This week’s Question Time came from Slough. The panel comprised of business secretary Vince Cable, shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, Conservative MP Claire Perry, UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall and Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post website.
The programme came on the back of better than expected economic data, showing the economy grew by 1.0% in the last quarter, according to official GDP figures.
Paul Nuttall cautiously welcomed the economic news, but pointed to areas of the economy still in difficulties, such as high youth unemployment and a sluggish construction industry. He said the biggest issue was the rising national debt, which increases by £450 million each day, and which will put a ‘noose around the neck of our children and grandchildren.’
Nuttall paid homage to Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed child benefits cap. He said that, between 1997 and 2010, welfare spending had increased by 60% and was unsustainable. He said the welfare system creates resentment in the working class community as it penalises those who work hard and live within their means. Nuttall received the loudest applause of the night for his statement: ‘In some cases, benefits have become a career path and a vehicle for people who just don’t want to work.’
He spoke passionately against the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) ruling against a blanket ban on prisoner voting. ‘Criminals have broken their contract with society, and society should break their contract with them.’ He said, at no point in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does it mention votes. He also said Britain cannot leave the ECtHR because it must be a member to be in the EU.
Vince Cable spoke well about systemic problems in the UK economy, such as the fact that banks are still not lending to small businesses, housing shortages, and personal debt levels. Cable said that the worst austerity measures were actually undertaken by Gordon Brown when he suddenly cut investment in infrastructure, which has done terrible damage to the construction industry.
Cable came across in his usual professorial manner and spoke well about the proposed benefit changes, stating that the government seeks to address the principle that: ‘one should not be better off out of work than in work.’ However, Cable did say that he did not find the concept of limiting child benefits to the first two children as being reasonable, suggesting a rift in the coalition on this point.
Cable said the Prime Minister is right to oppose votes for prisoners as it is correct that prisoners lose some of their liberties. He clarified the ECtHR’s position, i.e. that there should not be a blanket ban, with which he agrees. According to Cable, those who are in prison for not paying fines should be allowed to vote. Also, people who are on day release or nearing the end of their sentences should not necessarily be excluded from voting.
Cable also restated the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to the coalition, which he said will certainly last until 2015. He was questioned about this on the back of recent polls which have placed his party fourth behind UKIP. Paul Nuttall replied that ‘it could be very interesting indeed in 2015’ if UKIP’s current popularity is maintained.
Mehdi Hasan argued the GDP figures are false and merely boosted by the Olympics. He said that, if we look over the last year as a whole, there has been zero economic growth, with construction being 2.5% down on where it was a year ago. He said there are still 2.5 million unemployed, and there is rising need for food banks. Hasan spoke of the risk of a ‘triple-dip recession.’
Hasan refused to admit that the welfare system under Labour made unemployment an attractive option. In an exchange with Nuttall, Hasan showed an ideological commitment to high government spending and is clearly out of touch with the economic reality.
He did make a strong point on the UK abiding by the ECHR: if Britain does not follow international human rights agreements, how can we have credibility when we tell states like Russia that they must improve their human rights records.
Claire Perry rebuffed Hasan’s ‘ranting’, noting that there is a stream of positive data about the economy. She said unemployment and inflation are falling and the deficit is down by 25% since the election. She said there was also the highest rate of business creation ever in 2011.
Perry responded well to Hasan’s accusation that the GDP figures had been ‘inflated’, noting that they are independently compiled by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. This, said Perry, was something the previous Labour administration had been too afraid to do.
Perry put forward a strong argument for creating a welfare system which incentivises people to move into work, rather than one which rewards laziness.
Perry also said the ECtHR has moved too far away from its original remit. She conceded that certain prisoners, who have made strides in improving their lives, should be given a chance to vote. However, she firmly stated that any decision on this issue should be a ‘sovereign issue decided in the UK.’
Emily Thornberry welcomed the economic news, but blamed the fact that there had been a double-dip recession on austerity. Britain, she said, is one of only two countries in the G20 that has been in a double-dip recession. However, Thornberry was not convincing and could not respond to Claire Perry’s point about Labour’s lack of investment in social housing. She was also seen smirking when Vince Cable spoke about the need to cut the deficit. She was also evasive when asked where, specifically, Labour would make cuts.
On the proposed cap on child benefits, so that benefits will only be received for the first two children, Thornberry dodged the question and talked about ‘tax breaks for millionaires.’ She said the proposal was an attempt to ‘tell people how many children they can have’, though the argument was flimsy at best. Again, Thornberry apparently has no thought about the need for government savings. It is also worth noting that Thornberrry voted against the welfare cap, which ensures that one is financially better off being in work than out of work.
The only reasonable aspect of her performance came when she spoke about the abuse and sexualisation of teenage girls, linking the Jimmy Savile abuse with events in Rochdale, and calling for more openness.