Q. What inspired you to become a candidate at the next general election?
I’ve been involved in politics since I was a teenager and I think from that time on what inspires me is opposing injustice. Anybody who hasn’t got that aspiration shouldn’t be involved in politics. Everybody standing for office thinks they can give voice to what other people are saying. Standing as a candidate is about having a self-belief in your ability to raise issues that matter & argue your case.
Q. The homeless charity Crisis highlighted the growing problem of mental ill-health amongst the single homeless? What would you do if elected to tackle this challenge?
I think vulnerable people not least people with mental health problems often suffer major vulnerabilities are suffering massively from a housing crisis that is nationwide. First thing we need is more homes and allied to that homes in the right places. So it’s a matter of economic & regional policy. The Lib Dems are committed to bringing in 250,000 empty properties to the housing market through grants to social providers & low interest loans to private providers. Additionally at the moment Simon Hughes one of our MP’s is putting legislation through the House of Commons to allow local councils to use Section 106 agreements to build social housing. These are just a couple of ways to increase the housing stock and we would also use a number of other policies for example increasing economic activity in poorer regions like the North East where councils have been demolishing houses for the past decade. So all of that is about increasing housing stock & trying to attract people to areas were the housing crisis is less acute than London & South East.
But then we have to think about specific ways to support people with mental health problems to find answers and sustain themselves in housing. Here the Government has to allow different communities to work in different ways to address local need. One example is The Aquila charity, which works with homeless people in a staged way providing accomodation & support which takes people through stages from dependant through to independent living. It seems to me and the party that homeless charities such as Aquila should be supported at a local level but not smothered by local/central Government.
Q. Organisations such as Church Action on Poverty, Joseph Rowntree Foundation have highlighted under New Labour the increase in social inequaliites and if elected what priority would you give to raising this?
I mentioned earlier that injustice was the thing that motivates me most & I’m really pleased that the Lib Dems have made fairness the No1 priority in our manifesto. So let’s talk about 2 main policies to reduce inequalities. First nobody earning £10,000 pounds or less will pay any income tax under the Lib Dems and this will be paid for by closing tax loopholes for the better off. Secondly our pupil premium will allocate more money to schools in deprived areas so that a lack of resources at home is compensated by more resources at school & one to one tutition for pupils that need it. I think you will find across a range of policies including health, housing & fuel poverty that reducing inequality will be the main interconnecting theme.
Q. A lot of vocal criticism has been expressed by organisations such as Mind about the Government’s welfare reform proposals as failing to understand the nature of mental health problems and the support needed? What is your opinion on these proposals?
I think the Government (as so often with Welfare Reform) is bringing a sledgehammer to policy where what is needed is a series of smaller more sensitive and better tools. We have 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit, of whom a million have mental health conditions. The government seems intend on directing the whole of it’s policy towards identifying & punishing the small proportion of this group making fraudulent claims whilst the Tories share the same ambition allied to the bizarre belief that courses in positive thinking can cure a million people of what are complex and in many cases continuing mental health problems.
So what would we do? We would have an evidence based policy which recognises both the causes & policy tools that are available in different areas and for different groups of people differ widely and we would encourage & support different types of agencies in different areas. So far example Newcastle Futures which combines expertise from the local authority, Business & Voluntary sector has found jobs for 900 people over the past year. But this success, not least in reducing the welfare budget hasn’t received any corresponding increase in resources to continue this work. Meanwhile JobcentrePlus offices whose performance varies widely widely & which are constantly criticised by small business in particular carry on regardless. Once again I hope that people will see the same theme coming through from the Lib Dems and that is about recognising that different things work in different areas. The Government should support what works regardless of who provides the service. On a even more fundamental basis both the Tories & sadly New Labour seem to believe everybody on benefits is feckless & irresponsible where the Lib Dems always believe that people’s creativity & ability blossoms if it’s given a chance.
Q. What is your view on the Labour Government’s move to a marketised atomised model for social care with the need for social inclusion and cohesion?
This is a tricky one. Marketisation is something we would oppose as a general principle, however I’ve said all along that we believe in things been done in different ways in different areas. So we would go down a local commissioning route & that wouldn’t rule out private sector providers. However we would bring together Primary Care Trust and Local Authority commissioning together & give as much operational independence as possible to commissioners. In some areas I’m confident that locally determined commissioning rules will enforce quality & integration of services but there may still be areas here the dominant consideration will be cost & it could be that the private sector targets itss bids towards such authorities. What I hope the Liberal Democrats would do is to rigorously scrutinize patterns of commissioning for Health/Social Care and run local campaigns to improve quality of provision if & when this is compromised.