Mar 15 2010 By Siba Matti
Liberal Democrat frontbencher Simon Hughes answered questions from voters in Northwood last Monday (March 8) as he spelled out his party's vision for Britain. SIBA MATTI reports on an evening of heated debate...
YOUNG people were at the heart of the agenda when Liberal Democrat cabinet spokesman for energy and climate change, Simon Hughes, visited Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Mr Hughes, MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey for the past 27 years, took part in a two-hour question time session led by BBC political journalist, Jo Coburn.
The synagogue, in Oaklands Gate, Northwood, had been expecting Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, MP Chris Huhne, but he was forced to pull out at the last minute to attend an important vote in parliament.
Wearing a dark suit, cream shirt and a pink tie, Mr Hughes entered enemy territory – the area has long been a Tory stronghold – to be grilled by the 50-strong audience on a range of topics, from education and economy to social cohesion and the BNP.
On the subject of antisemitism, Mr Hughes said: "It's difficult to believe that, 70 years after the Holocaust, such hatred still exists.
"The long term solution is educating young people and that's why Holocaust Memorial Day events here at the synagogue are so important – to ensure the lessons of history are learned.
"Schools also have a crucial role to play in teaching children to integrate with all members of society.
"Islamophobia is another issue that needs to be nipped in the bud early. There are extremes in all religions and people who take a fundamentalist view, and they bring a bad name on their communities.
"Hillingdon is one of London's many multicultural boroughs with Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths, and it wouldn't survive without their contributions.
"Immigration needs a variable limit but people should be allowed to earn the right to citizenship if they speak English, work and haven't been in breach of the law."
The BNP have crept closer to the area after Councillor Deidre Gates won the South Oxhey seat on Hertfordshire County Council in June last year.
Mr Hughes said of the far-right party: "Racists and fascists need to be countered and not given a free rein. There are very few BNP members in the city but there are two in the European Parliament, one in the Greater London Assembly and about 50 councillors altogether, which are 50 too many.
"The BNP play on immigration, most of all with housing. We are in need of more affordable housing but local communities can often resist more homes in their area, which presents a difficult conundrum.
"As long as we have a housing crisis the BNP and the National Front will exploit it. I have zero tolerance for any racist behaviour."
Speaking about the economy, Mr Hughes insisted: "Britain needs a fairer society for all – not one where the lowest paid workers pay the same level of tax as managing directors.
"It's not about trying to squeeze money out of people, but it's not unreasonable to expect those who earn more than £100,000 to pay a higher rate."
This prompted audience member, Cara Cummings, to question whether Mr Hughes was being anti-aspirational: "We shouldn't discourage people wishing to do better because they are being over-taxed," she said.
Mr Hughes responded: "It's about getting the balance right and allowing individuals to find their wings and fly as far as they can.
"It's true that jobs are scarcer and among the worst affected are 16-24 year olds.
"From the age of 14, children should do some serious work experience as part of their school work – many have no one at home who has a job, and its very difficult to break the cycle.
"There is still a culture of dependency in society and too many people not working who should be.
"Work experience and apprenticeships are the way forward, especially in seriously neglected areas."
Edward White asked Mr Hughes if he was concerned that fewer and fewer people were likely to vote: "My children have little interest in politics and it appears to be a most unhealthy trend – how can it be reversed?"
Mr Hughes said: "If the election looks as if it will be close, that may incentivise people. This may sound controversial but I think it would be an advantage for voting to start at 16 – it doesn't make sense that people leave school at that age, but can't vote for another two years.
"The problem could be be eased if people were able to vote at any polling station and over two days at the weekend, rather than a Thursday, so they have more opportunity to vote at the last minute.
"Unfortunately in seats such as this one, the general election doesn't mean much as everyone believes it will remain a Tory seat and if that's the case, then why bother?
"We need to give more power to local councils so people want to vote to make a difference to their own communities.
"There should be locally elected bodies to decide what health services each area has according to patient needs. More youth councils will also help to engage young people in politics.
"But if people sit at home and don't vote, that's how extreme parties can get elected."