Bedford and Kempston’s MP and parliamentary candidates did what our national leaders are struggling to do – have a debate on policy.
Organised by the Bedfordshire Branch of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and held at the University of Bedfordshire’s Bedford campus on Thursday, the focus of the hustings meeting was on student and economic issues.
Richard Fuller, Bedford’s Conservative current MP, sat next to the man he beat to the seat in 2010, Labour’s Patrick Hall, who is aiming to take the seat back in May.
Trained accountant Mahmud Henry Rogers, for the Liberal Democrats, businessman Charlie Smith, for UKIP and Dr Ben Foley for the Green party completed the panel.
The subject of student tuition fees, currently at £9,000 per year, was a major issue of division. Mr Fuller claimed it is a “sound policy” which has not put off people from disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university.
Mr Smith, who supports the reintroduction of grammar schools, claimed the “elephant in the room” is the issue of immigration. “We are bringing in people with no skills or low skills which drives down the wages of people in this country,” he said.
But Dr Foley, a lecturer, said the “ridiculous focus on immigration” was harming the university sector. He claimed universities are struggling to get visas for top-paying international students and added: “This industry is being destroyed by this focus on immigration.”
Dr Foley and Mr Smith also clashed on the issue of climate change. Mr Smith wants to abolish the Climate Change Act along with a host of laws and regulations from the European Union, which he wants to exit.
Mr Rogers admitted he had come to change his mind on the issue of student tuition fees, following the Lib Dems’ famous dropping of their stance against the policy in coalition negotiations following the 2010 general election.
Mr Rogers said he had changed from someone who had carried a placard against fees to one who had “grown to forgive Nick Clegg.”
Mr Rogers had also experienced a change of heart on the issue of Bedford’s directly elected mayor.
“Liberals are suspicious of concentrations of power but this has worked well,” he said. The town’s current mayor is a Liberal Democrat.
Candidates also spoke about the future of the town, with Mr Hall urging those present to “not put up with mediocrity.” He said Bedford has “great potential” but has so far “never quite lived up to it.
“I am convinced Bedford has a positive future greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.
The panellists were also asked what they would do if they had their time in education again. Dr Foley said he would study computers and social responsibility; Mr Fuller said “physics” but added that he had been “rubbish” at it.
Mr Hall said he would go into engineering while Mr Henry said law and statistics interested him.
Mr Smith said, having had experience of the cost of legal fees, that the law would attract him. He added that he would be able to work pro-bono and “put something back.”
Chaired by Dr Gordon Mellor, Executive Dean for the Business School at the University of Bedfordshire, the event is part of the FSB’s national #ibacksmallbusiness campaign which aims to put small businesses at the heart of the debate. The FSB’s Bedfordshire branch chairman, Bedford businessman Ian Cording, said: “The small business community is the lifeblood of the Bedford economy and that is why it is vital that all of those who seek to serve us are given the chance to talk about the issues that affect small businesses and the people who work for us.”
The general election will take place on Thursday, May 6.