Election 2015: Fiery debate in Batley and Spen hustings

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If ever proof was needed that enthusiasm for politics was alive and well, this was it.

A raucus crowd that attended last night’s Batley and Spen hustings, creating a political bearpit that evoked scenes of yesteryear, as each candidate had their say on how they deserve to be the next MP for the area.

Controversy reigned from the start, with Green Party candidate Dr Ian Bullock unable to attend due to “work commitments”, while organisers admitted they hadn’t invited TUSC candidate Dawn Wheelhouse.

The panel of four was comprised of Aleks Lukic (UKIP), Imtiaz Ameen (Con), Jo Cox (Lab) and John Lawson (Lib Dem).

The first question directed at the panel asked whether each candidate would support a referendum on Europe. Mr Lukic, currently an IT teacher at Heckmondwike Grammar School, said his party would offer a “cast iron guarantee” on a European referendum.

“Successive Labour and Conservative governments have consistently failed to deliver on a referendum,” he added. “David Cameron is not serious about a referendum on Europe.”

Mr Ameen responded by claiming UKIP would have no power in the next government, while the Labour and Lib Dem candidates both said they were pro-Europe, with Mrs Cox adding that she would welcome the debate on Britain’s involvement with the EU.

The contentious issue of David Cameron’s new “right to buy policy” was then brought up.

Mr Ameen said he welcomed the policy, claiming home ownership helped create more stable communities and reduced crime, adding: “People renting for a number of years deserve to buy their homes.”

John Lawson countered: “This is assett-stripping, pure and simple.”

“I think this is a bonkers idea,” added Mrs Cox. “When this policy was first introduced in the 1980s, it caused not only a lack of social housing, but it caused property prices to go through the roof.”

Mr Lukic added: “This is nothing more than a last-minute cynical vote-grab from David Cameron.”

The issue of Britain’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was then raised by an audience member, who accused the Conservative Party of being “anti-muslim” for its inaction over the conflict.

Mr Ameen pointed out that he believed the party was not anti-muslim, particularly as he was the only muslim candidate standing in the contituency.

He added: “I have been a member of the Conservative Party for 16 years, and have muslim colleagues in the party – you are doing yourself no favours saying things like that.

“When the conflict started in 2008, it was a Labour government in charge.”

Mrs Cox said: “I worked in Gaza after the first conflict, and the Labour Party was far more vocal on the issue – I should know, because I was on the ground as an aid worker.

“The party has come to the conclusion that it is time to recognise Gaza and the Palestinian people – we need to go further and boycott Israeli goods.”

Each candidate was asked whether they would be a “part-time MP”, with each claiming they would give up their day jobs to concentrate fully on the role with Mrs Cox pledging to support the NHS.

Mr Ameen replied: “Having a Labour government talk about how to fund the NHS is like having an alcoholic lecture you on the effects of alcohol abuse.

“We (Conservatives) have spent an extra £12.7bn on the NHS – as a result, the NHS is in good condition.”

He was then met with cries of “how dare you”, as the audience reacted angrily to his claims.

He then accused Labour of “scarermongering” over Dewsbury and District Hospital, and said that the hospital’s A&E department had not been downgraded.

Mrs Cox replied by saying she wanted to exempt the NHS from any negotiations in the TTIP talks – a trade deal being discussed in secret which could lead to American firms buying up contracts for European public services.

Mr Lukic was asked about his views on Nigel Farage’s recent assertion that he would repeal anti-discrimination laws. He claimed it would help employers discriminnate in favour of British-born workers when employing people.

He added: “We want to be in a position where we no longer need these laws.”

The panel was asked about cuts to charity funding support from Kirklees Council, with Mr Ameen claiming Kirklees Council was sitting on balances of £144m that should be used to help charities, adding: “You pay your council tax and they are not spending it.”

John Lawson then presented the Liberal Democrats’ stance on tuition fees.

“Ideally we would have free university places for everyone,” he said. “But we are in a situation now where we have record numbers of people going to university so, realistically it would take a lot of work.”

Jo Cox pledged that Labour would cap fees at £6,000, while Imtiaz Ameen suggested this would only benefit students who go on to higher-paid jobs due to the payback threshold.

Education was soon brought up, with Mr Ameen championing the Conservatives’ free schools policy.

“Competition is good for schools, and wherever free schools open, it raises the achievement of schools around them, and the vast majority of free schools themselves are rated good or outstanding.”

Mrs Cox said a Labour government would scrap the free schools policy, adding: “There is a serious need for primary school places – I want to give back control to local authorities.

“We have seen a rise in unqualified teachers teaching in the classrooms – that is not acceptable.”

Each candidate was then asked for a one-word answer on whether they supported same sex marriage. Mr Lukic, Mrs Cox and Mr Lawson each responded “yes”, while Mr Ameen said “no”.

The final question was on the issue of where each candidate stood on food banks.

“We have seen a rise in low-paid people on zero-hours contracts,” said Mrs Cox. “A lot of the people are using food banks are working people who have suffered from cuts to the benefit system.

“I would support the banning of zero-hours contracts.”

Mr Ameen replied by saying the Tories had given a tax cut for 30 million working people, adding: “The main reason people access food banks is because of delays in their benefits payments.

“If someone is not in work, we have to break that cycle. There are too many people who think it is a lifestyle choice not to work and taxpayers should not subsidise them.”

Each candidate said they would not expect their parties to form an alliance with the Scottish National Party to form a government.

The deadline to register to vote is today (Monday) - visit www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.