasn't much that was new in Gordon Brown's speech. But it was full of facts.

A new leader, and a new style of oratory. Gone were the jokes and showmanship of Tony Blair; replaced with a sober, personal and fact-heavy speech, full of patriotism and religion.

There wasn't much in there that was new, and the expected coup de theatre at the end never came. There was, in particular, no mention of an election in the offing.

Some said it was statesmanlike, some said it was flat. Some among the party faithful were moved to tears of emotion, while some cynical members of the press started looking nervously at their arms, wondering if they should try gnawing them off to keep the boredom at bay.

But while it wasn't full of jokes, it was full of facts. We've checked as many as we can...

"There will be more students with grants than at any time in the history of university education."

As with many historical boasts, Brown's not exactly comparing like and like. Under Labour, more people - around 42 per cent of school leavers - go to university than ever before.

Back when Labour came to power, it inherited a system of wafer-thin grants to contribute to some students' living costs while at university, and loans to bolster the difference.

Labour then scrapped the grant, making students completely reliant on loans for living costs and charging tuition fees of around £1,000 a year. The poorest students were eligible for a "grant", paid directly to the university, to cover these fees.

A new funding package from 2006 brought back a maintenance grant of around £2,700 a year for the poorest students. The government announced this year that eligibility for the grant would be extended, with those from families earning up to £25,000 a year able to get the full whack and something going to those from families earning up to £60,000. The rest - around a third - have to get by on loans, or any other handouts they may get from the university.

However, in 2006, tuition fees were also bumped up to £3,000 a year. Universities charging the full top-up fees have to offer at least £300 a year in bursaries to the poorest students - which, combined with their grants, neatly covers the amount they will end up paying in fees.

All students, regardless of how much their families earn, can apply for a loan (paid straight to the university) to cover the fees until they graduate and are earning above a certain threshold - but still, the grant for the poorest doesn't look quite as generous in these terms.

It's highly possible that fees will be increased again after 2010, when the commitment to cap them at £3,000 in real terms is removed. So although there are more students with grants than before, there are also even more students paying even more fees than ever before. Depends how you want to look at it, really.

"Instead of education from 5 to 16, we will be offering free universal education to every child - from nursery school at 3 to advanced studies or training right up to 18... In just one decade we are doing what no government has ever done: moving the right to education from 11 years free education to 15 years."

Since 2004, all children have been eligible for six terms of education before they start school - basically from three-years-old. But what about those at the other end of the spectrum? It's hardly a new idea to offer post-16 education free of charge. However, to date the proportion of those taking it is a blot on Labour's educational copy book.

The number of 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training had increased to 1.55 million at the end of 2006, the highest ever. However, as a proportion of the group, this was an increase on the previous year, but still a decrease from the 77.9 per cent in education and training at the end of 1994.

More worrying are the numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training (or as the jargon goes, NEETs). In 1997, 8.5 per cent of 16-18-year-olds - just over one in 12 - were not in education, employment or training.

By 2005, the proportion had crept up to 10.9 per cent. Despite provisional figures showing a drop to 10.3 per cent in 2006, there are still than 206,000, or more than one in 10, 16-18-year-olds doing nothing the Government can show off about.

Participation in education and training of 16-18 year olds, England

"We have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty."

We have fact-checked many poverty boasts over the past few years, and they generally stack up. But this is a more modest claim than we have seen from Brown previously.

Last year, in fact, he told conference that Labour had produced "The longest sustained fall in child poverty and pensioner poverty since records ever began. The longest sustained fall in child poverty and pensioner poverty since records ever began."

Since that day, things have been going in the wrong direction on this measure. In fact, March saw a small increase in the number of children living in relative poverty - by 100,000.

This prompted concerns that the government is on track to miss its pledge - among the most ambitious it has made - to halve child poverty by 2010, and abolish it entirely by 2020.

Channel 4 News: world poverty at an all-time low
Channel 4 News: children in poverty up by 100,000

"Our commitment to stability has been tested again and again over ten years... the American recession."

We mention this only because Brown as chancellor and should know better, but there was no recession during the 10 years he was in office. A recession is technically defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth.

In the early 2000s, in the chaos that followed 9/11 and the bursting of the dot-com stock market bubble, the US experienced three quarters of negative economic growth, but they were not consecutive - and therefore they did not constitute an official recession.

"And in Britain where once there were 3 million unemployed, there are today more men and women in jobs than ever in our history - for the first time over 29 million people in work."

It's true that there are more people in work since comparable records began in 1971 - 29.1 million for the three months ending in July 2007.

But Britain's population is increasing too. The same statistics saw the employment rate - arguably a more useful measure - fall slightly - down 0.2 per cent on the previous year.

Employment: rate rises to 74.4% in 3 months to July 07

"Longest uninterrupted period of economic growth in the history of our country."

It wouldn't be a Gordon Brown speech without his little canard making an appearance, and it wouldn't be Factcheck without repeating the traditional debunking of this claim.

If you use quarterly figures, it does stack up, but if you use annual figures, which go back further and are more meaningful, it doesn't. In these terms, the period between the end of the war and the 1973 oil shock was actually longer.

And the period Brown boasts of began in the early 1990s, under John Major's Conservatives - and it was the policies of Major and Thatcher, not to mention structural changes in the world economy, such as globalisation, which did much to make the subsequent period of growth possible.

"And I have no doubt that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to renew our Democracy. ... Change to strengthen our liberties to uphold the Freedom of speech, Freedom of Information, and the freedom to protest."

Freedom of information and the freedom to protest have both been under a certain amount of pressure under the Blair/Brown period - to say the least.

Having committed to introducing a freedom of information act in the 1997 manifesto, Blair delayed its start of operation until 2005. There have been some assaults on it since - a plan to restrict the number of requests any organisation could make - and more recently a private member's bill to exempt MPs from Freedom of Information legislation.

This was introduced by a Conservative, but carried by Labour votes. Brown has reportedly supported some measures in the bill, but not others.

Earlier this year, Brown squashed a proposal which would make it easier for government departments to refuse FoI requests on the grounds of cost.

However, a leaked memo from Alastair Darling suggests that he still wants to curtail the FoI act to some extent.

The right to protest has also been attacked. In 2006 the government enacted a half-mile exclusion zone around the House of Commons, which bans protests from the area unless they have permission from the police.

The move was directed at the persistent anti-war protester, Brian Haw, but due to clumsy drafting, his long-standing protest was not covered by the measure.

The right to protest has also been attacked. In 2006 the government enacted a half-mile exclusion zone around the House of Commons, which bans protests from the area unless they have permission from the police.

The move was directed at the persistent anti-war protestor, Brian Haw, but due to clumsy drafting, his long-standing protest was not covered by the measure.

"...I am proud that Britain will become the first country in the world to write into law binding limits on carbon emissions."

Well, California is not strictly a country, but if it were, it would be the world's eighth-largest economy. And last September the California legislature passed into law a bill that obliges the state to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 per cent by 2020.

"And to make sure every hospital is clean and safe, following best practice around the world, there will be new funds direct to every hospital for a deep clean of our wards."

In the wake of concern over infections such as MRSA and Clostridium Difficile, Brown announced at the weekend that wards would get a "deep clean" - to return them to the state they were in when they were built.

He said: "We know that over time, ingrained cleanliness problems build up, especially in hard-to-reach places like ceilings and ventilation ducts, which cannot be dealt with by day-to-day cleaning."

Is it really that simple? "In terms of preventing infection, it's probably not going to do much," said Dr Mark Enright, a reader at Imperial College's department of infection disease and epidemiology.

He says the idea of cleaning is often taken out of context - MRSA is carried by people - staff, patients and visitors - rather than lurking in dust and the like in the environment. It's far more important that staff and visitors keep themselves clean - something which other government initiatives have been set up to tackle.

In fact, the deep clean policy could end up creating more problems, if patients have to be moved out of wards in order to let them be cleaned.

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