This episode of BBCQT came from Leicester, with panelists Priti Patel MP (Conservative), Tim Farron MP (Liberal Democrat), Stewart Hosie MP (SNP), Lisa Nandy MP (Labour) and columnist Melanie Phillips (The Times).
Quesrtion 1: Is Theresa May right? Does immigration at its current level make a cohesive society impossible?
Tim Farron responds ‘No, she’s not right’. He remembers Theresa May criticising the Conservatives at a party conference 17 years ago for being the Nasty Party, but ‘this week she appears to have joined it and indeed make a bid to lead it’, threatening cohesion by using divisive rhetoric. He says that overall immigration has brought a ‘huge benefit’ to the UK with a £20bn net economic gain over the past 15 years, but the ‘foolish targets’ set by the government have not worked and have hurt businesses and universities. Farron concludes: ‘there are 2.8 million from Europe in the UK and 2.7 million Brits living elsewhere in the EU … there is give and take, and we should stop stressing about it and value what immigration has done for this country. It is a blessing and not a curse.’
Priti Patel takes a different view, saying that Theresa May is ‘absolutely right’. She talks about the ‘proud history’ of immigration, including her own parents moving from India, but says that more recently ‘we have had unsustainable and uncontrolled levels’ putting strain on public services. When Dimbleby points out the highest levels of net migration have been under the Conservatives not Labour, Patel responds ‘there’s more to do’ but they have capped numbers of non-EU immigrants and closed down bogus learning institutions.
Lisa Nandy says Theresa May has ‘spent the last five years as Home Secretary handing out contracts to private companies like Serco who show no interest in integrating new arrivals’ and have left asylum seekers living in poor conditions without ensuring there is enough support for and from local services. She adds that her father moved from India to teach in Leicester university and she finds May’s comments ‘not just factually incorrect’ but ‘profoundly offensive’. Nandy says the real problem is that employers can get away with ‘exploiting immigrant labour in order to undercut jobs and wages’, which May ‘had nothing to say about’ for the last six years or indeed this week.
An audience member says immigrants live in the same areas and don’t integrate. (He gets no applause.) The next audience member says ‘I would have to entirely disagree with this gentleman’ and argues that ‘we do mix’. She tells Patel that the ‘Conservatives have failed in their own immigration policy’ and those who have moved here have contributed by paying taxes and working in the NHS and schools. (She gets two separate rounds of applause.)
Melanie Phillips says she is ‘astonished by the vituperation heaped upon Mrs May’ and that it ‘does her speech a disservice’. Phillips interprets the speech as not being negative about immigration but merely about ‘the scale’, and that by ‘social cohesion’ May means ‘public services cannot cope with the numbers who have come in’. Phillips adds that in her view, up until around 50 years ago ‘Britain had a very settled community’ with a relatively ‘tiny number’ of immimmigrants, but ‘if you have too many coming into a society from very different cultures, it becomes almost impossible to assimilate them into the culture’, the consequence of which is loss of national identity and ‘groups which are jostling for power against each other’.
Stewart Howie says the government has not considered the consequences of drastically reducing immigration. Currently, 11% of health and social workers, 14% of qualified clinicians and 26% of doctors working in the UK were not born in the UK. ‘Are the Tories really saying they’re going to build cohesion by not letting in a quarter of the doctors we all need? That’s just bonkers.’
An audience member agrees with Howie that public services ‘wouldn’t be able to cope’ without immigrants working in them. Dimbleby asks Patel what will happen to, for example, nurses who from next spring when the requirement that immigrants have to either earn £35,000 a year or leave is brought in. She doesn’t give a direct answer, saying there is ‘consultation and we’re working with the NHS on this’ and that Jeremy Hunt wants to train more British nurses, doctors and junior doctors. She talks about the need to stop ‘economic migrants’ from Eastern Europe moving to access our benefits system. Dimbleby asks if she would like to leave the EU – again, no direct answer; she says ‘we are in a process of renegotiation’.
An audience member who works as a ward sister says ‘the majority of nurses on shift this evening are from Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy’ and after her 32 years she’s only just reached the level of £35,000 earnings. ‘And as for you saying you’re going to train more junior doctors, you’re renegotiating the junior doctors’ contracts and hours. Junior doctors are leacving in droves … their pay is being cut by £14,000 a year and you’re expecting them to work longer hours, unsociable hours for no pay.’
Dimbleby asks the original questioner her view; she says that Theresa May’s speech was disgraceful. She agrees with Tim that it is having rhetoric like that which leads to a less cohesive society and ‘we should celebrate what we have’. Another audience member says she would like to see politicians taking the lead on building cohesion rather than pointing blame at individual groups. A third audience member says cohesion is not just about salaries immigrants bring but ‘assimilation into the country; identifying with British values’ and ‘aspiration’.
Tim Farron says ‘cohesion’s the key issue here’ and that May has undermined this by setting groups of people against each other. ‘British politics at the moment is riven by people blaming the “other”: the idle poor, the idle rich, businesspeople, England, Scotland, Brussels, immigrants, foreigners’ but society will benefit if we stop this and start working together. ‘Cohesion comes from the top, and the Home Secretary’s caused much more trouble for this country than immigration ever would.’
Question 2: Cutting tax credits pushes more people into poverty, so how can we believe David Cameron when he says that he wants to end poverty?
Priti Patel says ‘we are cutting tax credits, but at the same time we are also introducing the national living wage’, and that the overall effect is moving from a ‘high-welfare, high-tax, low-wage economy to a more sustainable footing’. Dimbleby asks if, when all the policy changes are balanced, anyone will lose out. Patel says ‘people will be better off’ through national living wage, increase in childcare, increase in personal allowance before income tax and the OBR has estimated an aerage £4,800 per family by 2020. She adds that David Cameron’s conference speech gave ‘a clear direction’ in dealing with poverty by increasing aspiration and supporting people into work, ‘dealing with the root causes rather than the symptoms’.
Lisa Nandy says the cut to tax credits is ‘a body blow to the 3 million lowest paid working families across this country’. She says that David Cameron promised on Question Time before the election not to make changes to child tax credits ‘and then he cut them’. She lists the loss of 1,700 jobs in Redhill, 900 jobs in Leicester and the new contract making conditions worse for junior doctors as examples showing the Conservatives ‘are not the party for British workers but the problem for British workers’.
Dimbleby picks up on the child tax credit point, quoting from the exchange where he said ‘Child tax credit, it’s not going to fall?’ and Cameron responded ‘No, it’s not going to fall.’ Patel says it was ‘made clear during the general election campaign that we were going to have to save on welfare’. Dimbleby asks her to address the specific child tax credit point, but she responds in general terms saying only the Conservatives were upfront about the need for £12bn welfare savings.
Stewart Hosie says ‘the difference between Tory rhetoric and reality is night and day’ and the £12bn refers to £12bn a year by 2020. His take is that the Tories are not doing this to make society firer ‘but because George Osborne wants to run a surplus’ and they are cutting £40bn more than they need to over the life of the Parliament in order to achieve it.
Dimblebly says Scotland doesn’t need to worry because they can set their own welfare budget under the devolution plans. Hosie says there are currently limits, e.g. they can only set policy for helping long-term unemployed rather than short-term unemployed. ‘Let’s give Scotland the power to nip that problem in the bud rather than waiting for a year.’ Patel says Hosie knows ‘perfectly well’ that Scotland is getting £2.7bn of welfare devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the SNP should explain how they will spend that money.
Melanie Phillips says ‘I think Priti is doing a terrific job in defending the indefensible’. George Osborne ‘filched’ the idea of the living wage as part of his plan to take back political ground from the Labour party and ‘mask the effect of the tax credit cut’. The IFS has said it could take £1,000 a year away from 3 million people and ‘leave the working poor worse off’. Phillips agrees with the Conservatives when they talk about the need to work and she agrees with cuts designed to prevent people ‘getting sucked in to the dependency culture’ but it shouldn’t be introduced to hurt those currently in that system. ‘The existing people should not be punished; these are people who are working.’ She argues the new system should only be introduced for young people and carried on from that point forward. Patel responds that there is an underlying philosophy that ‘it is better to go out to work and keep more of what you earn, rather than being taxed and it getting recycled through the benefits system in a hand-out called a tax credit’.
Tim Farron says ‘what’s referred to as a “living wage” isn’t a living wage. I could call myself Gary Lineker; it doesn’t make myself any good at football.’ He echoes the figures given by Nandy, Phillips and the IFS, saying that taking away £1,000 from the 3 million lowest-paid working families is unfair and a disincentive to work. ‘To govern is to choose, so what is this government choosing? It chooses to cut tax credits for hard-working people on low incomes, and give inheritance tax cuts to millionaries; this government chooses to give corporation tax cuts to massive multi-nationals and to cut the legs underneath the green energy industry like the Mark Group here in Leicester losing 1,100 jobs; it chooses to take housing benefit away from under-21s and yet to protect the benefits of wealthy people who are older.’
An audience member says he thinks its wrong that you can earn £25,000 on benefits: ‘I’m seeing people getting more than me that do no work at all’. Tim Farron says the point is that the people who are losing out from the tax credit cuts are ‘people who work very hard – probably as hard as you do, sir’. Farron says you can only get rid of the tax credits system with ‘a proper living wage’ accompanied by support for small businesses. Dimbleby asks what the Lib Dems would consider a proper living wage; Farron says ‘at least £12 an hour’, which Dimbleby and the audience greet with scepticism. Lisa Nandy and Priti Patel get into a two-way discussion from which I can only pick out that Patel argues you can only have a national living wage if there is a strong economy and Nandy argues the government is attacking the poor and not poverty.
Question 3: Will we now have to do the unthinkable and side with Assad and Putin to defeat ISIS?
Melanie Phillips says it is very complicated, but ultimately, ‘no’. ‘Mr Putin is not on our side’; he is looking after his own interests and is not focused on defeating ISIS. Putin has been backing Assad and will concentrate on keeping him in place.
Stewart Hosie says ‘there will be damage left, right and centre’ just like previous conflicts in Iraq and Libya. Russia will have no exit strategy and it will ‘create a vaccuum’ for ISIS to fill. Without a proper structure in place ‘it will be less safe after the bombing stops than before the bombing began’.
Lisa Nandy says ‘we should be very concerned about Russia’s actions in relation to Syria’ and they should clarify the air strikes. She would consider voting in support of intervention ‘but only if it’s part of a wider plan to bring about a proper settlement in Syria that allows the Syrian people self-determination’.
Tim Farron says there is a danger that in the spirit of ‘something must be done’, the action taken might be ‘worse than other options’. He agrees with Hosie that you need to have ‘an exit strategy – a strategy at all – when you’re engaging in this kind of action’. Farron says on the humanitarian side we need to ‘create safe corridors; safe routes’ out of Syria in collaboration with the United Nations. ‘Of course you need to talk with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Putin, but we do that understanding the solution to this is one which must be diplomatic’.
Priti Patel says ‘this is a horrible and deeply complex situation’ and she does not see Assad as part of the solution. ‘Consensus building is absolutely crucial’ and any future action would be subject to Parliamentary consent.
Question 4: Is Jeremy Corbyn a Britain-hater?
Dimbleby clarifies that this in relation to David Cameron’s remarks in his speech at the Conservative party conference.
Priti Patel says Corbyn ‘hasn’t been particularly showing great patriotic tendencies’ and he is ‘a risk to our national security’ given things like showing support for terrorist groups.
Lisa Nandy says the idea Corbyn hates Britiain is ‘both offensive and ridiculous’ and that Cameron’s style of personal attacks across the dispatch box ‘demeans his office’.
Melanie Phillips says she doesn’t know Corbyn’s motivations but her impression is ‘he doesn’t think he hates Britain, he just wants to change everything about it’ and sometimes suports those who hate Britain ‘and want to destroy it’.
A woman in the audience says she is a Labour party member and was embarrassed that Jeremy Corbyn stirred things up by holding a rally outside the Conservative party conference in Manchester. Nandy protests that Corbyn did not endorse the actions by those who used the rally to attack conference goers.
Tim Farron says he believes in ‘playing the ball, not the man’ and it should be Corbyn’s policies that are put under scrutiny, and it is him ‘sitting on the fence’ over the EU referendum that is dangerous.
Stewart Hosie says ‘certain obligations’ come with Corbyn’s job, including membership of the Privy Council, but ‘the Prime Minister overplayed his hand’ and ‘wrong to be abusive in this way’. He agrees with Farron that a debate over the ideas would be better than ‘name-calling from the safety of a Tory party conference’.
It interested me that Liz Kendal wasn’t on the panel. She has appeared on BBCQT before and is an MP in Leicester, but stood against Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. Did she turn down an offer to go on, knowing that Corbyn was likely to come up as a question? Lisa Nandy, who is on the left of the party, was a safer choice in this sense. She put in an assured performance for a first-time panelist.
Tim Farron was strong on the first and third questions, and was very engaging when he got into his stride about the choices the current government is making. He got more agreement from the audience and other members of the panel than any other participant. On the other hand, he didn’t frame the £12/hr living wage idea clearly and his delivery was occasionally a bit rushed.
Stewart Hosie was surprisingly uncharismatic (perhaps suffering from my expectations of a Sturgeon/Salmond style performance) and had a very odd habit of taking off his glasses and blinking into the light when he was answering a question. He gave clear and straightforward answers but didn’t make a huge impression.
Priti Patel must have recited a fair percentage of the Conservative manifesto during the hour-long programme. She was too clearly on-message and had a habit of smirking at the other panelists. She came under the most scrutiny throughout because of 1) being a government minister, 2) being a Conservative panelist in a left-wing heartland (by which I mean Leicester, not BBCQT!) and 3) refusing to answer a single question directly. By deflecting specific attacks with generic responses, she avoided blunders but was pretty infuriating to watch.
Melanie Phillips was in a world of her own. A world in which there are very fixed views on what’s right and wrong, separated by a randomly placed, cigarette-paper-thin division that makes sense only to Mrs Phillips.
Most of the audience get a gold star for actually contributing to the debate and remembering not just the panelists’ names, but their arguments.