Local Candidates Quizzed By Voters

MP-hopefuls take part in Hammersmith hustings

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Hundreds of people attended Question Time in Hammersmith on Thursday (April 22) choosing to hear what local candidates had to say, over staying at home to watch the second Leaders' Debate.

The four main candidates for the seat of Hammersmith (and Shepherd's Bush) all attended - Shaun Bailey for the Conservatives, Merlene Emerson for the Liberal Democrats, Rollo Miles for the Green Party and Andy Slaughter for the Labour Party – and answered questions on a wide range of issues from local to national to international ones.

Local council tenant, Shirley Cupit, wanted to know whether the panel greed that residents should be able to vote on what happens on their estates, rather than having decisions made for them. The question came against a backdrop of claims that the local Conservative council wants to demolish council houses – a claim the council denies.

“We have a Conservative council which is letting down a third of residents here that live on council estates,” said Andy Slaughter. “Shirley is referring to plans to demolish estates here. Their proposals go much, much further. If the Tories win, they want the abolition of council housing. It's not just barbaric, it's extremely short-sighted.” Shaun Bailey said he had always lived in social housing himself and accused his opponent of scaremongering: “The Labour Party have made a lot of allegations – it's been a self-serving political battle. Labour have whipped things up and scared residents. What the council want is to create a more even spread of housing. If this is some evil Tory plot, why is Greenwich doing it? They're Labour. This issue has been used to get votes.”

Merlene Emerson said the Local Development Framework (LDF), published by Hammersmith and Fulham Council, indicated that council housing in the borough was under indeed threat: “I've received so much casework of people saying they are in fear of eviction - I don't think it's scaremongering. There are about 9,000 waiting for social housing and in the LDF, it's clear they are not building any more, they will not increase the number of rooms. Rollo Miles for the Green Party said: “Land in London is getting more expensive and I can see the appeal of moving people out of the borough, selling the land and developing it. But how can someone on a wage of £20,000 buy in Hammersmith? We want to support the development of housing cooperatives so people can get together, not just for council estates but also for leaseholders. There's a real crisis and there aren't enough homes. We need to build more of them.”

The recent suggestion by the national Liberal Democrats that there should be an amnesty for illegal immigrants was also up for discussion, starting with the local LibDem candidate: “When you use the word 'amnesty' people have alarm bells ringing. They think the floodgates will open. I know this problem because I work with the Chinese community. Some people come here legitimately, then find they don't meed the criteria of the points system and they find themselves unregulated, or as you would say 'illegal'. Emerson said the cost of sending people home would be around £11,000 per person. “Let's take the pragmatic solution: if they haven't committed any crimes and they want to work, then I support them. We have to find an intelligent solution, not an emotional response.”

The Green Party candidate was also supportive of the idea: “The Greens are internationalist in nature. We think there should be an amnesty. If people have been here for more than 10 years, they're settled, they have families, they're working.....they are part of British culture. They do a lot of jobs that people here don't want to do. We're a civilized country – we should welcome people. I don't want to live in a country that deports people.” But the Conservative and Labour candidates were less enthusiastic: “The case for an amnesty still has to be made,” said Bailey. “We don't know how many people there are here. Lots of people are settled here and they work and have families here but we need to see what the benefits would be of letting them stay. The argument needs to be made.” Slaughter said: “The points system is working very well. There are some very hard cases and we need a quick, just system to deal with them. Because we now have more stringent immigrant policies, I think we can have an amnesty but we need to look at the details of that. In certain circumstances we should allow them to stay.”

One member of the audience asked the panel to comment on Tory Chris Grayling's claim that Christian B&B owners had a right to turn away homosexual couples. “It's not that Chris Grayling's opinion is embarrassing, it's that his opinion is different in private than in public and that should worry us,” said Slaughter. “We (the Government) brought in a whole raft of equality legislation - it is necessary to prevent people being targeted for their beliefs. This is the law and people have to obey the law.” Both Bailey and Emerson strongly agreed: “The law should be the same for us all. You can't change the law to say you can pick and choose because, what next? No blacks, no Irish? My feeling was: What if they said 'You can't come in because you are black', said the Conservative candidate. “It's a straightforward case of equality discrimination. My answer to people running the B&B who are Christian is: 'Judge not and you will not be judged'. It shows double standards in the Tory party,” added Emerson for the LibDems. The Green Party candidate said he could understand that an older generation of Catholics, for example, might have less liberal opinions: “The type of country I want to live in is one where we are all equal. The law says you can't discriminate but it's very hard when you talk about cross-generations. I understand where they are coming from.”

On international issues, the panel were asked what they thought about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. There was a near-consensus on the issue. “I would like to see British and other troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, I'd like to see a timetable for withdrawal,” said Slaughter. “I was always against the war in Iraq but Afghanistan was different - a lot of terrorism originates on the borders with Pakistan. But damage has been done, particularly in relation to our relationship with the Muslim world. We must disengage as quickly as we can.”

“The Green Party is very clear: we're not a warmongering party, we would vote for a withdrawal of troops,” said Miles. Emerson agreed that withdrawal was the way forwards: “We support a phased withdrawal. We supported the war but it's been eight years now and we doubt that we have the right strategy. What we are doing in Afghanistan seems to have lost its purpose.” The Conservative candidate was less convinced: “The situation in Afghanistan means we couldn't leave tomorrow - the whole region is unstable. Regional powers such as Pakistan could destabilise if we withdrew straight away,” said Bailey.

When it came to electoral reform, the smaller parties – who would have the most to gain- were understandably enthusiastic: “We want proportional representation,” said Miles. “Each MP should be elected on at least 50% of the votes. It would stop people saying 'There's no point voting Green, there's no point voting LibDem'. People have had enough of the corruption, the lying, the cheating. Two-party politics is boring. Let's spice it up and let other people in.” But Bailey, for the Conservatives, said PR was not necessarily a good solution: “For me, I'm not so ready to accept proportional representation. I think there are arguments against it, he said.“Hung parliaments generally descend into bad behaviour,” he added, citing examples from other countries.

Summing up, Slaughter won loud applause when he criticised the local council: “We have a Tory council that is charging the elderly and disabled for services they said would be free. We have a chronic housing need in this borough and a Tory council with a Tory government would be committed to destroying the quality of life in the borough.”

Merlene Emerson urged people to vote for what they really believed in: “The whole race is wide open now. You've never read about me in h&f news, surprise surprise, but you've seen me now. Now you have a choice – choose a party whose ideas gel with yours. It's really important that on May 6th, you don't vote tactically. What's the point? It's a wasted vote.”

Yasmine Estaphanos

April 22, 2010