Sadly this was a sparsely attended meeting; the 30 or so hawk eyed people who had spotted the notice of this event trying to make themselves feel like a crowd by being spread out amongst the pews.
The meeting was hosted by Pauline Latham who arrived just on time but apologising for being delayed on the M1 motorway .......... a five and a half hour drive from Westminster (why not use the train?). With her were the former East Midlands MEP, Chris Heaton-Harris, who is now the Conservative Member of Parliament for Daventry and Toby Perkins, Labour Member of Parliament for Chesterfield (Shadow minister for the armed forces). This was a straight Tory for Leave and Labour for Remain debate.
The meeting progressed in the usual way with the panelists stating their position and it has to be said that both men put the case for Leave or Remain in a creditable fashion, A brief summary:
The EU is not always positive in regards to responding to variations of the constituent countries but it does help to protect us in a world dominated by globalisation. Toby spoke of being an internationalist who is proud to be British and that our natural place as the second largest economy in the EU is to "lead in Europe".
He mentioned the 25 EU sponsored projects in Chesterfield and that the NHS would collapse without immigrant workers. Many jobs and indeed the relative success of the economy were dependent on continued membership of the EU.
The EU is democratic.
Chris reminded us of his time as an East Midlands MEP then challenged the audience to name their current MEP. He then talked of his time on the EU Internal Market Committee, responsible for co-ordination at Community level of national legislation in the sphere of the internal market and of the customs union. Then he asked if any of the audience knew who Lord Hill was (a strange coincidence because just three hours later Lord Hill was being questioned by Evan Davies on newsnight about the Internal Market Committee: this link to Newsnight might be short lived)
Heaton-Harris then posited, maybe poor turnout at elections is linked to undemocratic legislation dominated by the EU; 59% of UK laws coming from the EU.
We moved swiftly on to questions from the audience
Amongst what I have to admit were an intelligent and thought provoking bunch of questions the following stood out:
Why not train more nurses so that we do not have to recruit so many from abroad?
This from a nurse of long standing who had come to the UK 43 years ago, trained here as a nurse then dedicated her life to working in the NHS (she also lamented the fact that she had no vote in the referendum).
Toby Perkins mentioned the pressures on health authorities who were forced to look for the cheapest option and ready trained nurses from, say, the far east were significantly cost effective when compared to the expense of training in the UK. It was regrettable that there were only 50,000 dedicated places in university with over 150,000 applicants who wished to follow a career in nursing. There was also a serious shortage of home grown doctors, a situation that was getting worse. Without recruitment from both within and outside the EU the NHS would collapse. More needs to be spent on training.
Chris Heaton-Harris spoke of the record amounts of money being spent on the NHS by the Conservative government and that if we left the EU, despite tighter border controls a points system would ensure that essential workers such as doctors and nurses would still be able to enter this country.
Why is it that before the referendum Tory MP's were saying that the NHS was safe in Tory hands but as soon as they became part of the Leave campaign they claimed that the NHS was now headed for disaster and the only way to save it was to vote Leave?
The question was asked by an NHS campaigner who had been handing out a leaflet at St Peter's churchyard gate, detailing that very question. This one:
|Apologies for this bad scan. If I can source a better copy I will edit this post.|
Chris Heaton-Harris attempted a very dismissive answer and when challenged by the questioner that he had not in fact answered the question he said, "You are talking rubbish". Heaton-Harris continued to avoid the question, talking about the strain on the NHS caused by immigrants and that by leaving the EU the UK government would be free to spend more on the NHS.
Next a gentleman referred back to the previous question, " the chap was not talking rubbish and you did not answer the question"
Many in the audience applauded this.
Chris Heaton-Harris again waffled and repeated his "rubbish" comment. The question remained unanswered.
A response was asked of the panel to the Home Office statement in 2006 that the immigration of Polish workers had added 1% to GDP. This had generated additional tax to the exchequer and over the years had done much to ease the budget deficit and limit the rise in national debt.
Toby Perkins commented that overall the free flow of workers in the EU had been of benefit but that he was concerned about the effect on lower paid jobs and the effect on wages in his constituency. A sensitive answer but, on balance not exactly satisfactory because the answer to low wages is to legislate for an increase in the minimum wage and aggressively pursuing employers who pay below the legal minimum. He did mention the advisability of better training and education for key skills so that balanced it out somewhat.
What was annoying was the assertion that the UK made a mistake by not applying transitional restrictions to Polish workers as opposed to the French who did impose a limit (the questioner had mentioned that the French only allowed 9,000 Eastern Europeans access to work in the same period). We seem to forget the special relationship that we have had with Poland that has lasted for many years, from the 1930's right through to the 21st Century. We maintained trade agreements with Poland that still functioned through the iron curtain, a situation acknowledged by Gordon Brown when he was chancellor.
Chris Heaton-Harris did accept that the figures were accurate (well at leastthe numbers of immigrants) but played down the importance of economic immigration to the UK economy. He once again mentioned the strain on housing, schools and the NHS but as usual for the Leave campaign failed to back this up with any hard data. It has been proven that economic immigrants are typically younger, receive minimal benefits and make use of the NHS far less than comparable UK citizens but you would gain no such knowledge from this Tory.
As to the effect on the economy; for a chap who was full of how much he knew about the reality of finances across Europe Chris Heaton-Harris seemed to be notably uninformed about the effect of economic migration on our economy. See: World Bank comparison of GDP France, Poland & UK