Health services, the climate emergency, Brexit, poverty and abortion were some of the key issues debated by candidates to be Melton’s next MP at last night’s (Monday’s) lively hustings event in the town.
Melton Baptist Church, on Leicester Road, was packed with residents keen to hear the views of the five contenders to take over the role vacated by the long-serving Sir Alan Duncan.
With votes set to be cast next Thursday - December 12 - candidates, under the chairmanship of the Rev James Skinner, were invited to make opening and closing statements and asked to give their answers to a number of questions posed by members of the public.
One of the most passionate topics was healthcare and the increasing pressure on current services with thousands of houses set to be built over the next two decades.
Conservative candidate Alicia Kearns said she would campaign for a second GP surgery in Melton to supplement the existing Latham House Medical Practice, which is one of the biggest in Europe.
She said it was crucial that it was provided, along with other important infrastructure, before people moved into the new homes.
The Green Party’s Alastair McQuillan agreed and, as a town resident, he said he often struggled to get an appointment at the current surgery.
“It’s not the fault of the staff, it’s the cuts to services by this government which quite frankly are a disgrace,” he told the meeting.
“We also have the second-worst services for mental health in the country - we only have 20 beds in the county for 350,000 people - and that has to change.”
Labour candidate Andy Thomas said, if elected, he would campaign to retain the town’s St Mary’s Birthing Centre, which is currently under threat of being closed with Leicestershire’s maternity services consolidated in Leicester.
Dr Carol Weaver, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said lengthy waiting times to see a doctor were one of the two main concerns of constituents she had spoken to, the other being cuts to public transport services.
Ukip’s Marietta King voiced concern that not enough doctors and nurses were being trained to meet demand but she agreed that enhanced services needed to be in place ahead of the new housing developments being completed.
A teenager in the audience accused the candidates of not being visible enough during the campaign and said she saw very little of them on social media where most young people like her elected to pick up information.
Some of the candidates said they were not prolific users of social media and preferred face-to-face meeting. The large rural area covered by the constituency was another issue for them not being able to reach as many constituents as they would like to.
Mrs Kearns (Con) said she had visited nearly 30 villages already and also replied to all of the 300 daily emails she receives.
Brexit proved an emotive subject at the hustings with Mrs King (Ukip) pointing out that the victorious ‘Leave’ voters wanted to exit the European Union with no need for a withdrawal agreement.
“The fact we still haven’t left three years after the referendum is barking mad,” she told the meeting.
Mrs Kearns (Con) said the Tory party would vote the Prime Minister’s deal through before Christmas if they won a majority at the election while Mr Thomas (Lab), a ‘remainer’, said he respected the vote but didn’t rate the deal struck with the EU by Boris Johnson.
Both Dr Weaver (Lib Dem) and Mr McQuillan (Green) said they favoured a ‘people’s vote’ on whether UK people still wanted Brexit.
In a discussion on what they would do for the poorer residents of Melton and Rutland, Mr Thomas (Lab) described the Universal Credit benefits system as ‘a monster which must be curbed’ and that people on low incomes found it challenging to use.
“I am the candidate who will represent people who are struggling to buy their first home, people who can’t pay their mortgage or rent and those who have no home at all,” he told the meeting.
Action was long overdue on tackling the climate emergency, Mr McQuillan (Green) told the meeting, and he said his party would invest billions into ensuring people lead much more environmentally-friendly lives.
He said: “This is the last election when we can do something about climate change. We needed to take action in 2008 but this is the very last chance.”
Dr Weaver (Lib Dem) said her focus, aside from campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU ‘for the benefit of local businesses and farmers’, was to push for more money to be pumped into public and social services.
Mrs Kearns (Con), who has worked in counter-terrorism and at the Foreign Office, said she would, if elected, speak to people in the constituency and ensure she was visible to the electorate, telling the meeting: “I speak from the heart - I don’t pump out the party line every time I speak.
“As someone who has served our country I now want to serve you.”
Before the hustings began, the candidates and the audience joined in prayers for the family of Anthony Watchorn, who was due to stand as an Independent in the constituency but who sadly died last Wednesday.