Austerity and poverty top agenda at last hustings in Borders before election day

Austerity and child poverty dominated a UK Government general election hustings event in Selkirk yesterday, December 9, as a packed hall of Souters grilled the four contenders vying to be their next MP.

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 5:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 5:43 pm
John Lamont, Jenny Marr, Alistair Pattullo, Calum Kerr and Ian Davidson at UK general election hustings held at Selkirk's Victoria Halls.

The final hustings to be held in the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency was chaired by Alistair Pattullo, chairman of Selkirk Community Council, at the Victoria Halls in Scott’s Place.

The two front-runners in the race to Westminster, Conservative incumbent John Lamont and the Scottish National Party’s Calum Kerr, stuck to the messages that have dominated their respective campaigns so far.

Mr Lamont urged the audience to vote for him to avoid a second Scottish independence referendum, and Mr Kerr told the crowd the choice in the Borders “is between me and Boris Johnson”.

UK general election hustings held at Selkirk's Victoria Halls.

Jenny Marr, standing on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was cheered on by former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood as she called for voters to choose her as a candidate opposed to both Brexit and Scottish independence.

Ian Davidson, a Glasgow MP for over 20 years, hammered home the Labour Party’s messages on austerity, poverty and the National Health Service, and those issues came to dominate proceedings as audience members asked their questions.

On one such occasion, audience member Colin Anderson told the panel that the percentage of children living in relative poverty in Scotland is now 24%.

He also said that confusion over the Scottish Government’s named persons policy has been a major problem for professional agencies reporting and sharing concerns of child neglect, asking the panel: “If elected, what would you do to address this situation?”

Jenny Marr with Lord Steel of Aikwood at general election hustings held at Selkirk's Victoria Halls.

Mr Lamont was first to answer, saying: “Child neglect, child poverty is something we should all be concerned about.

“Clearly the named persons policy caused me and my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament huge concern, and when I was an MSP that was one of the main issues that people brought up with me.

“My colleagues in the Scottish Parliament ran a very effective campaign to persuade the Scottish Government to revisit it, to look at it again, and they appear to have dropped it.

“In terms of the wider policy area, in terms of ensuring children do not grow up in poverty, yes, we need to do more.

“The figures are very, very concerning about the rates of child poverty here in Scotland, and I suspect that issue might come further down the line when we talk about welfare and benefits and what the state should be doing to ensure children are not living in poverty in Scotland.

“In respect of the named persons policy, I think the Scottish Government are absolutely right to drop it.”

Ms Marr told the crowd: “It’s a really sad state of affairs that the percentage of children living in poverty is so high.

“An independent think-tank looked at our manifesto and concluded that 600,000 fewer children would be in poverty by 2023-24, so I think we have the policies we can put in place to protect children going forward.

“The benefits system needs to be completely overhauled, we would put £6bn into making the universal credit benefit system work for people.

“We need to make sure it is not about sanctions, that it is about incentives.

“People fall on hard times through no fault of their own.

“This will affect children and we should not punish people for that.

“We want to insulate more homes by 2030. This will help the environment and it will cut fuel bills as well, and it will just make life a little bit more easy and a little bit more affordable.

“This is one of those things that transcends party politics, so it would be unwise of us to have a pop at each other here.

“I appreciate that it is very easy to point fingers, but, at the end of the day, this is about people’s lives and we shouldn’t shout at each other for this kind of thing.”

Mr Davidson said: “I was a bit depressed by the opening statements that were made because the two candidates who say they are the front-runners seem to be saying ‘you might not like me much, but he’s worse’, and I don’t think politics should be about that.

“It’s about issues like the prevalence of poverty in the constituency – 24%. In Hawick and Denholm, it’s actually over a third of children living in poverty.

“The Tory government has been responsible for the rise in child poverty.

“You’ve got to remember that austerity was not inevitable. Austerity was a deliberate political choice by the Tories, aided in the coalition by the Liberals.

“It goes back to what the Tories believe. They essentially believe that you motivate rich people by giving them more money and you motivate poor people by giving them less money.

“It’s bags of cash for the bankers and bags of food for the needy, and we want to abolish food-banks. We want to remove the need for food-banks.”

Mr Kerr, MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk from 2015 to 2017, said: “I agree with a lot of that. The fact that children are being brought up in poverty, the fact they’re going to school hungry, the fact that families are having to choose between eating and heating is a reality in the Borders.

“Sometimes we think we’re quite an affluent area. Well, it’s there. It’s all around us.

“Austerity was, as Ian said, a political choice. It was not a necessity.

“What we’ve seen off the back of that is one million children living in poverty. That’s one in four.

“And actually, analysis of the Conservative Party manifesto says it’s going to get worse and we’re going to see child poverty rates going back to what they were 60 years ago.

“Say what you like about Ian and Corbyn, taking us back to the seventies, I’m talking about going back 60 years ago, that’s how bad the policies being put forward are.

“In terms of how we tackle this, in Scotland we control 16% of the benefits that are out there, and we’ve been trying to do as much as possible in the face of the cuts that are coming our way.

“To put it in perspective, there’s £3.7bn worth of cuts to welfare next year. That’s the reality.

“These are people that can’t save. They’re choosing whether to eat or heat.

“With the limited powers we have, we’ve invested £1.4bn in a range of targeted low-income procedures, and we have new things that we’re bringing through all the time.”

Voters go to the polls this Thursday, December 12.