Cardiff students: The Big Debate

By Jamie McKay

Just before Midnight on the 18th this month marked the deadline to register to vote in this years Welsh Assembly elections. In one last attempt to boost voter registration the Student Union held a debate in the Great Hall featuring 6 party representatives and hosted by the outgoing SU President Claire Blakeway. The debate saw Blakeway put questions sent in by Cardiff students to the candidates and representatives present, with some interjections from the audience. The parties attending the event included; the Conservatives with their candidate for First Minister Carwyn Jones’ seat, Bridgend, George Jabbour. The Green Party in England and Wales with their Deputy Leader Amelia Womack, Labour sent the incumbent AM for Cardiff Central, Jenny Rathbone. The Liberal Democrats sent the incumbent member for South Wales Central, Eluned Parrott. Representing Plaid Cymru was the candidate for Cardiff South and Penarth, Dafydd Trystan Davies. Finally, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (or TUSC) sent the secretary for the Socialist Party in Wales, Dave Reid. UKIP were invited to the event, but declined to attend.

Before the event Blakeway gave a passionate speech on the importance of voting, arguing that those groups who fail to turn out to vote are often overlooked by those in power. Her speech culminated in arguing that, with 30,000 students at the University, a lot of collective power could be exercised. With the narrow window left for students to register, SU staff were on hand to help those students who had not yet registered for the upcoming elections in May.

Jabbour, originally from Syria, is an Engineering graduate whose previous experience includes working at Goldman Sachs. But he was keen to point out that “I am not a fat cat bankster”. In his role at Goldman Sachs he acted as a whistle-blower exposing corrupt practices and set up Ethos Capital Advisors Ltd, a firm who have helped renegotiate debt. Davies, who is currently the Senior Academic Manager and Registrar for Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, (the group established to encourage the use of the Welsh language in Welsh universities) outlined Labour’s failings over their 17 years in power, in a fiery introduction, asking the audience “is it good enough?” Labour incumbent for Cardiff Central paid tribute to her constituency, praising its diversity and stating “I’m Labour because I believe in giving everyone the best start in life”. But TUSC candidate Reid Argued Labour hadn’t done enough to push against cuts from Westminster arguing that Welsh families were £2000 worse off after the past six years. As the Green Party hope for a breakthrough in this years election, Womack told students that this was “your opportunity to be part of history” and highlighted the importance of youth participation. Liberal representative Eluned Parrott introduced herself as a Cardiff University graduate and highlighted the need for a long-term plan to prevent graduates from leaving Wales.

The first question to representatives covered Higher Education, referencing the increasing cost of living; candidates were asked what they would do to make university more affordable. Plaid argued that the Welsh government lacks the resources to fund to allow those “great universities [who] need the funds to succeed”. TUSC stated that they see education as a human right, to be provided for free by the state. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens argued that the cost of living, not fees, were to be targeted. The Green party offered free transport for those under 21 in an effort to combat these costs. The Conservatives argued for their policy of a 50% tax rebate for students and pointed out Labours failure to discuss policy. Labour argued, with particular focus on past Liberal pledges, that it is too easy for smaller parties to over promise but under deliver. Eluned soon went on the offensive, pointing out just which party first introduced tuition fees, and later trebled them, before arguing that Labour failed to adequately respond to the Diamond Review. The review finds that Welsh students have less debt than English students but that the current system is unsustainable and needs reform. Jabbour referred to the First Minister’s recent appearance on “Ask the Leader” attacking his vague answers and citing his admission to Welsh Labour ‘dropping the ball’ on education, asking how he remains in the same position.

Housing followed this discussion, as the NUS finds that ¾ of students have suffered sub standard housing. The Greens started the debate arguing for the abolition of deposits, giving students access to housing without up front costs. Liberal incumbent, Eluned, discussed her own experience with housing as a student at Cardiff and looks to push landlords to tackle energy efficiency in student houses to save students money on bills. Plaid agreed with both parties, stating they would introduce similar policies whereas the Conservatives pushed their policy regarding new homes. Arguing that the problem lied with supply and demand, the Tories discussed their policy of building 70,000 new homes across Wales. TUSC attacked the incumbent Labour government in Wales and their recent Renting homes Act, Labour pointed out that the Act only came into force two weeks ago and that it was too early to judge the effects of the law. After an open debate around housing with questions from the audience, including one student who found their house marked with a Liberal poster despite not supporting the party. After taking it down, the poster was soon replaced, this time just out of reach. Parrot was keen to emphasise that her party respected the will of voters and asked for the students address post debate to adequately deal with the issue.

The next subject covered was Mental Health, and what the representatives believed they could do for students suffering from such issues. The opposition parties highlighted the stresses on the Welsh NHS; Davies spoke of the need for mental health to be treated on a par with physical health and highlighted the case of one constituent who waited years for psychiatric health. The Conservative candidate stated that Wales was the only part of the UK to experience cuts to mental health services in the past five years. Eluned Parrot revealed her own experience of mental illness, suffering depression after the birth of her two children.

The candidates moved on to matters of equality and discussed matters of economic inequality, racial equality, feminism and LGBT matters. Jabbour praised the UK as a land of opportunity, a nation in which, just 5 years after becoming a citizen, he can stand as a candidate for the Welsh Assembly. It wasn’t long before the Conservative candidate felt the pressure, as Labour attacked Tory plans to cut tax rates. In turn, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dem candidate brought up a recent debate from the Senedd. The parties proposed plans to ban zero hours contracts in the public sector which were defeated by Labour when it came to the vote. In the discussion it point that poverty levels had remained unchanged since powers were first devolved to Wales. TUSC raised the point that Liberal and Plaid run councils had outsourced work to companies paying below the minimum wage. It was left to a member of the audience to point out that the Assembly doesn’t have powers to regulate wages.

Returning to the subject of Mental Health, one audience member with experience of those services provided by the Welsh NHS criticised the way patients are treated when switching from children’s services to those providing for adults. Both Rathbone and Womack criticised the current set up and called for improved, joined up services. Davies referred to this years Plaid manifesto which looks for a more robust service for the transition to adult services, ensuring these are delivered in an age appropriate manner. Another audience member referred to a number of his lecturers leaving the University and asked what could be done to ensure Welsh universities keep and recruit high quality lecturers. Rathbone cited research-showing universities in Cardiff topped lists of Universities across the United Kingdom. Plaid look to end the current set up seeing Wales send an estimated £92m to English universities. Liberal Democrat policy seeks to ring-fence the education budget arguing this will a return in investment of 6 to 1.

After 17 years in power it comes as no surprise that Labour came under heavy criticism as the representatives made their closing statements, though Rathbone cited the recent success as this years GCSE results in Welsh schools were at their highest ever. As TUSC argued that the party had supervised the ‘managed decline’ of public services in Wales. The Lib Dems argued Wales still does not have the services required and that nothing short of “a revolution” is in need. Jabbour received a good reception from the audience as he reworked a famous Oscar Wilde quote in reference to Welsh Labours buying Cardiff Airport for above the market price stating Labour “know the value of nothing, and the price of nothing”. Despite predictions that the party will make serious gains in the Assembly, UKIP declined to send a representative to the debate. But there absence didn’t stop Davies from going on the offensive, denouncing South Wales Central candidate Gareth Bennett after his recent comments blaming Eastern European immigrants for rubbish problems in Cardiff, the Plaid candidate urged voters to “lend your vote to forces of progressive change”.

The Welsh Assembly is made up of 60 members. On May 5th you have two votes, one for your Constituency member and one for your Regional member. There are 40 constituencies across Wales and 5 Regions, each receiving 4 representatives. This election gives you the opportunity to vote on just who you want to represent you during your time at Cardiff, readers are urged to turn out next week and help choose the make up of the next Welsh Government.