Candidate Claire Perry answering a question
At a Devizes constituency election hustings in St Mary’s Church on Tuesday evening (May 30), the Conservative candidate Claire Perry, ruled out introducing grammar schools in Wiltshire.
Mrs Perry, who was educated at a comprehensive school, told the audience of about 175 people: “I don’t see the need for grammar schools in this rural constituency.” The Conservative manifesto does not say the government will build new grammar schools, but it does say: “We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools…”
Mrs Perry was on a panel of six for this q and a session organised by Marlborough Churches Together and moderated, strictly but with good humour, by Keith Fryer. There were three other candidates on the panel: Chris Coleman (Lib Dem), Jim Gunter (Wessex Regionalists) and Tim Page (UKIP).
Two candidates were unable to make the event. Labour’s Imtiyaz Shaikh is suffering from a nasty bout of tonsillitis – his place was taken by Sylvia Card, who is his agent and chair of the local party. And the Green Party’s Emma Dawnay was unable to be present – her place was taken by the Party’s North Wilts candidate, Phil Chamberlain.
Continuing on the grammar school issue, the UKIP candidate declared: “Increased grammar schools means increased social mobility.” A statement no one else agreed with. The Lib Dem candidate said the idea of more grammar schools was ‘foolish’: “I don’t believe in the segregation that grammar schools involve.”
For the Green Party, Phil Chamberlain went further – he wanted an end to SATs and an end to the ‘market doctrine’ policy that set schools competing against each other.
The session had got off to a decidedly bad tempered start when a questioner asked whether the panel thought 14,000 people had died as the result of cuts and changes to welfare payments. Mrs Perry called this one of the ‘dangerous and divisive myths’ surrounding welfare reform: “There is no evidence whatsoever that people are taking their own lives…It’s the worst kind of gutter politics”.
To which Chris Coleman responded: “It makes me shudder when Conservatives talk about the bill and not the need…There have been people who have died after their reassessment [to see if they are fit for work] – It’s an absolute scandal.”
Jim Gunter pointed to Claire Perry’s votes in Parliament is support of welfare cuts: “That isn’t caring.” Sylvia Card said people had to go through ‘ordeal after ordeal to prove that they cannot work’ and Phil Chamberlain called the reforms ‘iniquitous.’
A question on climate change prompted UKIP’s Tim Page to say: “I don’t believe that climate change is man-made – you’re peddling a myth, you’re being alarmist.” Which raised some sounds of disbelief in the audience.
For the Green Party, Phil Chamberlain, responded: “the debate is beyond ‘if’ or ‘maybe’…” (At which point Mr Page intervened: “You’re scaremongering”) “We have a duty to act now for our children. If we don’t act now we will pay the price in the future.”
In her response, Mrs Perry stated: “I do believe in climate change and I believe it’s a manmade problem.” To which Chris Coleman added: “It does astonish me that we’re still hearing – albeit at the margins – politicians questioning climate change.”
There was another newsworthy point made by Mrs Perry: she pinned the 2008 economic meltdown on ‘lightly regulated capitalism’, bringing a rebuke from the Green Party that this was a ‘brass neck’ intervention considering that in opposition the Conservatives had said there was over-regulation.
But the main debating topic of the evening was Brexit as Mrs Perry said: “This election is really all about Brexit”. Adding that the negotiations starting eleven days after the election needed the ‘right leadership’ which is why placards are saying ‘Claire Perry standing with Theresa May for the Devizes Constituency’.
The Brexit question asked why the Prime Minister is not discussing the cost of a hard Brexit. Jim Gunter thought it was ‘ridiculous’ that the government was even talking about a ‘hard Brexit’. The UKIP candidate thought the notion of a ‘soft Brexit’ was “…only put around by people who want to remain.” And Sylvia Card thought Mrs May’s approach to the other EU members was all about ‘confrontation’.
Chris Coleman: “I respect the [referendum] result. But voting for departure was not voting for the destination.” And he was ‘absolutely disgusted’ that EU citizens living in Britain were being used as ‘pawns’ by the British government.
When each panel member was asked to sum up, Mrs Perry defended her description in the Commons of some of her colleagues as being ‘like jihadis in their support for hard Brexit’. She talked about the ‘hard right’ and reminded the audience: “Jo Cox was murdered by a fanatic during the referendum campaign.”
Phil Chamberlain decried the ‘coarsening’ of public debate the referendum had brought: “I think we deserve better.” Sylvia Card: “I would applaud Claire Perry’s investment in public services…if only it was true.” Her summary of Labour’s case received long applause – which did not seem to please Mrs Perry very much.
With six on the panel, ninety minutes, and an audience keen to ask questions and make points, many important topics went un-discussed. These included: the NHS and the state of the economy. If you want to put questions on those topics there will be a further General Election hustings in Pewsey’s Bouverie Hall at 7pm on Monday, June 5.