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James Hatts

Interview: Simon Hughes, Lib Dem candidate in Bermondsey & Old Southwark

Simon Hughes has been Bermondsey's MP for 27 years. He tells us why voters should back him again, and why he's excited about the prospect of the Lib Dems holding the balance of power at Westminster.

Wordle representation of this interview generated
Wordle representation of this interview generated at wordle.net

I begin by asking why Bermondsey residents shouldn't be tempted to 'vote for change' after seven elections and choose someone else as their MP.

"What I offer is change: in Parliament because we have the best chance since I've ever stood of being part of that nationally – either because there will be a balanced parliament or because we'll win or because we'll be in government. So [voters] could have in this constituency somebody with much more influence on the future of decisions in Parliament than ever before.

"Locally, the team – if we are able for the first time ever to have a majority on the council – would be free to do things in the borough."

"If there is anything other than a Labour or Tory majority everything will be different."

Simon says he finds the Lib Dems' new-found popular support in the opinion polls "very exciting".

"It's come as a bit of a surprise even to me in some ways," he says.

"I never presumed I would be an MP for X years or Y years. This election was always going to be different from any I'd fought before as it was the first one when there was a possibility that the Tories would win from Labour.

"Secondly, because of the way the election has turned out, it's a three horse race. I'm certainly as enthusiastic about the campaign and the outcome as any election I've been in."

Whatever the national result on Thursday, things will be different: "I am sure that I should be able to do much more for this community – in terms of deciding things rather than lobbying for things – than I've done before."

Cuts in public expenditure

How does Simon view the prospect of cuts in public expenditure which are likely whoever is in power?

"I am clear that most of the people in the public sector are the teaching assistants and the teachers and the people doing front-line jobs without huge amounts of pay. We have no plans to cut their pay, their pensions or their jobs.

"We do have a plan which would pick up the fact that a few people in the public sector are doing very well and therefore we have a plan which says that ... nobody in the public sector should be paid more than the prime minister.

"Our policy proposal is that bonuses should be capped in the public sector at 400 a year."

He continues: "I acknowledge openly the investment that's gone into the public services under the Labour government and a lot of it has been fantastically beneficial to schools, hospitals and the NHS."

He sets out the party's 3.1 billion package of reprioritisation of spending in the first year of a Lib Dem government, which would be followed by a cross-party Council of Financial Stability to seek a consensus on cuts.

The party would also seek savings by streamlining management of public services, for example by reducing duplication of NHS management across the London boroughs.

MPs' expenses and second homes

"Should MPs who abuse public money to enrich themselves go to prison?" asks one constituent.

"I've always thought that MPs' pay, and all the rules about expenses, should be decided independently by independent bodies and I welcome that.

"The rules about second homes – and in inner London it has never applied to us – have been far too lax. We need a system that is as tight as possible.

"I have never had a problem personally with a system that said that MPs ought to have hotel accommodation or a flat or whatever in the same block. The argument is that it would be too dangerous to put all MPs in the same building.

"To be fair, given that you are away so often from home, if you're trying to persuade people to come into Parliament who have young children or have caring responsibilities ... you want to at least make it possible that they can share the life down here with them some of the time. Therefore you have to have a system that allows that. To be honest a hotel doesn't allow that."

Simon believes that MPs should be able to rent a second home but not be able to profit from the sale of a property bought with public money.

ID cards

A constituent asks whether Simon would vote to abolish ID cards. "The answer is yes, and I've voted every time so far to do so."

Digital Economy Act

An Elephant & Castle resident is concerned about the Digital Economy Act.

"I was one of the minority of MPs who voted against the act because I believed it was too restrictive. It went through because the Labour Government pushed it through, but I opposed it.

"I'm grateful for quite a significant number of constituents who in the last few days made their views clear about that."

Enivironment

Several questions submitted by SE1 website users address the issue of sustainability and the enivronment. Simon is the Lib Dem spokesman on climate change. What can his party offer voters on the green agenda?

"I've been an environmentalist all my life and I've argued for a different way of doing economics.

"Researchers in the Netherlands in the 80s argued that rather than judging our success by gross national product we should do it by something that was much more about gross national happiness – ie sustainable criteria.

"In practical terms, that means investing in things that are long-term, things that are environmentally sustainable. For us, we have programmes in the next year to ... build wind turbines in our ports for immediate use off-shore, making our schools energy efficient, bringing 250,000 homes back into use, replacing polluting buses with non-polluting buses and giving people what we call an "eco cash-back" up to 400 for the first million people to apply to improve the environmental sustainability of their home.

"The biggest two things for us are a massive commitment to renewable energy and clean energy, and a 10-year programme of making our homes properly insulated."

Crossrail

A Waterloo resident wants to know about the parties' commitment to Crossrail for transport and job creation purposes.

"We're supporters of Crossrail. It's a pity that it's looking doubtful now. I was a supporter also of the Cross River Tram which Boris Johnson has dropped from his priority list.

"I will do all I can in the next Parliament – if I am elected – to make sure Crossrail continues. I have been a member of the all-party Crossrail group.

"It is imperative that if we are to get people to use the train more that we have an east-west and a north-south cross-London rail route."

Simon welcomes the recent finding of a panel of planning inspectors who recommended that Boris Johnson should not seek funding for Crossrail from office developers at Elephant & Castle.

Postal service

"I have been involved in this issue for several years. We still do not have a postal delivery service.

"We now only have one delivery a day. It should therefore be able to be a secure delivery. I have three or four things I am currently doing, and will continue if I am re-elected.

"One is to make sure that the delivery office in Mandela Way is open for longer so there isn't such a rush to pick up things if people have left an 'out' card.

He is also calling for improved management of the delivery rounds in the area, and will continue to talk to managers and unions.

Simon says that residents should continue to use the SE1 forum to highlight problems with the postal service and he will use this information to keep up "heavy pressure" on Royal Mail.

Elephant & Castle

"It's the biggest regeneration project in the borough. I'm clear that if, as I hope, the deal is signed within a few weeks of the election, we need to get on so that a lot of things are seen to happen very soon. It may in total take 15 years, but we need visible things to happen. I will be fully engaged with that.

"I've already proposed that we set up a new group for residents, voluntary sector, private sector and community organisations representing all the wards around the Elephant that can help engage the community.

"I, with the councillors, am committed to getting the leisure centre completely redone and open within the next four years. The library is now secure.

"We need to get on with the demolition as quickly as possible. We need to use any space that is vacant for temporary things if we can. I've suggested that if there's a vacant space at the Elephant we might have an international standard BMX track as a temporary use. We need to keep the market going in the meantime.

Single 30-50 year-olds

A South Bermondsey resident asks why parties don't seem to address the needs of single middle-aged people who live alone.

"You're right," says Simon. "40 per cent of households in the UK are single person households.

"What they normally need is a fair tax system, somewhere to live at an affordable cost and we need make sure that they don't suffer from bureaucratic problems from the benefits or the tax system.

"I accept the proposition; if you are a politician it is easier to play to families because that is by definition more people. But 40 per cent of the community is quite large and we need to remember them."

Youth unemployment

A resident asks about youth unemployment and how the parties would tackle it.

"I regularly hold surgeries for young people who are out of work and help regularly with internships, apprenticeships, training and jobs.

"The party has a commitment that in year one we would create 800,000 internships paying more than the jobseekers' allowance which would give those people an opportunity of a reference and work experience.

"We would make sure apprenticeships don't have to be funded partly by the employer and we would continue the policy of saying no tuition fees, giving people more chance to go to college.

"I want there to be reopened a boat repair yard on the river, so we can have some opportunity for work in the river-based industries which are our heritage in this part of London."

Knife crime

One Bankside resident is concerned about knife crime and wants to know how the candidates would seek to tackle it.

"There is no quick or easy answer to knife or gun crime. The best way of reducing it is by peer-group pressure.

"We support the idea that you have tough policies for punishing people, but they shouldn't be unbending. Sometimes you punish the wrong person. The kid who's asked to hold the knife for two seconds: they go to prison for five years and come out much worse criminals than when the went in. We've got to be intelligent.

"We've got to work with the existing organisations in this borough who are fantastic – like XLP and Boyhood to Manhood Foundation and the like – the police, youth clubs, churches, street pastors."

Negative campaigning or fair game?

Simon has put out literature caricaturing his Labour opponent as "Gordon Brown's Croydon Commuter" and highlighting her past career as leader of Croydon Council. Does that show that he is more rattled by Val Shawcross than his previous opponents?

"No. We have tried to run a campaign which says that the great opportunity we have here is to fundamentally change the political system. That's an entirely positive message.

"I was the first of the candidates to set out my specific agenda for here. The other candidates then followed – one of them with rather a thin imitation of an agenda.

"I think nonetheless we all have to stand on our records. One of my opponents has been elected for some years and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to point out what she has done with that period in office.

"I also think it's relevant as to whether you have lived in this community and experienced the things that this community experiences. One of my two main opponents has [lived here] for 13 years. I've lived here for 30-something years. My other main opponent hasn't, even though for 10 years she has represented the area.

"I find that strange. I can't understand how people can represent an area they don't live in. It's perfectly reasonable to point that out to the electorate."

"You have a choice here: do you want someone who has lived and breathed this community for more than half of his life, or do you want somebody who is a professional politician wanting to serve you but has never actually planted their roots here.

Planning and regeneration

Several SE1 site users have asked us to press Simon about planning and regeneration issues and how he chooses which battles to to get involved with.

"When I was first elected there were no Liberal or Liberal Democrat councillors. Within a month, the first was elected. Now there are Liberal Democrat councillors in every ward in my constituency as of the last election, and my colleagues run the council.

"First tier planning issues are decided by councils. There is no point in me deciding what should happen when I have no vote on the planning committee or on the council and there are people perfectly competent to do both. And that's what they are paid for.

"We should remember that we have four tiers of government in this country: we have local boroughs in London, we have the Greater London Authority, we have the Parliament of the United Kingdom and we have the European Parliament. People should address the issues to the right tier of government otherwise we all fall over ourselves.

"However, from the beginning I have had a set of exceptions to that where it's clearly not just a local planning issue."

These exceptions include borough planning policy consultations, listed buildings, conservation areas and planning appeals which he believes are all national issues.

I ask him particularly about the row between Oakmayne and the Ministry of Sound club over the planned Eileen House development, where he has previously received support from the club's owner James Palumbo.

"I was asked for my opinion on the development and I expressed my opinion as I have done on many such issues before. My opinion is that building a residential block next to existing businesses in a way that might cause the residents to object to the business that is already there seems to me to be a bad planning policy.

"I've said that about buildings in Bermondsey Street next to the bakery and buildings in Surrey Docks built next to Harmsworth Quays print works.

"However, I haven't – and won't – be formally getting involved in the formal planning process for the Elephant."

Most important issue?

I put to Simon a question submitted by a Cathedrals ward resident who wants to know what the candidates consider to be the key issue for their constituents and what they intend to do about it.

"The most useful thing I can do in the next four years for here is to make sure that we have more affordable housing in this community in the right places so we can make sure that there are fewer families under pressure from not having enough housing, and more of the community that want to live here can live here.

Lib Dems holding the balance of power

Before the London mayoral elections two years ago Simon dropped clear hints that Lib Dem supporters should cast their second preference votes in favour of Labour's Ken Livingstone rather the Conservative Boris Johnson. Now that his party faces the prospect of choosing whether to support a Conservative or Labour administration at Westminster, how does he feel?

"I absolutely have always been, am and will be a left-of-centre, progressive politician. I have centre-left policies. But I'm also a liberal not an authoritiarian. I believe in devolved power not retained power.

"I will use my influence to get as much liberalism and liberal democracy into government as possible. I hope it doesn't require me to compromise too much with anybody!"

• Visit our Election 2010 pages to see all the candidates standing in Bermondsey & Old Southwark

• Simon's website is at www.simonhughes.org.uk

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