This edition came from Taunton in Somerset, with panelists Baroness Kramer (Lib Dem), Tristram Hunt MP (Labour), Owen Paterson MP (Conservative), Caroline Lucas MP (Green) and Anthony Horowitz OBE (writer). Given the exclusion of the Green Party from the upcoming BBC election debates, it was good to see them represented here.
Question 1: Isn’t it time for the government to review the current drugs policy after a Home Office report suggested no link between strict law and illegal use?
Caroline Lucas said that the Misuse of Drugs Act was put in place in 1971 and hasn’t been reviewed since then, despite evidence that it is not effective. She welcomes the report from the Home Office and says the main issue is to ensure the law protects people. She wants “an evidence-based approach” and suggests that, following the Portuguese example, possession of drugs for personal use should be decriminalised.
Owen Paterson said that Portugal brought in health and education measures at the same time as decriminilisation of possession and so it’s not clear which element has made the difference. “There is no clear, simple solution” but he argues that prohibition works and that drug use has dropped by a third in recent years.
Lucas qualified Patterson’s point by saying that although cannabis use has fallen, use of other drugs has remained steady and the number of people who have died from heroin overdoses has increased by 32%.
Tristram Hunt welcomed the report and its focus on health but disagreed with the idea of decriminilisation. He said cannabis usage is “really dangerous” and any move to legalise it is, in his opinion, the wrong direction. But although he believes possession should remain illegal, he thinks users should be given treatment rather than time in prison.
Paterson said that taking drugs is more dangerous for those who don’t have the money and family background to deal with the consequences, and that deaths in the north east are double those in London. (I think he was obliquely referring to whether or not people could afford lengthy private treatment to overcome their addictions, but unfortunately it sounded like he thought Londoners knew how to use drugs more safely.)
Baroness Kramer disagreed with Paterson’s assessment, saying that drugs can destroy the lives of people from any background. She said she was “relieved” to see the Home Office report following lines of evidence rather than rhetoric. She would like to see drugs trafficking remain a criminal offence but thinks possession should be a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
Anthony Horowitz said this issue keeps getting debated but then forgotten, and that the Conservatives commissioned the latest report but are already not listening to it. For youth offenders, 70% of detainees are there for “drugs-related offences”, quite often through stealing things to pay for their drug habits. Horowitz said drug use has a knock-on effect into other areas of criminal activity and that users should be treated as patients rather than being punished so that they can get lifted out of that cycle.
Question 2: What are the consequences if we do not pay the extra £1.7bn EU bill?
Baroness Kramer said that a marginal adjustment was anticipated but not this “massive amount” of money and the idea of paying it in a few weeks’ time is a “no-go”.
Tristram Hunt said “the consequence will be nothing” if we don’t pay by December 1st, but David Cameron has failed on a matter of diplomacy and it highlights his lack of leadership on Europe. The government were “asleep at the wheel” and should have seen the readjustment coming.
Owen Paterson said Tony Blair “gave away a big lump of the rebate” and the coalition has picked up the mess left by Labour. Dimbleby asked him to get to the point of the question of what will happen if we don’t pay, to which Patterson responded: “There will be a row and I trust David Cameron to get a result.”
Anthony Horowitz wondered if the EU Commission were working for UKIP as the presentation of the bill seemed timed to intentionally interfere in UK politics, and the way it has been done has caused him to wonder for the first time whether we really need to be in Europe.
Caroline Lucas said that one of the consequences if we don’t pay will be a blow to the ability of David Cameron to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with Europe, but that quite a few things seem “odd” and we need to look at changing both the amount owed and the timescale in which to pay it. She added to Horowitz’s point: “Nigel Farage must think Christmas has come early”, because a technocratic decision like this can easily fuel Euroscepticism. However, she urged Horowitz and others not to lose sight of the fact that we “massively need” the EU and get a net worth of £70bn out of our membership.
Question 3: Should we introduce an amnesty for jihadist fighters, or should they be tried for treason, as suggested by the foreign secretary?
Owen Paterson said we have used taxpayers’ money to educate these people growing up; if they then pledge loyalty to those attacking the UK, “they put their British citizenship at risk”. He believes we should be “loyal to those who are loyal to this country” and those joining ISIL should then forfeit their citizenship.
Caroline Lucas said the guiding principle should be the UK’s security. Some UK people have gone out to Syria, got there, realised it’s awful and want to come back. Denmark has a rehabilitation process on a case-by-case basis; if we could do something similar it would mean removing the risk of them feeling further hatred for the UK and plotting attacks from abroad. Those deemed safe to return could persuade others not to go out.
Tristram Hunt said the idea of calling it treason “adds to the glamour”. We should be clear on how grotesque ISIL is and those who return should be prosecuted for crimes that promote terrorism.
Anthony Horowitz pointed out the young age of most of those leaving the country to fight, “fuelled by testosterone and the need for identity”. We should engage with them so that they don’t leave in the first place. Of their acts abroad he says: “it isn’t treason but it is terrorism”.
Baroness Kramer said there are two categories: those going in full knowledge who should be prosecuted as war criminals, and the young and naive who have “totally changed their minds” and want to come back. We need to find a way back for the remorseful so they can take the message back to their own communities.
Question 4: The mayor of Calais wants to blame the UK’s migrant problem on the generous benefits system. Is she right?
Dimbleby qualifies this by explaining that in France asylum seekers receive no benefits whereas in the UK it’s £36 a week.
Anthony Horowitz said she is wrong in blaming the UK, and the reason people want to come here is because it is a wonderful country in many ways, not just for a pocketful.
Baroness Kramer said in France you get £61 a week, but Dimbleby countered that in the UK you are eligible to claim straight away, whereas in France they “sit on it” and it could be months before the money goes through. Kramer would like to see a collaborative approach so that it is neither a problem in France or the UK.
Owen Paterson doesn’t think it’s just for the £36 but because Britain is a great country to live in. He blames EU regulations on fishing boats meaning that Africans are out of work and driven to seek refuge. The answer is more prosperity and more free trade around the world.
Caroline Lucas says the evidence is they’re coming from desperate situations, and once here they quickly seek jobs. She is worried about the “hyperbolic rhetoric” surrounding the migrants at Calais and calls the UK’s decision to pull out of the search and rescue operations for migrants “terrible”. She added “I’m proud to be British but I’m not proud when I see that”.
Paterson said Lucas has misrepresented the facts: the traffickers have been using the Italian navy and associated rescue operators as a free service, so the decision was taken in order to stop more instances from happening.
Tristram Hunt said we cannot confuse asylum with immigration. We need effective borders and to stop benefits being drawn in the UK to be sent back to Poland, but at the same time should continue to offer asylum to those in need.
Question 5: Could we be facing electrical blackouts this winter?
Caroline Lucas said the national grid has assured us we won’t, but nuclear has proven to be intermittent with unexpected outages. She would like to see more investment in renewable energy and pursue efficiency. She pointed out that last week wind generated more power than nuclear, to which Owen Patterson laughingly responded “Of course it did, there was a hurricane and 3 reactors down!” He said we will be fine during the winter and Lucas’ talk of renewables is “complete fantasy”; the lights would go out under Green policy.
Anthony Horowitz said Lucas was right that nuclear has proven to be intermittent, but so are wind and solar power. He added it “should be obvious to anybody” that we need the full range. Baroness Kramer agreed, saying it’s right we’ve been increasing renewables, but “we do need the nuclear plants as well”.
Tristram Hunt said the real fear is whether there will be industrial shortages of electricity, which could affect businesses in his own constituency.
Caroline Lucas packed as much content into her answers as possible and did a good job of giving the Green party policies some airtime. She worked in examples, facts and figures to bolster her points, but overstated the wind-power point on the final question. I would have liked Dimbleby to have given more time to Q4 so that she and Patterson could have discussed the sea rescue issue fully: it was an important point of difference, yet their debate was essentially squeezed down to opening statements.
Owen Paterson’s delivery was initially very patchy, leading to Kramer misunderstanding one of his points in Q1 and Dimbleby asking him to get to the point in Q2. Rhetorically, he was much stronger in the remaining three questions and almost had Lucas laughing with him in Q5.
Tristram Hunt’s answers were just plain baffling in places. If I understood correctly: (1) he thinks drug possession should remain a criminal act but that people shouldn’t be put in prison for it; (2) he thinks Cameron is showing lack of leadership in the EU, but that there will be no consequences if we don’t pay the £1.7bn bill and (3) he wants to get tough on immigration but still welcome all who seek asylum. If anyone can decode this, please let me know…
Baroness Kramer responded most decisively to the EU question and was so convincing that it seemed common sense that the bill was a nonsense that will go away. She got knocked back by Dimbleby’s challenge to her point on the Calais question and was solid but not outstanding on the other three questions.
Anthony Horowitz seemed to go through a whole range of moods, the most common being enthusiastic and exasperated. He was strongest on Q1 and Q3, which is somewhat reassuring: as a children’s author, he was well attuned to the needs of and difficulties faced by younger people.