Yardley Hustings 2015: L to R Eamonn Flynn (TUSC) Arun Photay (Con) Jon Morris (Chair) Jess Phillips (Lab) John Hemming (Lib Dem) Teval Stephens (Respect) Thanks to John O’Shea for permission to use image.
Stop Press: Twitter Hustings for Yardley – 5 pm Thursday 2 April. All candidates likely to take part. Organised between @BirminghamMail and @TwitterUK – Hashtags #yardleydebate and #GE2015
Yardley did it! After an absence of hustings in Yardley since 2001, on Saturday 21st March 2015 Yardley held a packed hustings at South Yardley Library with standing room only at the back. Five candidates attended: for names and parties see above. The Green Party candidate, Grant Bishop, sent a short address to be read out in his absence, inadvertently breaking the ice by saying he knew there would not be many there … the room burst out into chuckles.
Otherwise the candidates introduced themselves as follows:
Grant Bishop said (in his written address) that at 23 he had been in the Green Party for five years: the poor, and green spaces in Birmingham, should both be protected. We should not continue with fossil fuels.
The other candidates all concentrated upon their local credentials: Jess Phillips for Labour described herself as ‘a real Brummie’ her father taught at Sheldon Heath School, her ‘Nan’ occupied one of the first council houses on Gleneagles Road in Yardley She was ‘Victims Champion’ for the City and had been a community activist all her life. Otherwise this was a fairly typical Labour Party address: the rich were getting richer, and people were struggling; she supported the NHS, Police etc. against the cuts.
John Hemming, Lib-Dem and the sitting candidate matched Phillips on local background in an almost spooky mirroring: his mother grew up on the Stockfield Council Estate in Acocks Green. His father had worked in South Yardley Library, where the hustings were being held. (For people unfamiliar with Yardley Constituency it is useful to understand that Yardley is both the name of a large medieval parish of Birmingham and the name of a modern suburb in that parish. The wider constituency of Yardley also includes much of the old parish which now contains the modern suburbs of Acocks Green, Sheldon and Stechford – the other three wards in the constituency.) Hemming said he was not interested in being a government minister, but rather preferred to campaign on various issues including most especially child abuse and the secret imprisonment of individuals. There was a need to protect the bottom level of society, to protect people on the minimum wage and to fund the NHS properly, although he was not averse to some privatisation – e.g. Birmingham Children’s Hospital had rented a scanner. He was concerned to strengthen UN and international law in regard to issues like the proposed attack on Syria in 2013. He believed in giving good support locally to constituents and employed a Benefits adviser at the Lib-Dem centre in Yardley.
Arun Photay, the Conservative candidate lacking this year’s must have accessory of a recent forbear having lived in a council house in the constituency made the most of the fact that, although he is a councillor in Wolverhampton, he began his working life in Birmingham. Like Phillips he was involved in campaigning for the rights of abused women: this time as the ambassador for the ‘Sharon Project’. Like the Labour and Lib-Dem candidates he stressed the importance of maintaining the NHS: his wife is a GP. He believed in increasing the numbers of doctors and nurses. We also need to encourage businesses to set up and settle in Yardley.
It was back to the local boy/girl angle with Respect candidate, Teval Stephens who has lived in Yardley all his life, and he owns a business across the road from the Library. He was concerned about the social divisions he saw everywhere around him, the erosion of civil liberties and the selling off of the public sector. He noted that the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ hoax in Birmingham had caused grades in one school to drop. He also believed that there should be a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on bankers’ bonuses and that tax loopholes should be cut: ‘We need a centre left party not afraid to be called Socialist’
Eamonn Flynn, for TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) explained that the party was a coalition of different socialist groups and activists. He observed that Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world but that ‘you wouldn’t know it’. Like Stephens he has lived in the constituency all his life. We need another alternative than Labour offering another five years of austerity. We should share the national pot out more fairly and should build more social housing and build up the NHS: the NHS in fact seems to be everyone’s favourite organisation this election.
The virtually Question Time style two hour session was brisk, with the Chair steering his way carefully through the many hands shooting up between each question and taking as many as possible, but giving priority to non-party members (asking all the candidates to be honest in identifying their own followers)
Questions were varied, but between them covered a lot of key ground in this election:
Enforced workfare for young people
Jess Phillips. Eamonn Flynn and Teval Stephens said that they were opposed to this. Arun Photay for the Conservatives said that he could not see anything wrong with it ‘if it helps get a solid job’. John Hemming, steering a middle path and said that people should not be employed using workfare when there are real jobs available. There needs to be some compulsion but care should be taken because people can be sanctioned unnecessarily. Jess Phillips, who was particularly emphatic in her opposition to workfare was asked whether she was aware that her party had acted in effect in support of this She appeared a little surprised, but said that she did not always agree with her party.
How is Birmingham City Council investing in Birmingham?
This seemed a slightly strange question for parliamentary candidates, but they gamely tackled it anyway.
Flynn said nothing was being done and the Council needs to stand up for the people of Birmingham.
Phillips (A BCC councillor) said that the Council has investment schemes and space for creating new industry in Hodge Hill, but there is not enough development happening. She defended the Council’s recent cost cutting budget saying that it would be ‘irresponsible not to set a budget.
Photay called for more investment in industry: ‘Yardley’s not even on the map. Stop giving money to unions!’
Hemming said that Birmingham needs to encourage private sector growth. It would be good to extend the runway at Birmingham Airport, but you need economic stability for that. Whoever is in Downing Street there will be more cuts in Birmingham, but that living standards have been improving since 2010.
Stephens argued that more council houses needed to be built in order to reduce homelessness and that this would provide proper jobs. Ordinary people should receive more funding to start business rather giving more money than large corporations. Abandoned shops could be used.
Proposed Anti-Strike Law – Minimum 50% Union Balloting Before Walkout
Photay supported this. He is against sudden walkouts because of the effect on the economy. All other candidates opposed. Hemming said this was a Conservative, rather than a Lib-Dem idea – no backing from Lib-Dems. Stephens said it was the basic right of anyone to be able to withdraw their Labour. Flynn said he was concerned that an employer has the right not to recognise a union and that anti-union legislation, which Labour over the years has not opposed, should be reversed. Also it should not be assumed that because someone did not vote that they are necessarily opposed to strike action. Phillips agreed with this late point saying that, for example, many nurses are mothers with small children and may not have the time to attend union meetings.
Legal Tax Avoidance
(This is an issue which the campaign organisation 38 Degrees have been campaigning around vigorously) Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone declared themselves agin’ it.
Hemming gave what he himself called the ‘obvious examples’ of Starbucks and Amazon. These organisations should be taxed in this country. He is signed up to the idea of a ‘tax dodging bill’
Stephens said that corporations need to pay tax in the same way as working people pay tax. Also, at present whilst small businesses pay heavy premiums large corporations get to be able to do ‘all manner of things’.
Flynn said that the problem was that ‘avoidance is the legal one’. It was easy for big companies because they could pay accountants £100,000 to find loopholes to avoid paying any tax at all.
Phillips said she agreed largely with everything that had been said so far, especially on the tax loopholes. Everybody should pay their dues – if you trade in this country then you should pay your taxes here too.
Photay said that if you are getting money from the British Government (tax breaks and business grants presumably) then you should pay into the pot for the economy. Some progress had been made on this, but more needed to be done.
Where do the candidates Stand on Palestine and Should we End the Arms Trade with Israel?
No-one indicated themselves happy with the present situation in Palestine. Beyond that answers were slightly more mixed.
Stephens said that his party leader, George Galloway, had spoken on this point ‘non-stop’, and that support for a peaceful solution for Palestine was central to his party ethos: there should be peace in the area, an end to the illegal settlements and a one state solution.
Flynn opposed sending arms to Israel and also pointed out that multinational companies are exploiting Palestinians: what happens in Palestine is also affecting this country, and there is an immediately local link in the form of the activities of the Veolia Waste company which has its nearest recycling base very close by, in Tyseley, which is where The Constituency’s waste goes.
Phillips said that from what she had seen it was an issue which mattered a lot to people in The Constituency. She agreed that we should stop arming people who kill children, and that the illegal settlements should be treated as that. We should also use our consumer power and boycott Israeli settlement goods. However, she qualified this by saying that she ‘doesn’t know the ins and outs the consequences’.
Photay said that he also ‘didn’t know the ins and outs of arms sales agreements’. He was hoping for a two state solution, but agreed that ‘If you go on fighting nothing gets resolved.’
Hemming explained that he had worked with a group of people in order to collect a dossier and submitted this to The International Criminal Court in 2012. Part of the problem is that America and Israel both ignore international law. They will veto an investigation at the Hague, but he is still looking for international law to be brought to bear. He proposed the debate to recognise Palestine which The commons finally voted through, and the Lib-Dems have called for the suspension of arms licenses. The main thing though is to strengthen international humanitarian law.
Climate Change: Where did the candidates stand on the Bruntland Report?
The er, what was that again? All five candidates had to blushingly admit that they hadn’t been standing anywhere on the Bruntland report lately, mainly because they had never heard of it. (Along probably with 99.9% of the audience.) The Bruntland report, it turns out, was a long report, published as a volume edited by one Mrs Harlem Gro Bruntland who happened to be Prime Minister of Norway in 1987 and, as such, was appointed to chair the United Nations Commission which produced this report in that year. The edited highlights of the report appear to be that it is about growing global concerns about the environmental crisis facing our planet and the need for environmental action, culminating in a ‘global agenda for change’.
Having got the gist of it out of the way the candidates then got down to work to explain their own positions on environmental issues:
Flynn said that TUSC stand for environmentalism and for investing in renewable energy rather than just a few solar panels on council house roofs, and that at present we need to invest massively in sustainable energy measures – as Germany is currently doing.
Phillips reflected that all governments have conventions, but then do not stick to what they have signed up for. However, when it comes to green technology in particular she agreed with Flynn that the rest of the world is leaving us behind. We also need to invest locally and, in Birmingham, we need to go back to being ‘The Workshop of the World.
Photay agrees that a lot needs to be done and that we need to find acceptable energy sources. He wondered whether wind farms would spoil people’s view, but added that industry was already getting greener.
Hemming agreed with Flynn that Germany is more advanced than we are because of a ‘feed-in tariff’ – in plain English this means getting paid for generating your own electricity. There is a government scheme in this country (also known as ‘clean energy cash back) but it is far less developed than in Germany. He also thought that the national cost of solar energy could be brought down to below that of conventional energy and ultimately this could help our national interest rates and keep national debt down.
Stephens said he was ‘committed to a low-carbon Britain with clean energy, alternative energy, wind farms and wave power.
Why, as a student should I vote for your party?
Phillips said that Labour would support the next generation to be better off than their parents – this is a Labour pledge. They will lower tuition fees and they will provide apprenticeships, because some people want to work with their hands. It is important however that students engage with the democratic process and that they take part in voting.
Photay agreed with the need to engage in the democratic process. The Conservatives are trying to create a strong economy. Labour had damaged the economy before they left office last time and because of that businesses were closing down – so Conservatives will provide more jobs.
Hemming took a different approach, saying that international law and global peace should be as important for students as good jobs and these were things that the Lib-Dems believed strongly in working towards. He also pointed out that the percentage of income which students are expected to repay from tuition fees would still be low under the Lib-Dems planned provision: a flat rate of 9% of income to be paid only once graduates start earning £21,000 or more. (i.e. re-payment rates are similar to Labour.)
Stephens argued that there is currently a legal class discrimination system in this country involving universities. In job advertisements there is a tendency to ask for only candidates from ‘top universities’ (Oxbridge or Russell Group, perhaps). This means that high scoring students from lower-rated universities may be barred from even applying whereas lower scoring students from the top rated universities are not. Respect would oppose this discrimination. They would also abolish tuition fees, originally introduced by Labour, although increased under the Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition.
Flynn said that TUSC stood for free education and a grant you could live on. Blair introduced tuition fees two years into Labour getting power in 1997. ‘Don’t trust Labour to keep your fees down.’
Time was then running out and candidates took a final set of questions from the floor all asked together and gave the answers together. As a general competence test this wasn’t bad: all managed to real off a set of answers covering all questions in some reasonable detail.
Euro Referendum – were candidates for or against?
Phillips stood out as being the only candidate opposed to this. She said that she feared for the effect on the economy, which was the most important thing. Photay said that we should have a referendum because ‘The British people are old enough to decide.’ Hemming said that we are ‘overdue a referendum on the EU’ and he supports one. Stephens, also in support of the referendum said that ‘We were hoodwinked when we voted for the EU.’ Flynn also felt that we ‘needed a vote on Europe. He argued that we should come out for different reasons from the ones some people had: the EU is essentially a ‘bosses club’ to allow free movement of Labour. It benefits bosses.
Trident: Where did candidates stand on the vote on Trident (Nuclear Submarine) replacement in 2016, and did they know how much it was costing us?
Here Phillips placed herself firmly to the right of her own party . She and Photay largely concurred on this one. They were both whole-heartedly in favour of Trident’s replacement. Photay said that ‘we need to defend ourselves’. If we aim to disarm later we should work with NATO on it. Phillips guessed that Trident would ‘cost a bomb’ and that it could pay for 20,000 nurses but also expressed anxieties about enemies who might want to attack us and who, she believed, could only be warded off with the nuclear threat. We should only disarm ‘in a stable way’. At present with ‘aggression from abroad’ she ‘does not think that there will be popular support’. Referring again to her family she said that her mother had been a member of CND and at Greenham Common. Phillips however made it clear that in this respect she rejected her mother’s views because she believed in a great (though unspecified) threat from enemies at present. Hemming said that he believed in reducing spending on Trident in favour of focusing on the armed forces. Stephens said that Respect was totally opposed to Trident and that it was crazy to borrow money to buy nuclear weapons when we could not afford to train nurses – given that there are many things we cannot afford at present, should we focus on Trident? Flynn concurred more with this view, saying also that we need to get rid of Trident: it was built for the cold war and it is not going to protect the country against any present threats: invest the money where we need it.
Do candidates support the so called ‘bedroom tax’ or ‘spare room subsidy’? And do they support sanctions on Benefits more generally
No-one really seemed very satisfied with the system as it stands now. Phillips said that she did not support the bedroom tax. Photay said that whilst we should be promoting our economy more those who cannot contribute should have our support. Hemming believed that there were substantial problems with overcrowding in social housing. He has proposed a change to the ‘tax’ however in which the disabled are automatically excluded from it and that otherwise those who do not wish to move from their present accommodation should not pay more for it until alternative accommodation has been found for them. On sanctions Hemming added that people often ‘end up in a muddle because they do not understand the system’ and that more help should be provided. Stephens said that the bedroom tax was killing people. Flynn added that sometimes people who are sanctioned should not be and that the problems with overcrowded properties are not going to be resolved by kicking someone out of a council house when they had been in it for 50 years. The right accommodation just isn’t there. The solution was to build more council housing.
Support for the NHS?
Phillips said that Labour are committed to putting billions in. It took a long time to get an operation for her own son, and that polls show that the NHS matters more than anything else : that we should not be relying on bringing in nurses from abroad, but training more of our own.
An interjection here from the audience opened up the discussion by suggesting that it costs £20,000 to bring a nurse in from the Philippines, but £60,000 to train a nurse in the UK. (Stephens added that he had visited the Philippines and given the poor state of that country he believed they needed their nurses there.) There are indications that we are indeed spending highly on bringing in nurses from abroad and according to this 2012 Royal College of Nursing Report ‘[…] a sharp reduction in intake of NHS nursing supply is expected over the next ten years’ (p. 5) whilst, overall, training of nurses in this country has been declining since the 1990s.
Photay said that a new Conservative government would spend a projected 12.5 million on the NHS. Hemming agreed that we should be training more nurses locally, and also noted that it should be possible to pre-book an appointment with a GP (In the way everyone used to be able to, but this has become difficult recently.) Flynn noted that part of the problem is that there is a crisis in medical care because people are stuck in hospitals: we don’t own nursing homes anymore.