General Election 2017: Hitchin and Harpenden candidates have their say at hustings
PUBLISHED: 22:03 02 June 2017 | UPDATED: 12:48 08 June 2017
It was standing room only tonight as the six candidates fighting Peter Lilley's former seat in next week's General Election addressed a packed hall in Hitchin this evening.
Lib Dem Hugh Annand, Tory Bim Afolami, Labour’s John Hayes, Richard Cano of the Greens, independent Ray Blake and Christian People’s Alliance leader Sid Cordle all answered questions from the audience – which was estimated to be more than 350 – after giving brief introductions.
The passionate debate drew loud cheers, boos and hisses at various times from the packed audience at the Hitchin Christian Centre on Bedford Road, but all candidates were given a hearty round of applause for turning up to debate.
Brussels-based Hugh Annand opened by saying Hitchin was one of his childhood stamping grounds, adding that much had been made of his continental residence. He explained what drove him into politics was his sense of justice, as well as making sure everyone has a decent start in life and a dignified end.
He added: “The other thing that drives me is my Christian faith. This election is about free movement of future generations in Europe.”
Eton-educated Bim introduced himself by saying his father is an NHS doctor and his mother a pharmacist, and that he worked for HSBC in corporate restructuring.
Christian People’s Alliance leader Sid Cordle introduced himself by asking if it would be better if we had committed Christians running this country. He also touched on the inequality of foodbanks.
Speaking with real emotion in his voice, Labour candidate John Hayes’ opening gambit was sharing his experiences about education cuts as a school head.
He said: “Parents in my school frequently resort to foodbanks – mums come up to me saying ‘Have you got any food I can take home?’”
The audience were moved by his sentiment, as he received a thunderous ovation from the audience.
Green’s Richard Cano also received cheers for his opening address when he demanded an end to the ‘savage practice of fox hunting’.
Ray Blake, the independent choice, added: “I’m a financial adviser and it’s easy to use a calculator – but the government’s austerity plan just isn’t working. Why not spend money to boost the economy?”
As the debate started in earnest, there were hisses for the Christian People’s Alliance candidate when he dismissed out of hand the idea of 16-year-olds being allowed to vote.
Labour’s John Hayes responded by saying: ‘You can have sex at 16 why can’t you vote?’, with Hugh Annand adding: “You have to pay tax at 16, you should be able to vote. No taxation without representation.”
Headteachers Hayes and Cano gave knowledgeable, passionate answers on cuts to education, fuelled by their first-hand experiences in education.
Ray Blake added: “We have a Tory government that will release money – but we have to wait until 2022. And in the meantime Tories steal lunches from kids and give 7p for breakfast.”
Bim Afolami was heckled when he insisted school funding had doubled in real terms since the 1990s. ‘Liar’, shouted an angry voice from the packed audience in the hot hall.
A woman from the audience, her voice breaking with emotion, directly addressed Afolami, saying: “Come to my school, which is struggling with cuts, and tell me you’re protecting education.” She sat down to loud applause.
Ray Blake also got a round of applause when he said: “It looks like five out of six people here agree that we need to put more money into the NHS.”
But Afolami protested: “Give the NHS what it needs – the head of NHS England asked for extra and Tories have pledged that. I’m not in denial – my dad’s an NHS doctor.
“We must consider whether funding comes in a sustainable way, though there is a case that it is needed.”
The debate moved to the problem of affordable housing. Annand explained: “We want to empower local authorities to build new social housing and invest in that.
“We also need to build 10 garden cities, including near Ashwell.”
Tory candidate Afolami added: “I agree with a lot of what’s been said. Longer rental tenancies are important. I’ll do anything if elected to get that.
“We also have to stop locals being priced out. Hitchin’s a lovely place but it’s not just about building new houses, it’s also what type of houses that are built.
“We also need a mix of one, two, three-bedroom houses to help people get onto property ladder.”
Hayes insisted that Labour will build 100,000 affordable homes, saying we also need more environmentally friendly homes – and that local people should get first dibs too.”
He received a loud cheer when he said: “There will be local affordable homes for local people.”
The problem of foodbanks was raised by a question from the audience, with Afolami saying: “One reason for going to foodbanks is excessive debts. We need to crack down on payday lenders. Let’s help credit unions – and improve mental health care, because that’s a big reason people use foodbanks.
“We need to keep that focus on and improve that situation.”
Christian Alliance leader Cordle received loud cheers by saying he had yet to find a Conservative candidate or MP trying to find out why people go to foodbanks.
Hayes, again speaking with emotion in his voice, said: “At my school we give out foodbank vouchers to parents. That’s disgusting.”
He also told people that when out canvassing in Harpenden, a Tory voter told him it seemed “all like something for nothing”. Hayes then tailed off, with the accusation left hanging in the air as the audience again applauded loudly.
The Green candidate Cano agreed, saying: “It’s the shame of the nation.” He called Afolami’s association of foodbanks with mental health offensive, saying that he ‘grossly misunderstands’, to some loud whoops from the audience.
On the subject of climate change, Hayes received a loud cheer when he said pointedly: “We need leadership and to stop ‘holding hands’ with climate change deniers. May has to tell Trump he is wrong. And Fast.”
It was interesting to note the reaction from the audience when the thorny subject of Brexit was raised, as many groaned loudly.
Richard Cano said: “We seek to protect right to live in this country for EU citizens.
“We do invite free movement across Europe but that must go alongside security.”
Afolami, who voted Remain last summer, responded to the question of protecting the rights of EU citizens living in this constituency with the words: “This is item number one when dealing with EU.
“I wouldn’t want to be in that position. We need to sort it out. And the same also applies to UK citizens in the EU.”
Lib Dem Hugh Annand, whose party is campaigning hard on the topic, said: “The best way to respect that is respect the views of the people of Hitchin and Harpenden, and not leave the EU.”
The Greens’ Cano said they would have a second referendum when they know the deal, believing Brexit was “missold – with much fake news on red buses”.
Independent Blake added: “The PM needs to take the moral high ground.
“Let’s give a guarantee first to EU citizens, then go back and say you should do it too.”
On the matter of Trident, Annand insisted the nuclear defence scheme is a ‘massive white elephant and I don’t support it. My party’s view is multilateralist, but I’d like to make using nuclear weapons automatically a war crime.”
Using a touch of sarcasm, Cano declared theatrically: “Bim Afolami has taken us to nuclear armageddon!” as Afolami laughed good-naturedly, before Cano added that scrapping what he referred to as “weapons of mass destruction” would save huge sums.
With a fleeting reference to Elvis Costello’s hit single Oliver’s Army, he added: “One hacker, one itchy trigger finger to end human existence. Let’s invest in the living, not killing and death.”
Former Conservative councillor David Leal-Bennett – who was present in the audience – told the panel: “I lived through Cuban missile crisis and I know how awful the thought of armageddon is – but a deterrent is a critical thing to stop that.”
The Tory candidate Afolami said: “I do support Trident. It’s the cornerstone of our security since the Second World War. It was Labour who brought it in and I’m glad they did.
“It’s not meant to be used, it’s a deterrent. But if attacked, we should use it.”
This prompted a loud outburst from a member of the audience to the effect that this would kill millions of innocent children.
That brought an immediate response from Labour’s Hayes – who has equivocated on his stance on Trident but now hit back, saying: I thank Bim for making up my mind.
“I was torn as I thought we needed the deterrent. But if the Tories will press the button, then I think no – I would not support Trident.”
There were also discussions on the Hitchin museum fiasco, with Annand using withering sarcasm to lambast local Tories on North Herts District Council.
Afolami responded by saying: If elected on June 8, I’ll follow up and keep pressing and pushing – but any of you will be deceived if you think an MP can solve it all. An MP who tells you that is lying.”
Asked to encapsulate in one sentence why voters should back him, he said: “I have the right mix of skills and experience to be your local MP.”
Blake said in summing up that being an MP would be similar to his present role as a parish councillor, adding: “You have to listen to people and caring for local people.”
John Hayes said: “I will represent everyone in this constituency not just the needs of the privileged few.”
Richard Cano told the audience: “I can give you 1,000 reasons for not voting Tory” – while the microphone was requested to be turned off while Cordle was speaking after going on too long and drawing boos from the audience when discussing anti-abortion views.
The night ended with a huge round of applause for all the candidates for turning up in what was an absorbing, entertaining – sometimes fiery and passionate – but for the most part well-mannered and respectful debate.
Labour councillor Judi BIlling, who was also present in the audience, told the Comet afterwards: “I thought the whole evening showed Hitchin at its best. I also thought that John Hayes was the outstanding candidate.”
Former Tory councillor David Leal-Bennett told this paper: “I thought Bim was statesmanlike.”
There was also huge applause for the organiser from Churches Together in Hitchin, John Richardson, as well as the host Rev Dr Jane Mainwaring.