The Croydon panelists were Sajid Javid MP (Conservative), Chuka Umunna MP (Labour), Baroness Shirley Williams (Lib Dem), Dia Chakravarty from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and novelist Will Self.
Question 1: In his budget speech, George Osborne kept telling us we’re better off. So why do a lot of hard-working families not feel that way?
Sajid Javid says Osborne was basing his rhetoric on OBR figures for the average household; obviously this does not mean the same is true for every household. The most important factor is that jobs are growing at a high rate. “The best way to help the poor is to make sure we have a growing economy.” Of the 2 million jobs created, 80% are full time, and only 2% of jobs are on zero-hours contracts.
Dimbleby says he hasn’t addressed the question of why the recovery isn’t being felt. Javid says part of the answer is the depth to which the economy fell at the height of the recession.
Chuka Umunna says the work is insecure, often part-time or on zero-hours contracts, and working people aren’t earning enough to live off, which is why they don’t feel better off. People in London are on average earning £3k/year less than they did in 2010, and reduced earnings are hurting the deficit reduction because HMRC are getting less in the pot through income tax and national insurance contributions. “Work and poverty have come together: almost half the people living in poverty in our country are in work.” (Javid says “that’s not true”.)
Dia Chakravarty says the main reason is that high taxation is creating a cost-of-living crisis. The Office of National Statistics said that the average family in 2012 spent more on taxes than on food, energy and shelter put together “and that’s what we need to tackle”. Dimbleby asks how you can give people tax cuts without increasing the deficit. Chakravarty says the Taxpayers’ Alliance has outlined 41 policies where the needed savings can be made, such as means testing the pensioners’ winter fuel allowance.
Shirley Williams says you can’t cut taxes when the general mood of the population is to want more money spent on education, more money spent on healthcare and in some cases more spent on defence. Good public services rely on taxation. That said, it’s “something of a remarkable achievement” that we have come through the economic crisis relatively intact. “If we’re better off, it’s a feature of the last 12 months.” We were worse off for the preceding three-and-a-half years, and we’re now only “a fragment” recovered from that.
Will Self says the average doesn’t tell you anything; by definition a lot of people must be worse off than the average. “Some people who were reasonably well-off have taken a hit, and haven’t got back up there yet.” He says there are “massive” cuts awaiting in the next Parliament.
Question 2: After the recent deadly attacks in Tunisia, how can Britain justify its policy of allowing terrorist sympathisers back to the UK with open arms?
Dimbleby clarifies that this refers to the three 15-year-old girls who have gone to Syria to join ISIS; the police have assured their families they would not be arrested upon their return.
Chuka Umunna says Islamic State has a “complete disrespect for the rule of law, never mind the barbaric things they do to other people”. If people go to join them and then come back to the UK, we should apply the rule of law and put them on trial in our courts. He questions how that promise could be made without ascertaining what the girls had done while abroad.
Shirley Williams says she agrees completely. She puts the question of why IS have chosen to target Tunisia, which was the only country to come out with a democracy and human rights after the Arab Spring, and then “ask yourself what they believe in”.
Will Self says “we carry on with this kind of hysterical attitude over these things” because we believe we can enforce Western democracy, even using violence to attain it.
Sajid Javid says as well as the violence IS are involved in complete cultural destruction. Anyone going to help them and then returning should “definitely be questioned” and prosecuted if there is evidence.
Dia Chakravarty says it was her decision to move to the UK and she loves living here and the freedom it affords her. We need to give the girls or whoever else comes back a fair trial; if they are guilty “absolutely throw the book at them”. The media needs to bear responsibility for giving jihadists “celebrity status”.
Question 3: When many cannot afford to save to buy a house, when will the government address the issue of controlling rent prices?
Dia Chakravarty says the main problem is that there aren’t enough houses available because of over-regulation, and “we need to open that market up”. Too much is protected under the Green Belt, much of which isn’t lush countryside but simply unbuilt-on land.
Shirley Williams says she agrees with Dia about the problem but not with the proposed solution. We have “a great deal” of land with poor-quality housing on it and need to do more development on brownfield land and make more use of pre-fabs until the situation is under control. There also needs to be more social housing, even if it means having to tell developers that a proportion of what they build must be allocated to it, because “the situation is beyond easy repair”.
Sajid Javid says “a rent cap would make an already difficult situation even worse” and “absolutely the wrong way to go” because landlords would have no incentive to buy and rent properties or keep them in good condition. The problem of being unable to raise a deposit for a first home has been addressed by the Help-to-Buy scheme.
Will Self says it’d be difficult to get a cap on rent passed by a government where many members are private landlords. “This all goes back to Thatcher flogging off the council housing stock”, which had “unintended consequences” such as the rise of buy-to-let.
Chuka Umunna says “we have the lowest number of new builds now since the 1920s”. To help long-term renters, Labour would make 3-year tenancies the norm, stop letting agents charging extortionate fees and restrict the rate of rent increases.
Javid and Umunna then snipe at each other over their governments’ respective records on house-building for a boring couple of minutes.
Question 4: Why can’t MPs be more truthful?
Will Self says he “doesn’t want to cast any aspersions” but they have to worry about what they have to lose, toeing the party line and what they’ll look like. The “real big lie” is that “they won’t tell the truth about how little power they really have”.
Shirley Williams says John Smith laid his cards on the table and lost an election he was strongly tipped to win; we are all culpable for the current client.
Dia Chakravarty says she’s not as cynical as Will; we have good politicians as well as bad politicians.
Chuka Umunna says “sometimes we are our own worst enemies” but the majority of MPs on both sides of the House are honest people. “If you’re not happy with the way politics is, please do get involved.”
Sajid Javid says he agrees with Umunna; MPs go into Parliament because they want to make the country better. The vast majority do it because they want to help people.
To be honest, all five members of the panel had considerable weak points. Baroness Williams got a bit confused when asked about the winter fuel allowance and gave a reply about the NHS; Umunna and Javid sniped at each other right until the final question; Will Self had the usual complacent drawl as if he’s the cleverest person in the room but doesn’t need to prove it, and Dia Chakravarty was almost as single-minded on her Taxpayer’s Alliance plan as Farage is on Europe.
The housing question was, however, revealing, and the responses to it clearly demonstrate the difference in approaches the parties would take.