This week’s Question Time came from Liverpool, with First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond (SNP), Caroline Flint MP (Labour), Mark Harper MP (Conservative), Louise Bours MEP (UKIP) and Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite trade union.
Interestingly there was no Lib Dem representation on the panel, but (surprise, surprise) UKIP are back again. For those rolling their eyes at the uneven distribution of media coverage, as I did, you can take some solace in the fact that the Greens will be represented next week, when their MP Caroline Lucas will be on the panel. An additional bit of trivia is that Caroline Flint’s appearance this week means she has overtaken Nigel Farage as the politician with most appearances BBC Question Time.
But on with the programme…
Question 1: Should life mean ‘life’ for killing police officers?
David Dimbleby clarifies this refers to the recommended release of 78-year-old prisoner Harry Roberts, who killed two police officers in 1966, and has been recommended for release by the parole board. During the discussion the panel referred to comments made by the Home Secretary Theresa May, who said: “I strongly believe that anyone who murders a police officer belongs behind bars – and behind bars for life. That is why I have made sure the government will change the law so life will mean life for anyone who murders a police officer.”
Alex Salmond said that while he personally doesn’t agree with how English law is set up in this regard, the legal processes have been followed correctly, and we have to abide by the parole board’s findings. He thought Theresa May’s comments put her in a difficult position, because she has to either admit the change in law will be too late to prevent Roberts’ release, or take the dramatic step of trying to overrule the parole board.
Mark Harper, from the same party as Theresa May, seemed to lean towards letting it go, saying that the parole board have decided the man does not pose a danger to the public.
Louise Bours opened by saying firmly “yes, absolutely; life should mean life”. This is a direct reflection of UKIP policy, as their website currently states “sentences should mean what they say” (which, sadly for me, refers to detention of criminals rather than improving the nation’s grammar). She stressed that we should protect the rights of the victims and the families, not the rights of the prisoners.
Dimbleby detected this was An Issue Close To Her Heart, and asked if Bours would support a reinstatement of capital punishment. She said that UKIP don’t currently have a policy on it, as that would be the sort of decision they would give the public a say on, but it is her personal view that it should be brought back. The BBCQT twitter account posted this captioned image of her full personal response:
Len McCluskey said it’s no surprise UKIP have no policy on capital punishment, as they prefer to change policy every five minutes; but in answer to the original question, he agrees that life should mean life when it comes to sentencing.
Several members of the audience pointed out that if life is to mean life it should be for all those handed the sentence, not just those convicted of killing police officers. I was surprised it had taken so long for someone to make that point, and was glad that the good people of Liverpool did so.
Caroline Flint said “in some circumstances” life should mean life. This man showed no remorse when he was interviewed 27 years after the incident; if he is still not showing remorse, she would “lose no sleep” over the idea of him being locked up until death.
It’s interesting that both Theresa May and Louise Bours have some sort of hierarchy in mind for the worst sort of crimes. To May, the murder of police officers is even more reprehensible than murder in other circumstances. Bours goes further and says murderers of police officers should be killed by the state, along with people “like” child rapists. Where are these two drawing the moral line in the sand? Would Bours only endorse capital punishment for child rapists, and not child molesters or adult rapists? BBCQT went no further with this question but it would have been a fascinating follow-up to detail, within the category of those currently receiving life sentences, which are the heinous crimes and which are the… normal crimes?
Question 2: Is Michael Heseltine right when he says the great cities of the north [of England] are emasculated by a “one size fits all” economy, dominated by London?
Len McCluskey said that we need political parties to start investing in our communities and to support hard-working people. He sees the northern cities suffering from funding cuts, being “flooded with zero-hours contracts” and having reduced opportunities for the future.
Mark Harper counters that the city deal arranged under the coalition has given more power to Liverpool, and that the Labour mayor has welcomed the increase in local powers that has been delivered.
Caroline Flint voiced her belief that people in all parts of the country need more say in what happens in their lives. She would welcome local devolution, adding that in Yorkshire “wages haven’t kept up with prices” and Mark Harper is in “denial that people are in a cost-of-living crisis”.
The audience agrees that the north of England has not seen the economic boost that the Conservatives are talking about. Harper responds by saying that “of course” it will take time to recover from the recession, and that Labour have no economic plan and a poor track record.
Alex Salmond put out the figures that spending on infrastructure is £5,000 per head in London, but just £1,200 per head in the north west of England. He argues the struggles of the northern cities aren’t just as a result of the recession, it’s about a “distortion” where too much money is put in to the capital.
Louise Bours pointed out that the north-east rejected the idea of a having regional assembly when it was put to them in a referendum. She believes we should instead have “county health boards, county police boards” run by nurses and policemen, with local people taking direct control. (Where they would find the time to do the paperwork in addition to their current full-time job is anyone’s guess.)
Question 3: How do we save our NHS from the “perfect storm” of austerity, increasingly expensive treatments and aging population, whilst paying staff deserved wages?
The questioner, who is a doctor, was asked his opinion by Dimbleby and responded very well, saying that he believes efficiency can only take us so far: we need a mix of preventative measures with people leading healthier lifestyles, and we need to take the decision to put more money in. He criticized UKIP’s objections to plain cigarette packaging and minimum pricing for alcohol.
Louise Bours said that we seem to prioritise NHS bureaucrats and managers rather than clinicians. She defended UKIP’s opposition to plain packaging, saying it will just make cigarettes easier to counterfeit, but added that she would personally support minimum pricing on alcohol.
Caroline Flint agreed with the combined importance of prevention and providing more resources. She said there could be further savings made by better aligning social care and through earlier detection of cancer.
Mark Harper said there is a “shared commitment to the NHS” amongst the major political parties, and that the coalition has already started moving health and social care funding together. The Health and Social Care Act has led to fewer managers, more doctors and more nurses.
Alex Salmond said Andrew Langsley’s health reforms are continuing to cause huge damage to the NHS: the Health and Social Care Act has fragmented services and cost £2bn (corrected by Flint to £3bn).
Len McCluskey said the NHS “is being privatised before our very eyes” with most contracts being put out to tender to private companies. The Health and Social Care Act “needs to be done away with”. He finished by saying that if the very rich paid their taxes rather than the money being lost through both avoidance and evasion, we could put the extra funds into the NHS.
Question 4: Is the Prime Minister reneging on promises made to the Scottish people and exploiting issue of English devolution for party political purposes?
Caroline Flint said that Scottish people had signaled they “wanted more devolution but as part of the union” yet Cameron quickly turned it around to talking about what is happening in England. She believes the discussion about England shouldn’t allow the Scottish reforms to be “stalled”.
Mark Harper said the coalition is are pressing forwards with the Smith commission, but said English votes for English laws needs to be considered at the same time so that both countries are “governed fairly”. Draft legislation for Scotland and plans for England are to be published together in the new year.
Len McCluskey called the referendum “electrifying” and praised the high levels of political engagement. He stressed the importance of continuing to engage working people in politics.
Louise Bours said this is a constitutional issue so we need to have politicians and experts debating it at length. She felt that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband made the vow in haste through fear of Scottish independence, rather than it being thought through properly.
Alex Salmond said “within one hour” of the referendum result, Cameron announced the processes would precede “in tandem” and “of course” he is reneging on promises made to the Scottish people.
Salmond added that the timetable set out by Gordon Brown has already slipped: there will be no vote in Parliament before Easter, as had previously been promised. Dimbelby asked Salmond if he would be returning as an MP now that he is standing down as First Minister, and Salmond said he hadn’t yet made up his mind, but put it in a way that very much signalled “watch this space”.
Alex Salmond was consistently confident of his position and had a few facts and figures to bolster his arguments. His energy, drive and hint of smugness haven’t waned and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him running for both MSP and MP in 2015.
Caroline Flint on the whole gave common sense answers and delivered her points well, although I would have liked more substance in her response to the life sentences question.
Louise Bours was patchier but did at least clearly distinguish between times she was giving her personal opinion, and times she was representing UKIP policy. She sounded out of her depth on the final question but elsewhere was confident on delivery.
Len McCluskey and Mark Harper were both entirely predictable in their contributions, with McCluskey bringing everything back to redistribution of wealth and Harper bringing everything back to praise of the current government.
Dimbleby seemed keen to jump in and add his own questions, and he had two victories from it, one in getting a direct response to Bours’ stance on capital punishment and the other in getting within a whisker of an exclusive revelation about Alex Salmond’s future.
It was a bit odd to have the SNP and UKIP represented on the panel, and not the Lib Dems. With the inclusion of the Green Party next week, will the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems all be represented, or will one of them again be dropped? At present none of the other four panelists have been confirmed, so we’ll just have to wait and see.