Welwyn Hatfield General Election candidates face questions at Student Union hustings event
PUBLISHED: 16:05 06 May 2015
There were two empty seats as candidates faced the electorate in Hatfield last week.
Neither Conservative Grant Shapps nor independent Michael Green – comedian Heydon Prowse, who changed his name by deed poll to challenge the Tory Party chairman – took their places on the panel at a hustings organised by students.
[Editor’s note – We have been asked to clarify that Mr Shapps had initially responded to an invitation to attend on April 5 when he told the SU it clashed with the Herts International Church hustings to which he and other candidates had already accepted invites. It was not until April 23 the SU got back in touch with a revised time. By that time Mr Shapps had made other arrangements which meant he could not appear. He informed the organisers who subsequently apologised for the confusion].
It was an absence wryly noted by audience member Lenny Brandon, who asked the panel: “Do the empty seats prove Grant Shapps and Michael Green are the same person?”
Present to face questions were Liberal Democrat Hugh Annand, Labour’s Annawar Miah, Marc Scheimann from the Green Party, Richard Shattock from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and UKIP’s Arthur Stevens.
In an early dig, Mr Annnad stated Mr Shapps “had not even bothered to show up”.
Mr Shapps was on the campaign trail in Nottingham, and later claimed the student union event time changed, meaning he could not get back on time.
He missed a lively debate in which Parliamentary hopefuls pitched their policies to a packed room, filled with a mixture of students and members of the public.
Chairman Ross Renton, dean of students at the University of Hertfordshire, was in no doubt that the student vote could be crucial.
He said: “Our students could sway an election.
“There are 26,000 students in a constituency with a 17,000 majority.”
Cuts to bus services
The first question was posed by Oliver Price, who wanted to know what each party would do about proposed cuts to bus services.
Measures put forward by Herts County Council would see subsidies to evening and weekend routes cut.
Mr Price warned it would impact on old and young alike, and hit the most vulnerable.
Unsurprisingly, none of the candidates were in favour of the cuts.
“I think it’s completely unacceptable that we resort to this kind of measure,” boomed Mr Miah, saying companies like Google and Microsoft should be targeted for taxes before cuts are considered.
And Mr Scheimann said: “It’s unacceptable, we need to put money back into local government, we need bus services.”
Mr Shattock added: “We need to say no to these nasty cuts which hit the hard pressed and most vulnerable people in our society.”
Liberal Democrat Mr Annand pointed out that his party is the official opposition at County Hall, and said members were “leading the fight against bus cuts”.
He said inefficiencies had been highlighted in the highways budget to offset the cuts.
Mr Stevens hit out at the council’s cabinet system, and said UKIP wants councillors to be more free to represent their own areas.
“If there are vanity projects there’s money that can be freed up,” he said.
Panellists were asked what they would do to eradicate food poverty, with a young audience member stating there are “half a dozen” food banks in the constituency.
Mr Shattock said: “We’ll introduce a £10 minimum wage, protect benefits and scrap the bedroom tax.”
Mr Stevens agreed that an increase to the minimum wage would be “a step in the right direction”.
Mr Annand questioned whether it was right to forcibly make people pay for food banks, or whether it was best people contributed voluntarily.
He said the right answer was probably a combination of the two.
An irate Mr Miah fumed that use of food banks had risen by 2,300 per cent since the last General Election, and said: “What we certainly won’t do is manage the economy on the backs of the poor.”
Mr Schiemann, a board member for a food bank in Harpenden, said: “It’s absolutely disgusting, Grant (Shapps) would say it’s because people are more aware of them, but it’s because you (the Government) has made them poor.”
He said increasing the minimum wage to £8.10 an hour by 2016 would improve matters.
In the first flashpoint of discussions, Mr Annand accused his Labour counterpart of telling “bare faced lies” over the war in Iraq.
Mr Miah had said MPs made the decision to go to war based on information available at the time, but quickly qualified that by stating: “I don’t agree with the decision at all.”
It followed a question about whether people smugglers or foreign policies were to blame for the recent tragedy in the Mediterranean, after 800 migrants died at sea.
Pacifist Mr Scheimann said it was a knock-on effect of bombing in Libya, and said Britain should “stop bombing the hell” out of foreign countries.
He said one per cent of GDP should be committed to overseas aid.
But Mr Stevens disagreed, stating: “We shouldn’t keep on interfering with other peoples’ business.
“We can’t be seen to be welcoming them, if you do then it’s an invitation to the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, saying ‘come on down’.”
Unsocial hours payments to nurses
The panel was challenged by a nurse to state what they made of cuts to unsocial hours payments to nurses.
The speaker said she had hoped to raise the matter with Mr Shapps, who was not in attendance.
Mr Miah said Labour would repeal the Health and Social Care Act, and said: “It’s hurt ordinary people.”
He challenged Mr Annand over Lib Dem support for the legislation.
Mr Annand said: “You make compromises in a coalition, especially if you are the junior partner.”
Mr Scheimann said the Green Party would also repeal the act, branding the measure “uncaring”.
UKIP candidate Mr Stevens said his party would put an extra £3bn into the NHS, and tackle “health tourism”, which he said cost the country £2bn.
Mr Miah said Labour’s proposed mansion tax would provide extra funds for the NHS.
Mr Schiemann said his party proposed a 60 per cent tax on earnings above £150,000, stating: If you want to run away from that, then good luck and good riddance.”
Mr Shattock vowed to help find an extra £8bn for the NHS, and abolish PFIs, putting the NHS under a “public directorship”.
In closing remarks, Mr Miah called on opponents to the Conservatives to rally behind him.
He said: “If you want anyone other than Grant Shapps in Welwyn Hatfield, you have to vote Labour.
“If you want a Government that believes in social justice, then vote Labour, otherwise we’re in for five more years of gimmicks and broken promises.”
Mr Scheimann quipped: “If you want to give Grant Shapps a kicking, vote Green.”
Mr Shattock vowed to be an MP people could relate to, stating he would only claim a wage of £25,000 a year.
He said: “Labour aren’t representing ordinary people.”
Mr Annand admitted his party had got it wrong over tuition fees, but said the Liberal Democrats would fight for the constituency.
And Mr Stevens said: “Take a look at the UKIP manifesto, lots of people make assumptions, they tell lies, they say we want to privatise the NHS.
“I would urge you all to vote for whichever party matches your politics the best.”
Closing the hustings, Mr Renton called on the audience to use their vote and not succumb to apathy.
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