April 27, Newcastle

April 13, Edinburgh

March 30, Belfast

March 23, Maidstone

March 16, Truro

March 9, Nottingham

March 2, London

February 24, Leeds

February 17, London

February 10, Birmingham

February 3, Brussels

January 27, Southampton

January 20, Liverpool

January 13, London

December 16, Leeds

December 9, Manchester

December 2, Cardiff

November 25, Birmingham

November 18, Durham

November 11, Maidstone

November 4, Glasgow

October 28, Southampton

October 21, London

October 14, Sydney

October 7, Manchester

September 30, Bournemouth

September 23, London

July 15, Belfast

July 8, London

July 1, Birmingham


September 30, Bournemouth

On the panel were:

  • Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
  • Ann Widdecombe, Shadow Home Secretary
  • Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman
  • Ken Cameron, the leader of the Fire Brigades' Union
  • Alice Thomson, associate editor and columnist at The Daily Telegraph

The topics discussed this week were:

End of the class war?
Donations to schools
Banning fox hunting
Gays in the military
Mrs Prescott's 250-yard lift


End of the class war?

Audience Question: Does the panel agree with Tony Blair's statement that the class war is over?

Ann Widdecombe: The class war is a phoney concept perpetuated by Labour Party conferences. If you want to get rid of it you have to spread opportunity and aspiration. It was the Conservative party who promoted home ownership, share ownership, grant-maintained schools - that's why we don't have a class problem.

Ken Cameron: The Prime Minister never told us who won. One thing the Conservative party knew over the last 18 years was their class, and they came down heavily on the side of their class. When we get equality I'll say the class war is over. There's still tremendous inequality in this country.

Chris Smith: The Conservative party did not eradicate class difference, they created an underclass, living in real poverty and we're trying to do something about it. We're in the business of creating opportunity for all.

Alice Thomson: This is another case of Tony Blair having nicked an idea from the Tories. John Major said we are a classless society. He and his children went to state schools, Tony Blair went to a public school and his children go to grant-maintained schools.

Simon Hughes: The class war was always a false argument. We're in danger of a creating a new set of divides. The new divide is between the haves and have-nots. I think that private school is very divisive. I was listening for something on the redistribution of wealth from Tony Blair's speech and I heard nothing.

What you said:

For Blair to indicate we are now a classless society is codswollop. The divide between rich and poor is getting wider. Unemployment in areas of Merseyside is still very high - hardly any less than when Thatcher was in. The pensioners are continually being snubbed by this government - many are really struggling on low pensions. Barbara Castle is right in calling for them to be linked with earnings. We still have fat cats, and are getting even fatter cats. The privatisation of our public transport system is continually making it more difficult for the less well-off to travel freely.
Charles Barnes, ex-Labour Party member

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Donations to schools

Audience Question: Should Tony Blair pay the voluntary contribution requested by the headteacher of the London Oratory School, the school his two sons attend?

Alice Thomson: I find Tony Blair's attitude totally hypocritical. The school is an incredibly effective one, but doesn't have enough money. They wouldn't have to do this if it had carried on as a grant-maintained school. The LEAs are taking up huge amounts of money in administrative costs.

Simon Hughes: No head should have to write to the parents of children at a state school to ask for money. This government won't ask the millionaires to pay more tax than a primary school headteacher. That's unacceptable. Most schools struggle to do what they're asked to do under the National Curriculum.

Chris Smith: This is a private issue for the Prime Minister. The headmaster has had his funds ring-fenced so that he's no worse off than he was last year. What we want is fair funding across different types of state-funded school. Every school should have the same kind of chance.

Ann Widdecombe: Tony Blair made it clear before the last election that he wanted to abolish GM and grammar schools. Tony Blair sends his children to a GM school and Harriet Harman sent hers to a grammar school. Under this government GM schools have been under phenomenal pressure and standards are declining. Why can't we level up so that every school can become a GM school?

Ken Cameron: It's a disgrace for any Labour minister to send their children to anything other than a state school. In contrast to the Oratory we've had schools where parents have been asked to bring in pots of paint.

What you said:

The government may have given more money to education, but unfortunately they did not specify that the extra cash given to the local authorities actually had to be spent on education. I was made redundant from a Catholic GM Secondary School as a direct result of a real cut of 72,000 in the school budget. I already had to teach Maths for 4 years in years 7 and 8 without any textbooks.
Richard de Verteuil

Money from the government just does not get to the school. My school, Dartford Grammar School, has had to cut the budget for each area due to the change from a GM school to a foundation school. This will have major affects on the education of all students. Other areas such as special need funding are also being cut stopping help for dyslexics, for instance.
Adrian Game

I went to the Rochester Grammar School for Girls which was a GM school. This is one of the many grammar schools in the Medway towns faced with losing grammar status. Instead of people whinging about the results they achieve and how it is unfair to others who cannot get into them, how about getting state schools to the same level as grammar Schools? And here is some irony. Whilst at this school Helen Brinton Labour MP for Peterborough was my English teacher but left half way through our GCSE course to see to her other duties.
Claire Davis

Why is it that the Labour party has ceased grants, and made university more expensive; but still rave on about "education, education, education?" We're not all middle class you know! What was the point of forming a coalition with the Lib Dems in Scotland, knowing full well their policy on tuition fees; and then trying to bargain them out of it?
Walter Johnson

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Banning fox hunting

Audience Question: Does Mr Blair have the will to ban fox hunting or is he just playing politics?

Simon Hughes: Everybody assumed that there would be a free vote on a bill which would be allowed to complete its passage. It had a huge majority in a free vote with MPs of all parties, rural and urban, in the Commons. But it didn't even go to the Lords. If it's in the manifesto it means that it should be important. But now it looks like Labour won't deliver. There's no guarantee a reformed Lords will allow the bill to pass through. We're likely not to have an elected second chamber, and we're likely to have more and more people appointed.

Chris Smith: There will be a ban on fox hunting and I very much hope it will be before the next election. We don't yet know what's going to be in the Queen's speech. It will undoubtedly be easier to get it through once the Lords is reformed.

Ann Widdecombe: When Labour got a large donation from the political animal lobby they suddenly announced a bill. Before the last election Tony Blair indicated that time would be found for the bill. The Prime Minister backtracked after the big countryside march.

Alice Thomson: I'm probably the only panelist who would support the right for people to go fox hunting. Fox hunting is probably the most humane of the field sports.

Ken Cameron: I hope he's got the will because I'd like to see it banned sooner rather than later. I suggest to those people who are fond of hunting to go down to the Lords and do a bit of hunting. Life peers as well as hereditary peers.

What you said:

Mr. Blair and his party are not backtracking but intending to use the foxhunting debate via a private members bill to discredit the Lords and force through further reform. Kate Hoey stated this evening that fishing was next on the Animal Rights agenda and in so doing signaled the slippery path down which this Government will go. You can't justify a ban on hunting with hounds and yet promise protection for anglers and field sports. The attempt to ban hunting with hounds is either to pursue the Animal Rights Agenda or an example of New Labour's misconception of class war. They have found themselves a dilemma from which they may only spin their way out.
Nick Onslow

If the fox hunting lobby are basing their argument on the defense of the freedom of the individual to pursue a minority interest, then should we legalise badger baiting or, even, paedophilia?
Paul Goodwin

I am a farmer's daughter and I am totally against fox hunting. I would like to know why hunts in the UK cannot lay scent trails as they do in Jersey for the huntsmen and the dogs to follow. This way the tradition of hunting would survive and jobs would not be lost and dogs would not have to be destroyed and foxes would not have to be killed so inhumanely. I have seen the hunt at work and it is not something that I personally would consider to be a fair or humane way to kill any animal.
Anna Miskin

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Gays in the military

Audience Question: Does the panel agree that enlisted armed forces personnel should have to share dormitories with homosexuals?

Chris Smith: The European court was absolutely right. Being homosexual has been outlawed up to now. This is a matter of basic human rights. The simple principle is that just because someone is gay doesn't mean that they should be any less valued in our society.

Ken Cameron: Anyone who has a problem sharing dormitories is homophobic. We set up a gay and lesbian group within the Fire Service but there are still people frightened to come out because it's a white, male-dominated organisation. We've been calling for 10 years for women, people from the ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians to join the Fire Service and reflect the community we serve.

Ann Widdecombe: Serious issues would arise in the armed forces about discipline if you have close relationships forming whether it were between men and women or between homosexuals. Senior personnel in the military have been addressing these issues in a sensible and restrained way.

Simon Hughes: We were founder signatories of the European Convention. But we are a country which has most often offended against it. The Convention has done us a huge amount of good. It is part of the law in Britain and we must obey it. We have moved on in society. Many famous military people were gay people. There are discipline issues - just as there are at a school between teacher and pupil, and in the workplace. That's no different. Nobody should be denied the right to serve their country.

Alice Thomson: Surely we should have the best people in any service. Alexander the First was a famously gay military figure. We don't want to offend the armed forces. It has to be done carefully.

What you said:

I served for 17 year sin the RAF and since retiring have seen a number of my colleagues who I held in high esteem 'outed'. Had I known then for certain that they were gay, I cannot say that I would have had the same opinion of them. I personally would not like to think that I had to share sleeping quarters with gays, and thank fully I never did to my knowledge.
Richard de Verteuil

Tony Blair talked about equality for all but when is this going to extend to gays and lesbians? Halfway through this parliament we are still discriminated against in housing, partnership rights, age of consent, Section 28, discrimination in the workplace, childcare, and sexual offences. Not a good record, is it?
Christopher Anton

I have served 16 years in the Army and would have disobeyed orders to save one of my mates - regardless of whether or not I had slept with them. I previously had a lot of respect for Anne Widdecombe, however she has not a clue about the real values of the Forces of today.
Nathan Kelsey

Whilst I might be delighted to share a shower with a woman, she might not feel the same about sharing one with me. However, it seems that the reason that men and women are segregated should apply equally for similar reasons and despite these times of equality, most women would be appalled at relinquishing their own privacy in such matters. In their case, there is no accusation implied of being anti-men!
Jan Simmonds (Mr)

I am about to join the Royal Military Police and am straight, but I have had the privilege of having many gay friends. I will no doubt be forced to work closely with female colleagues, but am I considered to be predatory in any way? Why do people assume that gays are predatory in their approach to same-sex relationships. I would have no problem living and working closely alongside any gay individual.
Anonymous

Whilst it is easy for politicians, journalists etc to make comments about gays in the military the biggest drawback would be accommodation. If they had preferential treatment they will be resented. If they share with the heterosexual troops no-one will trust them and it will result in fights etc. Who in their right mind would put a man in a woman's bedroom? So why put a gay in a heterosexual mans bedroom.
Paul

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Mrs Prescott's 250-yard lift

Audience Question: Does the panel think that Mrs Prescott should have used some hairspray rather than make that short car journey?

Ann Widdecombe: When it comes to "I was protecting the wife's hairstyle", that says all you need to know about New Labour. As for me hairspray and I are strangers.

Chris Smith: Deeply as I admire the Deputy Prime Minister, I think it was a mistake to answer a flippant question from a journalist in a jokey way.

Alice Thomson: Pauline had gone to the hairdressers and made a huge effort and he did the gentlemanly thing and said "we'll take the car".

Ken Cameron: From the photograph in the papers this morning, I think John Prescott should have used the hairspray and not his wife.

Simon Hughes: People should walk more. But what are spin doctors for? They're paid loads of money. They should be sacked.

What you said:

How can a government's transport minister be taken seriously when he uses 2 different cars to travel 300 yards to and from the conference. It's not the first time, remember the delayed train incident. When is he going to do something constructive and stop blowing hot air?
Alastair Herbison, Belfast

Is John Prescott is in the right job? Does John Prescott always consult his wife when travelling to work? And is his excuse a good excuse for the rest of the country not to use public transport?
Nigel, Leeds

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