British claim to have cut EU charge false: report
A British government claim to have negotiated the halving of a £1.7 billion ($2.6 billion, 2.3 billion euros) payment demanded by the European Union is "not supported by the facts", lawmakers said in a Friday report.
The government of Prime Minister David Cameron claimed last year to have bartered down the sum, which had provoked angry responses from politicians after it was requested by Brussels because Britain's economy had performed better than expected.
The report is another blow to Cameron after revelations his government failed to cut immigration, giving fodder to eurosceptic challengers the UK Independence Party on the eve of their final party conference before the May general election.
In November last year Chancellor George Osborne declared victory after talks with fellow EU finance ministers, announcing "we've halved the bill" and calling it a "result for Britain".
"It shows that when this government fights hard for Britain's interests, we deliver," Osborne told reporters.
In reality the discount was already due to the government under Britain's regular EU rebate negotiated by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984, according to the report by the Treasury Committee, a cross-party group of lawmakers that examines public expenditure.
It said Osborne should have known "well in advance" that the demand would automatically be cut in half.
"The suggestion that the £1.7 billion bill demanded by the European Union was halved is not supported by published information," said the committee's chairman Andrew Tyrie, a member of Cameron and Osborne's Conservative party.
"The terms of the UK's rebate calculation are set out in EU law. It should, therefore, have been clear that the rebate would apply."
However, the government had succeeded in delaying the payment until 2015 without interest being charged, something the committee described as "a considerable achievement".
"By claiming a victory for having 'halved the bill' - a claim not supported by the facts - the Chancellor distracted attention from that achievement," the report said.
The opposition Labour party called the finding "damning" and demanded Osborne apologise to taxpayers for the assertion.
But a spokesman for the Treasury stuck by the government's claim.
"The deal the Chancellor secured on the surcharge was not a technical clarification," the spokesman said. "It was a hard fought negotiation that halved the payment and delivered a real result for Britain."
© 2015 AFP