Speaking at an election debate entitled Paying for Society were:
- Conservative PPC Will Blair
- Green PPC Lesley Grahame
- Shadow Consumer Affairs Spokesperson Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
- Liberal Democrat Lords Government Whip Baroness Garden of Frognal
- UKIP PPC Nigel Sussman
The event was hosted by Quaker Vote in conjunction with the Equality Trust, with Quaker Parliamentary Engagement Officer Jessica Metheringham in the Chair.
Opening his remarks, Mr Blair argued that the 2015 General Election represented a “defining moment” for the UK, in which the electorate was faced with the opportunity to consolidate the progress made under the Coalition.
He declared that the Government’s “long-term economic plan” was working, and said that Prime Minister David Cameron had delivered “positive” and “progressive” leadership.
He added that the Conservative Party could deliver equality of opportunity for all.
Ms Grahame began by stating her belief in challenging the dominant model of neoliberal economics, which she argued had a negative impact on both people and planet.
The Green Party believed in sharing resources more equitably, including with future generations, she said.
She argued that unlimited growth and use of resources, or “business as usual”, was untenable, and cited the need for managed change.
Baroness Hayter opened by outlining Labour’s proposals to address a number of social problems, including the damaging impact of non-domiciled tax status, and highlighted the party’s opposition to extending the Right to Buy and selling off a fresh tranche of Lloyds shares.
She said that Labour wanted to provide good quality healthcare for all, and aimed to take on predatory letting agents, as well as providing wraparound childcare and remaining in the EU.
The party believed in “fairness in a strong and growing economy”, she concluded.
Baroness Garden opened by highlighting the problem of voter apathy.
She noted that the Liberal Democrats were in an unprecedented position at the 2015 General Election as they could offer up a record in Government.
Baroness Garden cited her party’s desire to implement fairer taxation while strengthening the economy.
It also aimed to boost opportunities for children through education, and sought to provide adequate funding for health while also conserving the environment, she added.
Mr Sussman opened by describing UKIP as a “democratic, libertarian party” that wanted to prioritise Britain.
As such, it supported social mobility and “common-sense policies”, he said, suggesting that voters should pick UKIP if they wished to return power to the UK.
“We need to exit the EU”, he argued, calling the union a “federal dictatorship” which rendered Westminster an “empty shell”.
He also cited the need to resolve “serious economic issues”, but also lamented the social problem of food bank reliance.
The Chair next invited audience members to raise matters of concern under the themes of the debate.
A representative of Housing Justice asked how the candidates would provide for the homeless.
Responding, Mr Blair argued in favour of a mixture of state, private and charitable provision, and highlighted the role of the Catholic Church, among other faith groups. He pointed to the Coalition’s work in reducing red tape for charities, including loosening restrictions on Gift Aid.
Baroness Hayter lamented the housing shortage Britain faced, rejecting the proposed Conservative extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations, which she said would be “exactly the worst thing” as it would reduce available housing stock.
She cited the need for supported housing, and said that one must also focus on the reasons why people became homeless, such as substance abuse or difficulties adjusting to veteran status.
Ms Grahame said that the economy ought to become fairer. Charity could not substitute for rights, but NGOs did “great work”, she argued.
She said that the Green Party aimed to reverse cuts to local authorities and reductions in Housing Benefit, as well as focusing on providing assistance to troubled families. She also attacked the impact of cuts on women’s refuges.
Baroness Garden lamented the lack of housing stock replacement under the Right to Buy. She said that responsibility should fall on local authorities and Government, in addition to the contributions of the third sector.
Mr Sussman pointed to the shortage of housing stock, and linked this to “uncontrolled immigration”. He argued that the UK needed to exit the EU and “[take] back control” of its borders.
He also noted that UKIP would continue Housing Benefit for the young, and said that his party wanted to build on brownfield land. He suggested that a more joined-up approach to healthcare could also prevent people from falling through the gaps.
An audience member highlighted the difference between wealth inequality and income inequality, in reply to which Baroness Hayter acknowledged the “real, big problem” created by the increased income inequality fostered by wealth inequality. She cited the work of Thomas Piketty.
She said that Labour’s proposed Mansion Tax was designed in part to address this issue, and also noted her party’s desire to bring back the higher rate of Income Tax, as well as increasing the Minimum Wage and publishing pay data from companies.
She said that selling property with a tax advantage was a reason for genuine concern.
Baroness Garden argued that the surge in house prices was one of the major dangers when it came to creating inequality, with attendant social problems.
She said that the Liberal Democrats wished to crack down on tax avoidance, as well as increasing the Income Tax Personal Allowance.
Invited to comment, Mr Blair concurred that the spiralling cost of housing had resulted in calls for wealth-based taxation, but argued that the solution involved building more homes rather than taxing individuals who had been fortunate enough to experience increases in property values.
He argued that the wealthiest people in society should pay the biggest share in taxes, and pointed to the Coalition’s record of increasing the Income Tax threshold. He also said that the UK had led Europe in clamping down on tax avoidance.
Mr Sussman protested that those who had benefited from increasing house prices had paid a lifetime of taxes, and argued that one must consider how people could be incentivised to earn. He argued that high taxation was economically damaging.
UKIP would take all Minimum Wage earners out of Income Tax and reform other bands, he said, arguing that this would form a constructive incentive.
Ms Grahame cited the tendency of capital to concentrate, and called for “fairer tax, progressively rated and properly collected”. She stressed that tax did not represent “punishment”, but rather a social contribution.
The Green Party was concerned ultimately to create a Land Value Tax, but in the immediate term was interested in reducing pay ratios so that those at the top did not earn so many times the salaries of the lowest-paid, she said.
Furthermore, the Minimum Wage needed to be a Living Wage, and workers must have their rights to unionise restored, she added.
The Chair invited the panellists to challenge one another on any statements that had been made so far.
First to respond, Baroness Hayter said that one must “get real about taxation” by accepting that rates needed addressing, rather than just enforcement.
She attacked the Conservatives’ proposed changes to Inheritance Tax, arguing that they would lead to wealth accumulation across generations, and thus contribute to inequality.
Mr Blair replied by arguing that it was “unfair” to call for parental wealth to be confiscated from the following generation in order to encourage them to start anew.
He suggested that it was “human”, “natural”, and, indeed, “British” to wish to pass on one’s wealth to one’s offspring.
The Government had succeeded in reducing the gap between taxes owed and collected, he added.
Baroness Garden argued that one must also focus on creating a community characterised by opportunity. She contended that allowing people to create wealth for their children at the outset of their lives merely created a wealthy elite.
The Coalition had overseen more disadvantaged children than ever before going on to attend university, she noted.
Ms Grahame pointed to the interconnectedness of society, arguing that the wealthy should be prepared to pay for shared social provision as a matter of “enlightened self-interest”.
Mr Sussman responded to the question by pointing to the human ingenuity that could be demonstrated when people were offered a level playing-field. He expressed his belief in a Living Wage, but said that one should not deny “reality” by rejecting the contributions of “wealth creators”.
An audience member asked if the candidates would commit to repealing the Health and Social Care Act.
Mr Sussman said that UKIP was committed to keeping the NHS free at the point of service, and argued that the health service was being damaged by immigration without control. He also pledged to end the use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) and hospital parking charges.
Ms Grahame rejected the idea that immigration was damaging the NHS, and said that the Green Party wanted to reverse privatisation and ensure in-house commissioning.
Baroness Hayter pointed to the role of immigrants in the NHS workforce. She also acknowledged the need for immigrants to learn English and “become part of the community”, particularly when they interacted with the public as service providers.
She contended that health had never been entirely public, given the historical role of the pharmaceuticals industry and the longstanding status of GPs as, in effect, small businesspeople. The crucial thing was that treatment must be free at point of use, she said.
She acknowledged concern about further NHS reorganisations, but said that Labour would “have to” make some changes. It would aim to change as much as possible without causing “chaos”, she promised.
Baroness Garden said that the Liberal Democrats wanted to modify the Health and Social Care Act to improve it without creating a “complete upturn”.
She agreed that the NHS depended on the roles of immigrants, and pointed to their role as net contributors to the nation. To better understand numbers, the Liberal Democrats would introduce exit counts, she said, adding that students should also be excluded from immigration statistics.
For her part, Ms Grahame rejected the idea of constant reorganisations in the NHS.
Asked for the candidates’ positions on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Mr Sussman said that UKIP would prevent its implementation. Ms Grahame called for the rejection of TTIP and highlighted her support for the Alternative Trade Mandate.
Baroness Garden cited the need to trade in a fair manner, and emphasised the significance of British trade with the EU. She suggested that the treaty’s future was unclear, though she said it had been subjected to much scrutiny.
Mr Sussman, on the other hand, claimed that “TTIP is coming”. He argued that the EU would force the UK to accept the treaty, and also suggested that all EU countries would be forced to join the Euro by 2020.
Baroness Hayter suggested that TTIP would not be implemented, citing discussions with interested parties which had incorporated her own concerns about consumer issues, as well as worries from American labour movement counterparts.
Mr Blair suggested that relatively more NHS privatisation had occurred under Labour than under the Conservatives. He argued that provided healthcare was of the best quality, the nature of the provider was irrelevant.
He also hailed the contributions of immigrants to the NHS, and attacked Labour reforms to the GP contract, arguing that they had damaged the availability of doctors. He pointed to the Conservative aim of providing 7-day GP services.
Asked specifically about the question of immigration, Mr Sussman drew the distinction that his party was against “uncontrolled” immigration, and called for an Australian-style points system for visa allocation.
Mr Blair called for an “honest debate” about immigration, while Ms Grahame argued that one must also take a look at the free movement of money.
On TTIP, he said that he supported the treaty, arguing that it had clear potential economic benefits.
Moving on, an audience member asked about the role of education in improving the lot of disadvantaged children. Ms Grahame responded by citing the importance of early years provision.
Mr Sussman said that investment in education demanded a strong economy. He expressed support for grammar schools, and added that UKIP also had plans for special education.
Mr Blair highlighted the creation of new Sure Start places and the boost offered to tax-free childcare under the Coalition.
However, Baroness Hayter criticised the record of the Government in this regard, stressing the need for a whole-family approach. She said that talk of tax relief on childcare was of no use to those who were so poor they did not pay tax.
She also attacked Conservative plans to end Child Benefit for families with larger numbers of children.
Baroness Garden cited the Liberal Democrats’ plans for childcare, and pointed to the Coalition’s efforts to secure shared parental leave. She also noted the role of the Pupil Premium and its targeted support for children who needed it the most.
Asked about the role of women in the economy, Ms Grahame argued that women had disproportionately been forced into low-paid work due to outsourcing. She also suggested that PSHE was of particular importance in improving women’s self-esteem.
Mr Blair suggested that the failure of British elected representatives to adequately reflect the population in gender terms had a detrimental impact on public perceptions of politics.
He pointed to the work of Home Secretary Theresa May, who had contributed to implementing “Clare’s Law” on the disclosure of histories of abusive behaviour to partners.
However, Baroness Hayter insisted that this was not originally a Conservative idea and pointed to Labour’s track record in pioneering provision such as maternity leave.
For her part, Baroness Garden said that the gender pay gap was now at its smallest, but cited the need to help women achieve positions of leadership in companies, in part so that they could extend opportunities to other women.
Asked for a final thought on these themes, Ms Grahame cited her desire to reduce class sizes to 20 and restore previous education funding levels.
She also warned that the introduction of Universal Credit could prove severely damaging to women experiencing domestic abuse, as it could result in only one member of the household controlling the receipt of benefit payments.
The audience was invited to raise some issues of concern. One audience member cited worries about pay disparity for temporary workers, while another raised the question of domestic violence.
Another audience member suggested that greater equality should be a “specific objective” for political parties, while a final attendee simply asked that politicians focus on “welfare”.
Invited to make a closing statement, Baroness Hayter added to the previous point by noting that Labour would create a commissioner role to address domestic violence, and also attacked cuts to Legal Aid for their impact on this area.
Labour stood for a fairer society in which all would take responsibility for one another and everyone could benefit from growth, she stated.
Next to speak, Ms Grahame called for “practical action” to reverse inequality, and a “bigger, fairer tax system”. Investing in public services and jobs would pay for itself, she said, declaring that the Greens wanted to make the world a better place for the next generation.
She concluded by paraphrasing the Quaker <i>Advice and Queries</i> to ask: “When you vote, what will love require of you?”
Mr Sussman opened his final comments by taking on suggestions that UKIP was a racist party. He highlighted his own Jewish background and suggested that its candidates showed a good level of diversity.
He stressed the significance of the debt and deficit the UK faced, and argued that the other panellists were failing to address this.
He also attacked the EU as a “federal dictatorship” “based on the old Soviet model”. “I believe in Britain and I still believe in my dreams”, he concluded.
Offering his own concluding statement, Mr Blair set forth his belief that debt represented “deferred taxation” and would result in the need for austerity in the future. He argued that it was a responsible choice to address these issues so that the UK could continue to invest in services such as the NHS.
Finally, Baroness Garden said that the Liberal Democrats had “[put] national interest above party interest” by entering coalition and legislating for fixed-term Parliaments.
She cited her belief in a stronger economy and a fairer society, and also said that the party saw the UK’s future as lying within the EU.