Candidates clash at Welwyn Hatfield General Election hustings event
PUBLISHED: 16:28 06 May 2015 | UPDATED: 16:28 06 May 2015
Candidates clashed as they went-head-to-head in an occasionally ill-tempered election hustings in Welwyn Garden City.
Tempers frayed as irate politicians battled to get their points across ahead of tomorrow’s crucial vote.
Five of the seven names on ballot papers were invited to appear at the HSC in Mundells – Liberal Democrat Hugh Annand, Labour’s Anawar Miah, Marc Scheimann for the Green Party, Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps, and UKIP’s Arthur Stevens.
Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate Richard Shattock, and independent Michael Green were not on the stage at the Churches Together-hosted event.
Having missed a hustings event earlier on in the day – full report on pages 8 and 9 – Grant Shapps made his pitch to be re-elected.
But he faced tough questions from a vocal audience which heckled candidates throughout.
Making an opening speech, Mr Shapps said it had been an “honour” to represent the constituency, and said the economy was recovering well.
“Unemployment has been halved in Welwyn Hatfield, the latest figures show, but that means we have the other half to go,” he said.
But Mr Scheimann, sitting to his left, seized on the Government’s austerity measures, stating: “I don’t believe you can keep cutting and cutting and cutting.”
Swelling numbers using food banks, he said, were one measure that showed its failure, he stated.
And blasting the rise of payday loans companies in the past five years, Labour candidate Anawar Miah said: “I don’t believe in people being paid wages which aren’t a living wage.”
After a dig at Mr Shapps for his “aliases”, Mr Annand said his party had managed to get three-quarters of its manifesto pledges passed.
Conceding it has been a difficult five years for the Liberal Democrats, he said: “People ask me why I bother, but I have a strong sense of justice.”
Mr Stevens described himself as a “reluctant politician”, but said he had joined UKIP in 2011 after attempts to lobby Mr Shapps to vote for an EU referendum had not been successful.
So with the introductions out of the way, it was time for candidates to field questions.
Has the pain of austerity been felt equally?
No, according to Mr Scheimann, who hit out at “savage” cuts and said: “I don’t believe in trickle-down economics.
“Austerity needs to be fought.”
Mr Miah was more pragmatic, stating that blue chip companies should be the first target, with tax loopholes needing closing before cuts were made.
But he said: “I’m realistic, I accept we must have cuts at certain times, we must tighten our belts but we must be fair.”
Mr Annand pointed out that pensioners are “eight per cent” better off than they were five years ago, while people of working age are “four per cent” worse off.
He said that was symptomatic of Governments knowing who voted for them, and called on people of all ages to vote.
Mr Stevens stated: “Austerity hasn’t been shared equally.”
He said an oversupply in the labour market, especially at the unskilled end, had depressed wages.
And Mr Shapps defended his party’s measures, stating that abandoning austerity had been “a disaster” in France.
Facing angry calls about the ‘bedroom tax’ from audience members, he said the most vulnerable people were those on housing waiting lists, and said these numbers had fallen by nearly 2,000 in Welwyn Hatfield.
“For the most vulnerable people it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Mr Annand retorted that although freeing up space was “absolutely right”, he said: “Where the bedroom tax has gone wrong is there isn’t always the appropriate accommodation available for people to downsize.”
What will you do to help small businesses?
Labour candidate Mr Miah said tackling “excessive” business rates could help businesses flourish.
His Liberal Democrat counterpart, Mr Annand, said authorities should be empowered to be “more creative” with business rates, stating: “Small businesses will only prosper if the overall business climate has consumers who go out and spend.”
For UKIP’s Mr Stevens, pulling out the EU was the key.
He blamed Brussels for the demands it places on companies, stating: “Red tape keeps small businesses down. For a small business it can be crippling.”
Mr Shapps said he owed the setting up of his print business to a small business loan guarantee, and said similar measures – as well as tackling unemployment – would help firms.
Mr Scheimann called for councils to take a bigger share of profits from larger companies, which could be reinvested for the benefit of smaller businesses.
Zero hours contracts
A big talking point so far in this election campaign, but there was a supporter in the audience who challenged the crowd.
The speaker, a student at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “I wouldn’t be able to do my degree if I had a fixed-hour contract.
“Why would you get rid of them?”
Mr Shapps said the contracts account for “two or three per cent” of people in employment, and said: “There are many people on zero hour contracts who want to be on them.
“These contracts mustn’t be abusive – it’s wrong to say you can’t work for someone else.”
Mr Miah said: “After a period of time you must be offered a more secure contract.
“I’m not saying abolish them completely.”
But Mr Scheimann said: “Would any MP want to be on a zero hour contract?
“You must have the right to a proper contract after three months.”
Mr Annand said zero hour contracts do work for some people, and said: “Getting rid of them would be daft.”
Mr Stevens said: “We have to make sure these aren’t exploitative.”
Is building new homes the right thing to do?
Responding first, Mr Stevens said: “The elephant in the room is that we’ve got to look at the demand.
“300,000 (immigrants) per annum isn’t sustainable.
“We’re trying to fill a bucket of water with a hole in it.”
He said tax incentives should encourage developers to build on brownfield sites.
Mr Shapps said Welwyn Hatfield has a “proud record” in delivering new homes.
And addressing Mr Miah, he said: “Using money from the right to buy scheme, we’ve built the first affordable homes in Welwyn Hatfield in 30 years.
“I thought you’d be celebrating that.”
Blasting the selling of council homes, Mr Scheimann said: “Right to buy, or right to steal, has got to stop.
“We’re increasingly relying on private landlords, we need to make sure there’s social housing available.”
Mr Miah fumed: “There’s a lack of affordable housing under the coalition government, the amount of social housing has gone down by 26 per cent.”
Mr Annnad said his party supported the building of a new garden city near Ashwell.
He added: “There are more bedrooms in London than people, but housing isn’t being allocated as efficiently as it should be.”
Mr Stevens retorted: “Everyone’s solution is build, build, build.
“How much we need to build is determined by how many people there are in the country.”
What is your 10 year vision for healthcare in 2025 in Welwyn Hatfield?
By the time this question was asked, candidates had already clashed over the scrapping of a “super hospital” in Welwyn Hatfield and the move of accident and emergency services to the Lister.
Mr Miah accused Mr Shapps of “salesmanship”, saying the Conservatives had promised to protect A&E services at the QE2 Hospital.
The Labour candidate fumed: “You said ‘vote for me and I’ll save the QE2’.”
Mr Shapps retorted: “People have forgotten Gordon Brown promising a £550m super hospital.
“After the 2005 election was lost (by former Labour MP Melanie Johnson) that hospital disappeared and was never seen again.”
He accused the then Labour Government of focusing its attention on marginal seat Stevenage by increasing services at the Lister Hospital.
Mr Scheimann said his focus would be ensuring the NHS did not turn into “Virgin Healthcare”.
He said private cleaners were being told to provide their own soap, and said: “It’s no wonder we get bugs.”
Mr Annand said he was keen for mental health to be put on an “equal footing” with physical health.
Mr Stevens said although he had “no magic wand”, UKIP would be looking to invest in the NHS, and said his party’s was the only manifesto which had been independently costed.
Addressing privatisation of the NHS, Mr Shapps said it had gone up from 4.5 per cent to six per cent privatised in the last Parliament.
And he said the Government had intervened where private care was going wrong, citing the Surgicentre in Stevenage as a “disaster”.
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