Election 2015: South East politicians debate key issues

From left: Jenny Jones, Michael Fallon, BBC presenter Polly Evans, Mark Reckless, Peter Kyle, Norman Baker

Immigration, health and the economy are among the issues which have dominated this election campaign.

For a debate on the subjects which matter to voters, BBC South East gathered politicians from all the main parties at Chatham Historic Dockyard and a live studio audience.

It was a fiery debate with Defence Secretary and Sevenoaks parliamentary candidate Michael Fallon defending comments he'd made on immigration but insisting that public services and towns in the South East are under pressure from migrants.

He admitted it was a mistake to have used the word "swamped" when talking about immigration in the past and said: "Almost as soon as I said that, I realised it was a mistake and withdrew it", but he added "there are parts in the South East which feel under pressure and I do think the public need assurances that immigration is not going to be unlimited".

Mark Reckless, the UKIP candidate in Rochester and Strood - who became the party's MP there at the by-election last November which was triggered when he defected from the Conservatives - denied that UKIP have been using shock tactics during this campaign in order to gain attention.

The party's leader, Nigel Farage, was criticised for stigmatising foreign HIV patients when he said they were a drain on the NHS during a recent TV debate.

Mr Reckless said: "I don't think we are stigmatising anyone, but we have to have a national health service, not an international one."

He said that only UKIP would be able to control immigration and said they would do that by introducing an Australian-style points system to limit the number of people coming here "on a fair and equal basis".

'Nasty overtones'

The incumbent Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes and former home office minister Norman Baker said the government needs to look at the issue rationally and coolly.

He said: "We do have to have controls on immigration - but have to recognise some immigration has been very good for this country. We want a situation where people come here to work but not to claim benefits."

Mr Baker also said trying to put a figure on the number of migrants coming here is unhelpful because it's "like saying how many days you want it to rain next year, you simply can't control that".

The Labour candidate for Hove and Portslade, Peter Kyle, said he believes "immigration has been a force for good in this country" but acknowledged people have heartfelt concerns about it and said action needs to be taken to "bolster our borders" and count people in and out.

A member of the audience intervened to say "I've learned one thing in life: never trust Labour on immigration."

Baroness Jenny Jones of the Green Party said: "Some of the rhetoric has had very nasty overtones."

She also said: "Most of our public services would collapse if we did not have immigrants working here."

But one audience member said people were not worried about the doctors and nurses coming here but about criminals and said there were real concerns that politicians just weren't addressing.

The debate moved onto the NHS - another contentious issue in the South East.

Across Kent and Sussex six of the seven NHS trusts that run hospitals with an A&E department have been told by the Care Quality Commission that they are either inadequate or require improvement.

The questioner asked what they would do to help get Medway Maritime Hospital out of special measures.

Peter Kyle said that under Labour they had managed to eradicate waiting lists and built 150 new hospitals but said where there is under-performance there needs to be investment if that is the problem but there also needs to be more care provided in communities.

Norman Baker defended the Liberal Democrats and said the management of the Eastbourne District General Hospital Trust has not done a good job but said that was about that particular trust.

But he defended the coalition's record and said they had thousands more doctors and nurses and had stripped out bureaucracy and he said his party had made mental health a priority.

Michael Fallon reiterated the Conservative pledge to put an extra £8bn into the NHS.

He said the government has been spending more on the health service than previously but said: "You've got to go on improving it and cherishing and there is no way around it - you've got to spend more money."

'Fragile recovery'

Mr Fallon also said many of the financial problems in the NHS were down to the private finance initiatives by the last Labour government.

Mark Reckless said UKIP would immediately spend an extra £3bn on the NHS, paid for from the overseas aid budget.

He also said he had been raising the problems at the Medway Maritime Hospital for some time but no one wanted to listen - but gave credit to the coalition government for taking it seriously.

The Greens have promised to be the biggest spenders, pledging an extra £12bn for the NHS.

Jenny Jones said they would make savings by tackling air pollution, which she said costs the NHS £53bn a year.

At the end of it the questioner said she wasn't sure any of them had actually answered her question on how they would help Medway Maritime - a politician not answering the question asked, that almost never happens!

Next, it was onto the economy. A businessman acknowledged the economy was recovering back to the pre-2009 levels but said there was no feel-good factor and wanted to know why.

Norman Baker said: "What we need to do now is to reward people who have made sacrifices."

He said the Lib Dems believed it was time to reward those in the public sector - doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, and said they should get a proper pay rise matched to inflation for a couple of years and then above inflation from 2018.

He said he would pay for it by making the very rich pay more in taxes.

Jenny Jones said: "We have to learn to live within our means which is something Greens are extremely good at," but she said "it was clear that austerity wasn't working" and there were too many unhappy people in society.

She said the Green Party would create a Robin Hood tax which would be 1% on every financial transaction and would close tax loopholes.

Michael Fallon said the crisis five years ago "was huge" but said there is a recovery under way now but it is fragile.

He refuted Jenny Jones claim that austerity wasn't working and said "we didn't choose austerity".

As for UKIP, Mark Reckless said "the debt has gone up even more under the coalition than it did under Labour".

Peter Kyle said some people are doing very well out of the economy - he said the richest have doubled their wealth but there are a lot of young people coming out of school and struggling to get on. He said "we need to invest in them".

All in all, it was a lively - and at times fiery - debate.

General Election 2015: A BBC South East Special was broadcast on Wednesday 29 April at 22:50 BST on BBC1 and on BBC Radio Kent and BBC Sussex. You can watch it again on BBC iPlayer.

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