This episode of Question Time was filmed in Newbury, with panelists Jeremy Hunt MP (Conservative), Angela Eagle MP (Labour), Menzies Campbell MP (Lib Dem), Isabel Oakeshott (political journalist, previously at the Sunday Times and now writing a biography of David Cameron) and Giles Fraser (parish priest and journalist for the Guardian).
Question 1: Can David Cameron put an emergency brake on immigration?
[The ’emergency brake’ refers to the idea of having a quota whereby, once a certain level of immigration is reached, no more immigrants are allowed into the country for a set period of time.]
Angela Eagle said she had looked at this carefully and found no real proposals; just a lot of wishful thinking, hot air and headline-grabbing ahead of the Rochester and Strood by-election. Net migration has not been reduced and there are things that could be done, such as renegotiating who can get hold of child benefit and tax credits where the children don’t live in the UK; banning employment agencies from only hiring migrants; stop exploitation through zero-hours contracts; properly enforce the minimum wage.
Jeremy Hunt pointed to the reduction in immigration from countries outside the EU; under current rules we can’t help being “a magnet” for migrants from within the EU. He said “if anyone can put a brake on, it’s David Cameron” because Cameron will seek a re-negotiation. He ducked Dimbleby’s follow-up question about whether, if re-negotiation fails, Cameron would back the idea of getting out of Europe.
Giles Fraser said he’d love to see politicians stop having this “bargain basement prejudice about immigrants” and highlight their positive contributions to our society, for which he got warm applause from the audience.
Menzies Campbell said there is “not a chance” of having an emergency brake, and that the UK has always been a place that people from other countries have come to live in. He points out many doctors, hotel staff, care workers etc. are immigrants, and that the pressures on housing should be dealt with through solutions like economic investment rather than reduced immigration.
Isabel Oakeshott said the Conservatives had pledged in 2010 that they would reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”, and instead it’s currently a quarter of a million. She added to Menzies’ point that freedom of movement is enshrined in EU law, so the emergency brake is “impossible”.
Question 2: Every party tells us that the NHS is safe in their hands. Who should we believe?
Dimbleby said he would initially skip over the politicians, who would inevitably say their own party should be believed, and let the two other panelists have first go at this question.
Isabel Oakeshott said we should believe “none of them”; the NHS is clearly not sustainable in its current state and it’s a “really desperate situation”. Too much is being spent on temporary staff, which is causing a “fundamental inefficiency” of funds. Health secretaries do talk to doctors and nurses on a daily basis, so it is not fair to assume they are out of touch, but Andrew Langsley’s reorganisation was “fiendishly complicated”.
Giles Fraser said the politicians “don’t want to tell us the bad news”, which is that tax rises will be necessary to raise the £30 billion needed to keep the NHS working, and that in his opinion we have to “grow up and pay for it properly”.
Angela Eagle said the top-down reorganisation has led to more bureaucracy, “damage and chaos”. She started to say what Labour would do with their promised £2.5 billion extra funding, at which point a nurse from the audience jumped in to say that recruiting more nurses and GPs “will not solve the problem” because within the NHS they face too many pressures and end up leaving, either to the private sector or to other countries.
Menzies Campbell agreed with Angela Eagle that the money should go to the front line, and we should cut out layers of administration. There are inevitable costs due to the aging population, new cancer drugs, etc.; and “there is no alternative to the idea that it will have to come out of taxation”. He asks the audience “how much are you prepared to pay for the NHS?”
An audience member said we should come at it from another angle and look at the preventable issues (smoking, obesity, etc.) causing demand on NHS services, rather than only concentrating on the supply angle. Another audience member said the problem is that the NHS is run by politicians, not health professionals, and there is a “new upheaval” with every change of government. We need to create a cross-party consensus for a stable future of the NHS.
Jeremy Hunt said there is pressure being created by the aging population, but we can make efficiency savings through things like IT systems. He agreed with the audience member about putting more effort into preventative measures.
Question 3: Is it appropriate to offer a place to UKIP in the TV debates when they only have one MP, and not offer a place to the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru?
Menzies Campbell said it’s understandable not to include SNP and Plaid Cymru because they are not UK-wide parties, but the Greens are, and both they and UKIP have one MP.
Isabel Oakeshott said that UKIP is consistently polling ahead of the Lib Dems, which gives them a strong case to be represented at the TV debates.
Angela Eagle said the Conservatives have objected to various things such as not having the TV debates within the last three weeks of campaigning, and they should get on with developing what form the debates will take.
Jeremy Hunt said the debates are an important democratic platform and “we need to have something that is fair to all the parties”.
Giles Fraser said we should be able to sort this out by an external body that sets an objective measure for who is included in the debates, so that it is all clear and set out in advance.
Question 4: Should Lord Freud resign from his post following what he said about the disabled?
Jeremy Hunt said within context he was discussing hypotheticals given the fact that only one in ten disabled people get a job, and that he should be given a second chance. Isabel Oakeshott agreed with this.
Angela Eagle felt what he said was offensive and he should resign. The audience accused her of willfully misinterpreting what was said for the sake of political points-scoring.
Giles Fraser said the problem was that he used the word “worth”, and that disabled people feel under pressure in other areas at the moment. He shouldn’t have to go but he has touched a raw nerve.
Menzies Campbell said the wider point is about dignity; it was clumsy language to use but “sometimes good comes out of bad” and we should use the publicity generated to make it clear to employers that we will not accept anything less than fair treatment of disabled people. Lord Freud is on probabtion and “what is important is what he does now to redeem himself”.
Jeremy Hunt had a trouble-free but uninspiring hour. Angela Eagle came across well in the first half, and badly in the second half. Menzies Campbell was fairly strong throughout, and both he and Giles Fraser dealt with the EU and NHS questions well, though in other places Fraser seemed to be consciously taking the populist line. Isabel Oakeshott was clear and confident in her opinions, but light on facts and figures.
The stand-out contributions in this case came from the audience members. They were for the most part engaged, focused and making sensible points which furthered the debate, particularly in the NHS section. The only exception was one woman who seemed to believe immigrants are destroying Oxfordshire villages. Other than that, well done to the people of Newbury!