Four candidates vying to become Epsom and Ewell’s MP as the UK goes to the polls on Thursday debated foodbanks, the living wage, wealth inequality, transport and cannabis at a hustings last night.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling was the constituency’s most recent representative, before the dissolution of parliament relieved MPs of their duties.

He defends a majority of 24,443 against Labour candidate Ed Mayne, Liberal Democrat Steve Gee, and Janice Baker from the Greens.

From May: Epsom and Ewell’s Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates share their top local priorities

The four faced off in a Question Time-style debate in St Martin’s Church in Epsom on Tuesday night (June 6) in front of an eager audience, after it was rescheduled in the wake of the Manchester terror attack.

Here’s what happened:

Foodbanks

More than 10,000 people have been fed by Epsom and Ewell foodbank since it opened in 2012, and its manager Jonathan Lees said its figures are not dropping off.

He wanted to know what each candidate would do to reduce this figure.

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- Steve Gee (pictured above) said we should all be “ashamed” of foodbank use. The Liberal Democrats would “properly fund pay, remove barbaric assessments of disability, restoring the benefit system to help poor and disadvantaged people,” he said.

- Chris Grayling began by paying “tribute” to Jonathan and the work he does, and said that foodbank use was “much higher in Germany” and that poverty figures were often misunderstood. He argued that the increased national living wage and that the universal credit system the Conservatives introduced in 2013 would gradually prevent people from going off a “financial cliff edge” and needing to use foodbanks. Mr Lees replied that the universal credit system was “worse than the old system”.

- Green candidate Janice Baker said her party would push for an increase in the national living wage to £10 and added: “There has to be an increase in job creation so people can buy their own food with dignity.”

- Labour’s Ed Mayne said foodbank use had got worse since the introduction of universal credit and a one per cent public sector pay cap. He added: “I wouldn’t want unlimited benefits, but I would support a benefit cap.” Mr Mayne said he wanted to make foodbanks “unnecessary”.

Living wage

A Blenheim High School student wanted to know why national living wage (currently £7.20 per hour) was available to those over 25. He argued that it should be available to everyone over the age of 16.

Bucks Free Press:

- Chris Grayling (pictured above) said the upper age limit created an “incentive (for employers) to take on young people and train them until they are experienced enough for a career”.

- Ed Mayne said that a lower national wage often led to a “spiralling in-work benefit bill”, and that the introduction of a benefit cap “sends people to the foodbanks”

- “What sort of jobs people are in matters,” Steve Gee said. His party would remove the “worst excesses of zero-hours contracts” that mean “people don’t know from one week to the next how much they will have”.

- Janice Baker said the Greens would raise employers’ National Insurance contributions so they can better afford to pay a living wage.

Benefits

A Worcester Park resident told the hustings how her 51-year-old brother, who had worked all his life now has cancer. His wife is a carer. He has filled out form after form but he “gets no help”, she said. Chris Grayling replied: “If I’m still MP, I’ll be happy to help.”

Wealth inequality

Audience member Joyce said there was a “discrepancy between the very rich and the very poor, between millionaires and children living in poverty”. She asked how candidates would account for this, and what they would do to prevent it from widening. Joyce added that widening wealth inequality was “not good for social cohesion”.

Bucks Free Press:

- Janice Baker (pictured above) said the UK has a “skewed economy” that was “very heavily dependent on financial services.” “We lost an awful lot of industry,” she added. “Jobs haven’t been created sufficiently to shore up people”. The Greens would create a “wealth tax” and “transaction tax” on the top one per cent to redistribute wealth throughout the economy. “We have to have jobs with living wages,” Ms Baker added.

From May: Epsom and Ewell’s General Election candidates views on the economy

- Ed Mayne agreed that the UK had an “amazingly skewed economy that benefits the south east”. “Many parts of the country are in industrial decline,” he added. Under a Labour government, the top five per cent of earners would pay more tax, allowing the party to lower VAT. He also criticised tax avoidance, and argued: “The government can stop loopholes and tax avoidance. We need to have a consensus that we can stop it”. The Labour party would also “genuinely invest” in long-term infrastructure projects such as HS2 and Crossrail, Mr Mayne said.

- Steve Gee argued there should be a “clampdown” on tax evasion”, and said the Lib Dems would focus on “raising people off the bottom” by “helping people with housing, building lots more affordable homes, and ceasing right-to-buy”. He dismissed right-to-buy, which gives secure tenants the legal right to buy the home they are living in, as a “crazy idea”. He said: “Since right-to-buy social housing has dropped off, and we’ve never replaced the housing stock that has been sold off.”

- Chris Grayling said that the “top three per cent of earners pay 50 per cent of tax”, and that the gap between the very rich and the very poor was narrowing. “Tackling poverty in this country is about opportunity and employment,” he said. Transport secretary Mr Grayling said that the Tories wanted firms participating in large infrastructure projects like HS2 to create a “lasting skills footprint in the country”, and “secure more investment from UK and international entrepeneurs”.

Bucks Free Press:

Transport

An audience member said that “almost all of our train companies are run by foreign governments”. He asked: “Why can foreign governments run our trains, but our government can’t?” His question drew massive applause.

- Secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling said the government “welcomes international investment if it brings more trains or more infrastructure”. “We have international players and we have British players”, he added. Mr Grayling pledged 5,000 new carriages, new trains on the Epsom line “in the next two or three years”, longer trains around the country. He also criticised Labour’s plans for renationalisation: “If we renationalise the railways who would buy these trains?” he asked. “There is no money in the Labour manifesto for that. We benefit from a mix of private and public sector”.

- Janice Baker said the UK should “ditch HS2 and Trident” and use the revenue generated to “buy the trains”.

- Steve Gee criticised Mr Grayling’s record over the Southern Rail fiasco: “As transport secretary, he has been responsible for the misery of Southern Rail,” and suggested allowing TfL to take over.

Bucks Free Press:

- Train driver Ed Mayne (pictured above) also criticised Mr Grayling’s line of “nothing to do with me, guv” during the Southern Rail dispute with the rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), while 60,000 trains cancelled or part-cancelled last year. “With publicly owned trains, the profit can pay for more trains and infrastructure,” he added. “London Underground has grown more than any other network in the country, and that is in the public sector. I don’t know why more people don’t do it.”

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Epsom station

Oyster

- Chris Grayling explained why Epsom had not yet been made Zone 6: “We were supposed to get Oyster about 18 months ago, but Oyster ran out of capacity. We took it to Gatwick, and then there is no more space on the Oyster system to send it to Epsom.” He also championed a contactless KeyGo ‘smart-ticketing’ system currently being trialled in Epsom, which will be “linked to TfL (Transport for London) later this summer.

- Steve Gee criticised Mr Grayling’s explanation: “Apparently computers can’t go one station further. That’s news to me!”

Grammar Schools

Debate chair Reverend Christopher Hancock asked: “Should Epsom have grammar schools?”

“No!” was the loud answer from large swathes of the audience.

From May: Epsom and Ewell’s Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates’ views on education

There was no further debate about this.

Renationalisation

One audience member asked Labour’s Ed Mayne how renationalisation would work. He wanted to know who would take on the new debt issued when infrastructure, for example, is paid for.

Another audience member, Anthony, asked: “Why would private companies be there if there is a loss? That money has to be accounted for out of the public purse.”

- Mr Mayne replied: “The train companies would be in public ownership so the money taken can be put back into that industry.” He added: “The Labour manifesto is committed to balancing the budget in five years.

Bucks Free Press:

Policing

Caroline, who has recently moved to Ashtead, raised concerns about Surrey’s street lights being turned off between midnight and 5am. The county council switched off the lights in February as it tries to balance its budget. “It makes me feel unsafe,” she said. “What are you going to do to protect our community?”

- Janice Baker said: “We need more lights. We need more protection for the more vulnerable members of our society.”

- Ed Mayne criticised the Tories for cutting police officer numbers nationwide by 20,000 since 2010. He said: “In the current climate, people come forward with intelligence on the basis of neighbourhood policing – these are people they feel confident giving information to. But people don’t feel safe because they don’t see the police anymore. Even the Metropolitan Police commissioner (Cressida Dick) is saying we need to look at our resources – which is about as clear as she can be in a non-political role.”

- Steve Gee said “Tory austerity” was behind the street lights in Surrey going out. (The county council sought to save about £240,000 through the switch-off to offset government cuts totalling about £170million since 2010). Mr Gee added: “It doesn’t make people feel safe – especially with the terrible events of the last three months. We do want reassurance.” He then hastened to add that you could not link terrorist attacks to police cuts. He added that the Liberal Democrats would spend an extra £3million a year for an extra 10,000 police officers.

- Chris Grayling said he was having a discussion with local police officers and the borough council about crime in the area. He pointed to offences being recorded by the British Crime Survey continuing to fall, and added: “Crime is very seldom raised with me now, but I will do everything I can to protect individuals.” Mr Grayling also praised the UK’s security services for “intercepting plot after plot after plot.”

Bucks Free Press:

Cannabis

A grandfather of 12 described cannabis as a “terrible drug” and said that the legalisation of weed – a Lib Dem election pledge – would not improve that.

From May: Epsom and Ewell’s Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates’ views on health

- Steve Gee said the Lib Dem policy was adopted after a panel of experts carried out a review and “came to the conclusion that if we legalise it, we can control the quality, we can control the crime, with gangs selling it on the street”. He added that studies showed that some multiple sclerosis and cancer sufferers benefitted from taking it.

- Chris Grayling said Mr Gee’s was a “perfectly coherent argument”, but after speaking to “many medical professionals about the impact of cannabis on mental health,” he was not convinced legalisation was the right thing to do.

- When asked what the Green party’s stance on green was, Janice Baker replied: “I don’t know, to be honest! Make up your own mind.”

- Labour’s Ed Mayne said he did not believe legalisation was the way forward, but he “could be persuaded that there would be good reasons for changing the current laws”. He added that people should not be criminalised for drug use in their own homes.

Bucks Free Press:
L-R: Steve Gee, Chris Grayling, Rev Christopher Hancock, Janice Baker, Ed Mayne

Final pitches

After more than 90 minutes of debating, and with plenty of topics not yet covered (Brexit!) hustings chair Christopher Hancock invited the candidates to make a final minute-long pitch to voters.

From May: Epsom and Ewell's Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates' views on Brexit

- Ed Mayne thanked Reverend Hancock for chairing the debate. After calls for the election to be postponed after the London Bridge terror attack left seven dead and dozens injured, he said: “Democracy will be the real winner on Thursday”. He added: “Labour is perceived to be an urban party, but it is not just for the urban elite.”

- Janice Baker told the audience how, if the debate could have ran longer, she would have liked to speak more about “our global presence”. She called for “locally designed and locally managed projects”, and said: “We would really push for debts of less-developed countries to be written off completely. We need trade deals that respect human rights, that respect labour standards, and I don’t see that happening with holding hands with Trump.”

From May: Epsom and Ewell's Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates on the environment

- Chris Grayling thanked Rev Hancock for chairing the event, the audience, and his fellow candidates for a “friendly debate”. He said: “none of us are in politics for any reason other than that we want to make a positive difference for our country.” Mr Grayling added: “I think this is a great constituency to represent. It’s a great community.”

- Steve Gee thanked Rev Hancock and the audience for attending. He added: “Yes, our policies include tax increases, but our economy will not survive without it. We need to register a protest vote against Tory austerity.”

Bucks Free Press:
L-R: Steve Gee, Chris Grayling, Janice Baker, Rev Christopher Hancock, Ed Mayne

Rev Hancock closed the debate with a prayer as we enter “a period of uncertainty for our nation and for the world”.

The United Kingdom goes to the polls in the 2017 General Election on Thursday, June 8. Voting takes place between 7am and 10pm.