European Law Monitor

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Vote Leave lies and misrepresentations on the cost of EU Membership


Vote Leave made the cost of EU membership a central feature of their campaign. In their campaign literature they repeatedly stated that we pay £350m a week to the EU, and if we left we could spend that money on our priorities such as the NHS instead. Many people understood that in the event of us leaving the EU the NHS would get an extra £350m a week, a promise that was rapidly rowed back on once the EU referendum result was announced, with Nigel Farage declaring this claim a "mistake".

Lord Ashcrofts poll identified that the cost of UK contributions was a key issue for Leave voters, ranking in approximately fourth place for  potential Leave voters. The poll also identified that a signficiant percentage of people took it as an established fact that the UK was paying £350m a week to the EU, even though this statement was not factually correct. Therefore, all Vote Leave had to do was to keep repeating this figure, and a number of people would believe it was true.

Vote Leaves methodology appears to be based on Lord Ashcrofts poll. It was identified in the poll as a key issue, and Vote Leave made this a central feature of their campaign, even though they knew that the figures they were quoting were misleading as they did not include the rebate.

Falsity of the statement

The Treasury Select Committee held an enquiry into “The economic and financial costs and benefits of the UK’s EU membership” , in which they said the following:

At the heart of Vote Leave’s presentation of its case is the claim that, on leaving the EU, the UK Government would receive a windfall of £350m per week, available to be spent in other ways, “like the NHS and schools”. This, and the other figures used by Vote Leave for the UK’s EU budget contributions (£150bn ‘contributed’ in the past decade, and £511bn since joining) are highly misleading to the electorate for a number of reasons.

First, Vote Leave’s £350m figure does not account for the budget rebate, which amounts to £85m per week. Leaving the EU could not make this money available to spend on schools and hospitals because it is not ‘sent’ to Brussels in the first place. The rebate does not leave the UK or cross the exchanges. This is repeated in other ways. A 'counter' is prominently displayed on Vote Leave’s website. This purports to show that the UK has historically contributed £511bn to the EU since joining in 1973 and excludes the rebate.

Secondly, the extent to which money that the UK receives from the EU budget (a further £88m per week to the public sector and £79m per week to the private sector and non-governmental organisations) would be available for spending on other priorities, would depend on the policy choices of the democratically-elected Government of the day. Vote Leave has stated that “There will [ … ] be financial protection for all groups that now get money from Brussels”. If that policy were implemented, the money available to fund other priorities after Brexit, such as schools and hospitals, would be much lower, and probably closer to the UK’s net contribution of £110 million per week than it is to £350 million. This would be true even if, as has been widely argued, efficiencies could be made in the way that money the UK currently receives from the EU budget is spent.

Finally, it is not impossible that the UK may continue to make contributions to the EU budget after Brexit, either on a transitional or permanent basis, in return for continued access to parts of the single market, or because it considers mutual co-operation in certain areas, such as science research, to be desirable. This too would reduce the supposed fiscal windfall arising from leaving the EU.

Vote Leave has said that £350m a week is “the core number”, and that it is using the number “again and again”. It is very unfortunate that they have chosen to place this figure at the heart of their campaign. This has been done in the face of overwhelming evidence, including that of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, demonstrating that it is misleading. Without qualification this is unavoidable. Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.

Claims about the UK’s contributions to the EU budget should be set in context; the UK’s gross contribution, after application of the rebate, accounts for less than 2 per cent of public sector spends each year, and is equivalent to less than 1 per cent of the UK’s economic output. If leaving the EU has a substantial positive or negative effect on the economy as a whole–as many advocates of leaving or staying believe it will–the consequent impact on the public finances is likely to be far more significant than the size of any saving from the EU’s budget contributions.”

The UK Statistics authority repeatedly rebuked Vote Leaves use of these figures on the grounds that they were misleading and didn’t reflect the rebate. Vote Leave were aware that these figures were untrue, but dishonestly chose to use them throughout the EU referendum campaign, thereby falsely representing the cost of EU membership to the UK to the electorate.

Vote Leave also repeated this statement numerous ways in its primary campaign document “Why Vote Leave on the 23rd June?”.

In this document they wrote “Since 1973, we have sent over half a trillion pounds to the EU.”

This statement is untrue. The Treasury Select Committee concluded that Vote Leaves statement that the UK had contributed £511bn to the EU since joining in 1973 was “highly misleading to the electorate” and excludes the rebate.  Vote Leave were aware that these figures were misleading, but dishonestly chose to use them throughout the EU referendum campaign, thereby falsely representing the cost of EU membership to the UK since joining to the electorate.

This was a key claim on the Vote Leave website, with a counter running constantly demonstrating how much money supposedly had been sent to the EU since we joined.

In the same campaign leaflet, they also said that “Half the entire English schools budget, or four times the annual Scottish schools budget and four times the science budget”

Having checked the figures, the schools budget is approximately £38bn, and therefore half of that would be 19bn. If the extent of the UK contribution was £20bn a year this figure would be right. However, as the UK contribution per year is nowhere near this amount, this statement is misleading and untrue.

The same campaign leaflet also made these assertions in relation to the NHS Cancer Drugs Fund

£340m                                              20,000m sent to Brussels

NHS Cancer drugs fund

The NHS Cancer Drugs Funds annual budget is £340m  so this figure is correct. However, we don’t send £20bn a year to the EU so that element is misleading.

According to Vote Leaves campaign literature “We send 60 times more money to Brussels than we spend on the NHS Cancer Drug Fund”.

This statement is untrue and misleading as we don’t spend 20bn a year in budget contributions.  We spend approximately £110m a week in EU budget contributions, so these figures are wrong, and designed to mislead the electorate.

Evidence that this statement misled the electorate

An Ipsos Mori poll issued on the 23rd June 2016 found that nearly half of the British public (47%) believed Vote Leave’s claim that the UK pays £350 million a week to the European Union is true, despite the figure being debunked and repeatedly criticised by the UK Statistics Authority.

Just 39 per cent realised the figure, which has formed the centrepiece of the Leave campaign, is false, while 14 per cent do not know . This appears to prove conclusively that the electorate were misled.