Horsham’s parliamentary candidates were grilled on topics from Brexit to school funding at an election hustings last night (Wednesday May 31).
The packed out event, with almost 300 people in attendance, was hosted by Brighton Road Baptist Church and organised by Horsham Churches Together.
Candidates answered questions on leaving the EU, school funding, religious freedoms, international aid, fox hunting, fracking, and their top three priorities.
In their initial statements Lib Dem Morwen Millson explained how her party was pushing for a second EU referendum, increased school funding, and more money for the NHS and adult social care.
Jim Duggan, from the Peace Party, stressed the need for ‘human values’ such as respect and understanding, while Labour’s Susannah Brady asked why Horsham needed foodbanks, and suggested house prices and rents were ‘spiralling out of reach of the ordinary citizen’.
UKIP’s Roger Arthur argued that the referendum result had delivered a clear mandate for leaving the EU and warned against a so-called ‘soft Brexit’, Conservative Jeremy Quin said he hoped he had lived up to a promise to be ‘approachable, available and a strong voice for the Horsham constituency’ if elected, and the Green Party’s Catherine Ross wanted to ‘represent Horsham in the way Caroline Lucas [party co-leader] represents people in Brighton Pavilion’.
Lastly James Smith, from Something New, explained how his party believed ‘democracy and politics should be more about listening’.
One of the recurring themes was the UK’s exit from the EU.
Mr Quin said it was ‘not helpful to rehash the arguments’, adding: “I believe we can get a very good deal from our friends on the other side of the water.”
Ms Ross replied: “I do not accept the debate has been had. The debate has rarely started.”
Mr Smith agreed, arguing that a 52/48 split was ‘not a good enough amount of difference for a change of this scale’, while Mr Duggan said: “I do not think we should ever part from the EU.”
Ms Brady described how Labour was respecting the ‘democratic process of this country’ and would work to negotiate the best deal, but Mr Arthur made the case for leaving the EU, extolling the benefits and criticising a ‘one size fits all Eurozone’.
FAIRER SCHOOL FUNDING
The other big issue on Wednesday night was the need for more money for schools as headteachers across West Sussex have been warning about an impending funding crisis for the last two years.
Mrs Millson said: “I think it’s absolutely appalling parents are being asked to take toilet rolls to one school. I think it’s unbelievably terrible.”
As one of the richest countries in the world, Mr Duggan felt there ‘should not be any problem putting more money into education’, while Ms Brady criticised Tory ‘vanity projects’ such as grammar and free schools, and called for VAT to be levied on private schools.
Mr Arthur called allowing schools to move to four days a week ‘counter-productive’ if parents had to pay for extra childcare or take time off work, and felt leaving the EU and scrapping ‘vanity projects’ such as HS2 would make more money available for schools.
Mr Quin described fairer funding for schools as his number one priority, pointing out that the Tory manifesto included an extra billion pounds, adding: “We do have excellent schools, let’s not run down the schools we have.”
But Ms Ross said: “Jeremy made a lot about talking about fairer funding. That’s great and admirable but unfortunately he’s hamstrung by his party which is not properly funding our schools.”
Lastly Mr Smith said: “We need a generation that loves to learn and can continue to learn because the future is going to be fast and we are going to have to learn all the time.”
One attendee asked the candidates if they thought campaigns were too ‘pseudo presidential’, focusing too much on party leaders at the expense of talking about policies and how they would affect local areas.
Mr Arthur argued for electoral reform through a combination of first-past-the-post and proportional representation so they retain some form of accountability at a local level.
Meanwhile Ms Brady asked if it was not the ‘Conservative Party but the Theresa May Party’, contrasting this with Labour, which allows its members to directly influence policy decisions.
Mrs Millson argued in favour of proportional representation as a way of improving engagement in politics, Ms Ross said that it was up to voters ‘to be critical thinkers and look beyond the heads of the parties’.
Mr Smith added: “If you wanted to disenfranchise as many people as possible you would choose this one [electoral system].”
But Mr Quin did ‘not think it’s unfair to draw people’s attention to leadership’ that would be required to negotiate a deal with the EU, adding: “I do not think Jeremy [Corbyn] is the right person to do that.”
FOX HUNTING AND FRACKING
Towards the end of the evening, candidates were asked individual questions with Mr Quin receiving the most attention.
Asked about his stance on fracking, he said: “My personal view is that we need to have absolutely the right regulatory environment for fracking.
“The Government has gone out of its way to put in far far more regulation than the United States. We have learned from their experience.”
He was also asked how his party could support the return of fox hunting, and replied that the Conservative Party had committed in its manifesto for a long time to a free vote on the issue.
Mr Quin added: “It’s up to MPs if it happens. It’s not a priority for a Conservative Government and it’s not a personal big priority for me.”
Polling day is Thursday June 8.
To read each of the candidates profiles click here.