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FactCheck: Nick Clegg's speech to the Lib Dem conference 2008

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 17 September 2008

The Lib Dem leader's speech fought global financial meltdown and Labour leadership speculation for column inches. Did he stick to the facts, or twist the truth in the search for a sound bite?

The claim

"Out of all those 1.8 million words [of Conservative policy positions], guess how many translate into concrete commitments? None. Not one."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

It's a common attack, the idea of the Tories as policy-lite, and not unfounded: with a likely 18 months to the next election, the party has mostly shied short of laying out its plans in detail.

But it's not true that the Conservatives have no concrete commitments - a notable one being the raising of the inheritance tax threshold, for which Clegg attacks them later in his speech.

Taxwise, the Tories are also signed up to raising the stamp duty threshold to help most first-time buyers, and adopting a fair fuel stabiliser - designed to reduce and increase fuel duty in the opposite direction of rises and falls in the oil price.

They've also talked about other schemes such as increasing the number of health visitors.

The party has also unveiled "concrete" commitments on increasing the working tax credit for couples, but said it won't implement it until the necessary funds are raised through welfare reform. David Cameron has also committed to recognising marriage through the tax system, but quite what this will entail has yet to be seen.

So there's still a sizeable gap between the Conservatives' big, sweeping claims (tackling the root causes of poverty, caring for the environment, sharing the proceeds of growth - well, back when there were proceeds to share) and the micromanaging detail of the few initiatives to which they've committed.

But it's not fair to say, as Clegg does, that they are entirely devoid of firm promises.

FactCheck: unfunded Tory promises?

The claim

"Labour has doubled government spending from £300bn a year to £600bn a year."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

Depends how you measure it. In 1997-8, total managed expenditure - that's both current public spending, and on-balance sheet government investment - was £321.9bn. In 2008-9, it's expected to be £617.8bn, based on the latest government figures.

So that's near enough to a doubling in cash terms, although if we adjust it for inflation, it's nearer a 50 per cent increase in real terms: the 1997-8 total would be £411.9bn in today's money.

But at the same time that spending has been increasing, the economy has - until very recently - been increasing too. If we look at public spending as a proportion of GDP - arguably the more sensible way to measure it over time - it's increased from 38.8 per cent of national income in 1997-8, to a predicted 41.9 per cent this financial year.

It's true that Labour has increased public spending, and these figures don't - yet - take into account off-balance sheet spending, such as PFI projects. But while Clegg's claim is true on one measure, it's worth remembering the size of the increase in proportion to the economy as a whole is only 8 per cent.

The sources
Treasury: public finances databank (August 2008) - .xls file

The claim

"My shadow cabinet is identifying £20bn of government spending that isn't working effectively."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

Which doesn't seem that grand, given the scale of the numbers we've just looked at.

Still, the Lib Dems have earmarked a number of schemes that they would do without, including the now-much-scaled-down ID card scheme, child trust funds, tax credits for high earners, and - let's not hold back, now - the whole of the department for business, enterprise and regulatory reform.

The hit list doesn't add up to anywhere near £20bn of savings, the Institute of Fiscal Studies told FactCheck yesterday - but as it's a work in progress. W e'll just have to give the Lib Dems a bit more time to come good - or not - on their word.

The claim

"I want this to be the most progressive - most redistributive - tax plan ever put forward by a British political party."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

Clegg may want it to be, but is it? Hard to say, as there's still a fair bit of murkiness around the Lib Dems' tax plans, not least because of the as-yet-unclarified spending cuts mentioned above, which should lead to also-unclarified tax cuts of some degree.

Still, FactCheck has run the rule over the party's existing tax policies, and found that, although the party's heart is in the right place, it's harder to say whether they would work in practice, let alone how redistributive they are compared to previous Lib Dem efforts.

FactCheck: Lib Dem tax plans

The claim

"More surveillance cameras than anywhere in the world."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

"One CCTV camera for every 14 people" was a favourite slogan of former shadow home secretary David Davis this summer, back when he was battling the "liberty" by-election against 42-day terror detention.

But the statistic turned out to be based on a survey of two London streets, eight years ago - which, staggeringly, seems to be the best guesstimate anyone has of the number of CCTV cameras in Britain.

This doesn't necessarily mean Clegg is wrong - and a recent report by campaign group Privacy International reckons the UK has the strongest surveillance society in the EU. But in the absence of more solid info on CCTV cameras, this wouldn't be FactCheck without urging a note of statistical caution, if not a sack of salt.

FactCheck: how many CCTV cameras?
FactCheck: the most spied on country in the world?

The claim

"When Northern Rock collapsed, the chief executive got what they call a 'golden goodbye'. Thirty thousand pounds tax free."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

Tax-cutting Clegg lets the fat cats off too lightly.

Northern Rock chief executive Adam Applegarth stepped down from the beleaguered bank on 12 December 2007, and stood to gain a rather more substantial payment of £760,000, in lieu of a year's salary, according to the company's annual report.

The sources
Northern Rock annual report 2007

The claim

"At the last General Election we won 6 million votes, more than any other liberal party in Europe."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem Conference, 17 Sep 2008

The analysis

Not for the first time, Nick Clegg uses his party's polling record to motivate the conference punters.

Yes, six million UK voters marked the Lib Dem box on the ballot paper at the last general election, but don't be blinded by the large numbers.

FactCheck compared their record to the parties that the Liberal Democrats collaborate with in the European Parliament. Eleven EU countries don't even have populations of 6 million and several have more than one political party in the European liberal group.

The share of the vote may be more appropriate measure of success, but using these stats, the Lib Dems success is more modest. Several other European parties can compete with the Lib Dems 22 per cent share, with some forming governments, at least in coalition, as a result.

Perhaps it is the advice of these counterparts that Nick Clegg may need to turn to if the Lib Dems hold the balance of power after the next election?

FactCheck: more votes than any other?

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