Fact check: Immigration claims on BBC Question Time

The UK government has announced its new ‘points-based’ immigration system which will come into force in 2021 after the Brexit transition period ends.

The topic was discussed on the BBC’s Question Time programme, with one audience member arguing that levels of immigration should be reduced to zero.

She made a number of claims about immigration to the UK during her comment, which was widely shared across social media and by the BBC. Ferret Fact Service has looked at them.

“68 million people now live in England and going up”

The latest figures for population in the UK are from mid 2018, showing 66.4 million people living here. Population levels have increased year-on-year since 1982, and projections suggest the population is due to hit 68 million in 2022.

The population of England is just under 56 million.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: False

This claim is false

“You’ve got people flooding into this country who cannot speak English.”

Data from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that in 2018 around half of foreign-born adults living in the UK spoke English as their first language at home. However this does not tell us about how many immigrants cannot speak English at all.

The information comes from the annual Labour Force Survey, which does not ask specifically about proficiency in English.

The most recent available statistics on how many people in the UK can speak English well come from the 2011 census.

FFS explains: EU immigration and Scotland

Then, 138,000 people in England and Wales said they could not speak English, representing 0.3 of the population, however 118,000 of these were born outside the UK. The rest were born inside the UK and may use another language, such as sign language, to communicate. In Scotland, the proportion who could not speak English was 0.2 per cent. These statistics are now nine years out of date, so likely will not reflect current proportions.

Information on the amount of immigrants to the UK each year who cannot speak English is not available. The latest yearly rolling estimates up to September 2019 showed an estimated net migration of 240,000.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: False

This claim is false

“What sort of country is allowing this tourism to come in. You arrive on a plane. You get free service, you can have your babies, you can just carry on having it all for free.”

Non-residents who are in the UK and require treatment from the NHS will be charged for some types of care, but not all. Some services are exempt from charges, and the NHS website lists A&E, family planning services, treatment for infectious diseases, and treatment for conditions caused by torture, female genital mutilation, domestic or sexual violence as non-chargeable.

Those within the European Economic Area (EEA) are currently eligible for a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which allows a patient to receive free medical care in the UK. This will continue during the Brexit transition period, but will be subject to negotiation after 2021.

Those from outside the EEA who are planning to stay for more than six months have to pay a “immigration health surcharge”. This does not apply to those who are seeking to stay permanently, often called “Indefinite Leave to Remain”.

Does Scotland attract only four per cent of the UK’s immigrants?

The woman’s claim appears to be a reference to ‘health tourism’, which is usually defined as people who come to the UK specifically to use free NHS services they are not entitled to, or frequent visitors who use GPs for routine free treatment.

Up-to-date statistics on how much this costs the NHS are not available, but in 2013, the UK government estimated it could cost NHS England between £100m and £300m a year. Adjusting for inflation that would be around £346m in today’s prices using the highest estimate. This would work out as around 0.3 per cent of the annual NHS budget for 2019-20.

In 2019, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) found that around £3.2m was spent by NHS Scotland treating non-EEA visitors who were not entitled to it over the last five years.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False

This claim is Mostly False

Why haven’t they got points set up and you pay , like you do in every other country?

Since 2017, patients who are not resident in the UK and do not qualify for free care are charged up front by hospitals. This does not include A&E treatment, general practice and infectious disease treatment, which remains free for all.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False

This claim is Mostly False

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at or join our Facebook group.

Photo thanks to iStock/BrasilNut1

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