Channel 4 debate

Fact check: Scottish party leaders in the Channel 4 debate

The third televised debate between the Scottish party leaders took place on 27 April.

Broadcast by Channel 4, the leaders of the five largest parties in the Scottish Parliament tussled over issues which have dominated the campaigning ahead of May’s election.

Ferret Fact Service looked at a claim from each party leader.

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP

Fewer children live in poverty in Scotland, than in any other part of the UK.


Statistics on child poverty in the UK are regularly published by the Office for National Statistics, which collects data on absolute and relative poverty across the UK.

The measure of child poverty Nicola Sturgeon is referencing is not the total number of children in poverty. She is referring to the proportion of children living in households on less than 60 per cent of the average middle household income, after housing costs are factored in. This is widely used as a relative poverty indicator.

On this measure, Scotland’s 2019/20 child poverty percentage was 24 per cent. This is lower than that of England (30 per cent) and Wales, but the same as Northern Ireland.

Scotland’s child poverty level has increased since hitting a low of 21 per cent in 2011/12. This is in line with slight increases in recent years in England and Wales. Northern Ireland’s poverty level has stayed fairly similar.

Before housing costs, Scotland is similar to the rest of the UK, with 21 per cent of children in this category. This is the same as the percentage in England and only one point lower than Northern Ireland and Wales.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

The First Minister’s claim that fewer children live in poverty in Scotland than any other part of the UK is not quite correct. After housing costs, Scotland has the joint lowest percentage of children in poverty with Northern Ireland, although our level of poverty is increasing. Before housing costs, the level of poverty among children is broadly similar to the rest of the UK nations. 

Mostly True

Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour

48% of children in your constituency live in poverty.


Anas Sarwar’s claim is based on a report released by the End Child Poverty Campaign in 2019.

The group released research, done with the University of Loughborough’s Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP), looking at levels of child poverty in local authority and constituency areas across the UK.

The report looked at poverty levels after housing costs using a methodology estimating small areas and the probability of children being in poverty.

The report showed the level of estimated child poverty in Glasgow Southside, which is Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency, was 46 per cent.

The statistic was widely reported in the Scottish media, and mentioned in the Scottish Parliament.

The CRSP no longer categorise its child poverty reports by Scottish Parliament constituencies, and the statistic referred to by Sarwar is from 2017/18, so it’s now about three years out of date.

The University research centre now produces figures using UK Parliamentary constituency Glasgow South, which includes some of Nicola Sturgeon’s Holyrood constituency but covers a different area. The latest statistics for Glasgow South found child poverty levels at 30 per cent in 2018/19.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

While he has slightly misremembered the figures, Anas Sarwar’s claim is based on statistics from a respected research group. They are out of date but the most recent ones available. The Centre for Research in Social Policy no longer produces child poverty statistics by Scottish Parliament constituency.

Mostly True

Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservatives

Scotland does 60 per cent of its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom and that’s the biggest market for Scottish businesses.


According to the Scottish Government’s Export Statistics Scotland report, in 2018 Scottish businesses exported a total of £85bn worth of goods and services. Of that £51.2bn – 60 per cent – went to the rest of the UK. A further £16.1bn (19 per cent) went to the European Union and the remainder – £17.7bn (21 per cent) – went to the rest of the world.

The report showed an increase in the value of exports to all markets compared with the previous year. The value of goods and services exported to the rest of the rest of the UK rose by 2.5 per cent, to the rest of the world (excluding oil and gas) by 3.4 per cent, and to the EU by 4.5 per cent.

The proportion of exports going to each destination varies depending on sector. The food and drink and financial services industries are Scotland’s biggest exporters. In 2018, 62 per cent of the £10.1bn of food and drink exported went to international markets (including the EU), with the remaining 38 per cent being sent to the rest of the UK. In financial services, 83 per cent of the £12.7bn transacted was done with the rest of the UK while the remaining 17 per cent was exported internationally.

The figures, which relate to the 2018 calendar year, were published in January 2020. They are compiled from data collected in the Global Connections Study, a survey sent to 6,000 businesses by the Scottish Government. The resultant report is a National Statistics product that is produced independently to the government.

The 2018 figures are the most recently available because the Global Connections Study was not carried out last year. Correspondence released under Freedom of Information legislation indicates that the 2019 survey, which should have been conducted in June 2020, was delayed due to Brexit, the impact of Covid and concerns about “survey fatigue”.

The 2019 survey was issued in February this year with a March deadline. The results have yet to be published. Based on the timetable given in the published correspondence the process is running around a month behind schedule, meaning the 2019 survey should be published in the coming weeks.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

Based on the most up-to-date figures available it is accurate to say that Scotland as a whole does 60 per cent of its trade with the rest of the UK. It is not accurate to say that the rest of the UK is the biggest market for Scottish businesses because that depends on the sector individual businesses operate in. The figures Ross was quoting relate to the 2018 calendar year.

Mostly True

Patrick Harvie, Scottish Greens

There are probably three times more fossil fuels in the North Sea than we can afford to use.


This claim is a version of a statement made in the Scottish Greens’ manifesto that says there is “at least three times more fossil fuel in extractable global reserves than we can burn if we are to keep our climate safe”.

The Oil and Gas Authority estimates there is between 10 and 20 billion barrels of recoverable petroleum resources in the UK Continental Shelf. The UK Continental Shelf includes parts of the North Sea, North Atlantic, Irish Sea and English Channel. The Oil and Gas Authority estimate, which dates from the end of 2019, includes both discovered and undiscovered resources.

Within the total estimate, the Oil and Gas Authority said there are 5.2 billion barrels of reserves that are discovered, recoverable and commercial. These reserves are classed as “proved and probable”, meaning that while it is highly likely they will be extracted it is not guaranteed.

A report published by environmental organisation Friends of the Earth in May 2019 put the number of barrels in already-operating oil and gas fields at 5.7 billion, and estimated “total reserves to be nearly three times the size of developed reserves”.

It calculated that burning that would release 2,280 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

If the estimated maximum of 20 billion barrels was extracted and burnt it would take the UK significantly over its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change that was signed in 2015. It aims to limit global temperature rises to between 1.5 and two degrees Celsius this century compared to pre-industrial levels. Each country that signed the treaty has its own target for helping to achieve that, known as its nationally determined contribution (NDC).

On signing the treaty, the UK Government initially said it would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 57 per cent of 1990 levels. In its first NDC, which was published in December 2020, it increased that commitment to “at least a 68 per cent reduction” by 2030. If that target is achieved, UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 would be 277 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

In March, the UK Government published its North Sea Transition Deal in conjunction with industry body Oil and Gas UK. As part of that, the oil and gas sector has committed to cutting emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. The UK Government has also made a commitment, enshrined in law, to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035.

The UK Government has said it will continue to issue licences for further exploration in UK waters, but that applicants will have to pass a “climate compatibility” test.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

Patrick Harvie’s claim is likely to be approximately accurate. Maximum industry estimates say there could be a maximum of 20 billion barrels in UK waters, with from 5.2-5.7 billion extracted or likely to to be. If the estimated maximum of 20 billion barrels was extracted and burnt it would take the UK significantly over its commitments under the Paris Agreement. Harvie’s wider point about the UK Government continuing to issue exploration licences is correct.

Mostly True

Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrats

We have one of the highest drug deaths in Europe, and in the modern world. It’s three and a half times higher than England.


Drug deaths in Scotland have been consistently high in Scotland in recent years, and the Scottish Government has been regularly criticised over the issue by opposition MSPs.

Data on Scottish drug deaths comes in an annual report from the National Records of Scotland (NRS), and the latest statistics cover 2019.

The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2019 was 1,264, up from 1,187 in 2018. This is a six per cent increase and the highest figure since records began in 1996.

Over the last ten years, drug deaths in Scotland have increased by 132 per cent.

Rennie claimed that Scotland’s drug death rate was one of the highest in Europe.

When comparing drug deaths between European countries the report uses deaths per million people between the ages of 16 and 65, combining data with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (EMCDDA)

Using the latest report, Scotland’s drug death rate per million in 2019 was 231.4. When comparing with other European countries, the previous year’s rate is used in order to compare directly with equally up-to-date figures, which is 295 per million people

The NRS report states that there are differences in the way that data is gathered, including under-reporting in some countries, which means some caution is required when comparing European countries, but states that “Scotland’s drug-death rate was higher than those reported for all the EU countries”.

It’s important to note that some countries included suffer from recognised issues with under-reporting, and NRS states it is not possible to be exact on the number of countries that Scotland’s has a higher rate than, but that “it appears certain that Scotland’s rate is well above the level of most (if not all) of the EU countries”

While Rennie did not define what he meant by “the modern world”, it is likely he meant those industrialised nations which are among the world’s most economically prosperous.

Comparisons between countries around the world are subject to caveats of different classification, reporting levels and coding.

According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) the US, for example, had a rate in 2019 of 216 deaths per million, which is lower than the rate in Scotland.

The NRS report also reveals that Scotland’s rate is three and a half times higher than the UK as a whole. England’s death rate according to 2019 statistics was about 48 per million population, which means Scotland’s rate is nearly five times higher than England.

Drug death rates are collected slightly differently in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but the NRS report says these differences are unlikely to account for the “majority of the difference between those rates”.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

Willie Rennie’s claim is mostly accurate. Scotland has the highest recorded rate of drug deaths across Europe Union nations measured. His contention that Scotland’s rate is three and a half times higher than England is underestimated. That is actually the difference between Scotland’s rate and the whole of the UK. Scotland’s drug death rate is nearly five times higher than England.

Mostly True
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