Immigration, renewable energy and religion were among the topics discussed as BBC’s Radio 4 politics show Any Questions? broadcast live from Skegness.
Friday’s show, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, featured Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, Labour MP Alan Johnson, newly-elected UKIP MP Mark Reckless and the leader of the House of Lords, Conservative Tina Stowell.
The first audience question centred on immigration, and whether the Prime Minister’s announcement on the day - which included a proposal for migrants having to have lived in this country for four years before they claim some in-work benefits - showed a growing concern for the rise in popularity of UKIP.
“David Cameron should have been talking about the real problems of Britain, instead he was pandering to the UKIP agenda,” said Ms Bennett. “I would say central among those key problems are low wages, housing - shortages of housing, high cost of housing and lack of council housing - and crowded schools and hospitals and none of those things are caused by immigration, they are caused by failed government policies.”
When asked if she would stop benefits, she replied not and gave a scenario where two workers on the same food processing line receiving an ‘inadequate’ minimum wage, both with schoolchildren but only one receiving benfits. She said the system would be ‘punishing that child because of the the nationality of their parents and that is absolutely unacceptable’.
She said: “We have, and have had, a welfare system based on the basis of need and we should say if we are a decent humane society we should be giving benefits to the people who need them.”
Mr Johnson described immigration as a ‘really important issue for lots of people’.
He added: “The issues that people are facing is being undercut on pay because there’s not proper enforcement of the minimum wage.”
He claimed there were companies who would rather bring over migrant labour than employ local workers.
Baroness Stowell insisted immigration was ‘far too important’ to turn into a political issue and requires ‘very sensitive handling’.
“The Prime Minister was very clear about the positive benefits of immigration to this country,” she said. But she added ‘we can’t escape the fact that there are growing pressures on different vital services, whether it’s the health service or in schools or in housing and some of those pressures are felt in some areas more than others’.
She continued: “And what we have done since we have come into government we have introduced quite a lot of new controls to reduce immigration and the non-EU net migration is certainly down overall from when we first came into government because of the measures that we have introduced but since then things have changed. We have been more successful as an economy, the rest of Europe is still struggling and we need to take further steps to address the increase of migration from Europe - people who are coming here for jobs.”
She added: “What the Prime Minister has done today is introduce a workable plan which is addressing the actual pressures that people are facing in the country because of an increase in immigration.”
Mr Reckless said the government ‘can’t control it (immigration) while we remain members of the European Union’.
Another question was then brought in asking who would grow, harvest and pack most of the county’s vegetables if the borders were closed.
“We have large numbers of people here, and in particular in the area local to Skegness, and its surrounds and those people are now here as part of our community and they are welcome,” replied Mr Reckless. “But I do not support having increasingly larger numbers of people coming into our country every year. And I understand for certain sectors that will give challenges and farming is certainly one of those.” He added: “I would encourage farmers here to actually pay people more and give them better terms and conditions to attract domestic people.”
He added: “I’m not against immigration, I think we get benefits from immigration.”
He said he would ‘like a fair non-discriminatory points-based system that we apply inside as well as outside the EU’ and within that he said people could make a case for the agricultural sector having particular needs or skills that are in short supply.
But added ‘ it should be for a democratic vote of people from this country who we allow into our country and in what numbers and that’s the change that UKIP wants’.