More than 120 people attended an EU referendum hustings held at St Mary’s Church in Heacham on Tuesday for an evening of fierce debate.
The event, organised in conjunction with the Lynn News, had Labour’s Jo Rust and Robert Colwell, of the King’s Lynn Better in Europe Campaign, for the ‘Inners’, facing UKIP’s Toby Coke and Matthew Hannay, of Vote Leave North-West Norfolk, for the ‘Outers’.
Vicar Veronica Wilson and her Methodist counterpart Steve Oliver were the moderators as the arguments flew.
Ms Rust laid out a case for staying in firmly based on “a positive social Europe”.
She said: “I am not so blinkered that everything about the EU is perfect. We know that is not so. But the EU has put forward positive rules such as a living wage and greener policies that prevent a ‘race to the bottom’.”
She said the Tories were preparing a “bonfire of employment rights for workers” should the UK exit the EU.
Mr Colwell, a solicitor, said he was “proud to be British and proud to be European” but added: “I do not want to see this great country destory itself by leaving the EU.”
He said Outers showed “a complete disregard for the fact that the EU is the largest economy in the world”.
Mr Coke said David Cameron’s much-vaunted renegotiations of membership terms amounted to “derisory changes” that had merely surrendered a veto the UK enjoyed on leglislation.
“The EU is completely unreformable,” he said. “Whatever the crisis, the EU is invariably found wanting with just more of the same failed policies.
“We must not shackle ourselves to a corpse.”
And on immigration he warned “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Mr Hannay said that people may be surprised that “a 17-year-old long-haired student” such as himself was so much against the EU, but he said for him the key issue was democracy and sovereignty.
“We had a Civil War to determine who rules us,” he said. “Now 50 per cent of our laws our made by the EU. our Supreme Court may as well call itself the Unsupreme Court.”
He cited Tony Benn’s rules for testing who governed us, including, “how do we get rid of you”.
He said: “How can we get rid of a bad commission president or even our own commissioner?
“It is an insult to the people of Europe and an insult to the people of Britain.”
The panel were asked a series of questions submitted beforehand on a range of issues. The hot topic was very much immigration.
Mr Coke said the population was growing by about half-a million people a year: “This is a city the size of Liverpool. This is simply not sustainable. In a time when public services, the funding for them are being cut, the extra pressure on those services is key, be it doctors’ surgeries, schools, you name it, county councils looking after the adult population, it just is not possible and it is going to end in tears. We must control it ourselves by looking after it by our own elected government and that is the critical thing. If the Australian government want to have say a million people a year, they can do it under their system. If they only want 50,000 they can do it, it is up to the elected government and if you don’t like that government you can kick them out the next time you vote. We are an extremely densely populated country, twice the density of Germany, three-and-a-half times the population density of France and yet more and more people are coming here, because our economy is doing reasonably well, compared to the European Union countries because of their economic policies and their self-inflicted crisis of the euro.”
Ms Rust retorted: “Immigration doesn’t stop young people getting jobs and there has been lots and lots of research to show it has had very minimal impact on things like wage depressing.
“And just because an immigrant comes and takes a job in one of our farms or in the fields doing work we used to do and no longer want to do, it doesn’t mean that an English person, a young person, isn’t going to get a job.
“It doesn’t have any bearing on it. What does have a bigger bearing is recession, is zero-hours contracts, and exploitation of young people; from a trades union perspective I know full well that young people are more likely to be bullied or exploited in the workplace and again this is one of the protections that we have from being part of the EU, we have stronger employment rights from being part of it and if we weren’t part of the EU our governmetn would brush them aside without a moment’s hesitation. It is that type of thing that is a barrier to our young people and it is also worth remembering that when we are looking at employment many of those jobs that young people want to get they are not going to be able to get initially because they need the skills and experience and those type of jobs are also not the kind that immigrants are working in either.
“I work in hospital trusts where I see young workers who are degree educated in their country of origin, who are doing cleaning work. That is previously the sort of work that we would have started out employment prospects by going into, but something called aspiration has overtaken us and we aspire to better but we still need workers to do those jobs and it is vital that we remember that for every degree-educated young person we still need people to clean our hospital wards. That is one of the factors. Society has changed.”
At the end of the evening, the Lynn News held a ballot of those attending. The result was 53 per cent support for Leave, 29.5 per cent support for Remain and 16.5 per cent ‘Don’t Know’.