Voters in Herne Bay will go to the polls on May 7 to decide who they would like to be their MP and how they would like the country to be governed. This election is set to be one of the most fiercely contested and uncertain for generations. In a series of interviews our reporter Aidan Barlow has quizzed candidates from the major parties on questions the voters want answers to. The first in the series is Labour Party candidate Frances Rehal.
About the candidate
Frances Rehal is originally from Loughrae in County Galway in Ireland and came to Britain as a young nurse. She is standing in Herne Bay and North Thanet for Labour. She is 60 years old and works as a senior health visitor, with responsibilities for community health. MsRehal lives with her husband Ashok Kumar in Perry Wood near Faversham with her dog Millie. She has two children, Justin and Emma, and two young grandchildren. She has been awarded an MBE for her previous work as a chief executive of the Sure Start programme in Thanet. She has also previously stood as a candidate in Swale Borough Council elections in the Boughtonunder-Blean ward.
On your politics
How did you first get involved in politics?
I became very conscious of politics while working as a health visitor in London during the 1980s. With Margaret Thatcher’s government I saw how politics didn’t seem to be of any benefit to the poor or the marginalised in society. There were so many homeless people and families living in parks at that time, and the government didn’t seem to be supporting people get out of poverty. So I saw how decisions and policies can have a negative impact, and became interested as I grew older. I suppose I was political as a nurse and health visitor, but perhaps not party political. I am committed and passionate about the National Health Service. I think that Labour understands and values the NHS.
Third place is the best you can hope for isn’t it?
I’ve been out canvassing since last March and things have been improving a lot. I actually think for the first time that Labour could do well and win North Thanet. There are a lot of voters who are disgruntled or disillusioned. David Cameron is not seen as a man with integrity so people are voting for Ukip. But I’ve had people saying they will support me, and people saying they’ve never voted for Labour before who are going to vote. Sir Roger Gale has been in place for a very long time and is very well thought of. But he nearly lost in 1997. The overall election nationwide will be too close to call.
You live outside the constituency, doesn’t this affect your understanding of local issues faced in Herne Bay and North Thanet?
No I don’t think so. I’ve campaigned on local issues like protecting NHS services being removed from the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, opposing charges for the Memorial Park tennis courts, and against cuts to local libraries. I was a Sure Start director for the first programme in Kent on the Millmead estate in Margate with 70 staff running local services for local people. It gave me the opportunity to really get a good understanding of issues in Thanet where I’m standing. I’ve worked with people who are sceptical and disillusioned in the community and brought together different agencies.
On the NHS
What do you think about moving outpatient services from Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital to Whitstable?
I have concerns about what the future will be for Herne Bay’s hospital and the services that are left behind. There are problems with the transport links, with no direct bus services to Estuary View in Whitstable. It makes you wonder how patients with conditions like rheumatology are going to get around. The risk is that those who most need the services are not able to access them because they dont have a car.
What are your views on immigration?
Britain is a member of the European Union and we are signed up to the free movement of labour. We will bring in immigration controls for those who come from non-EU countries. But we’re not in favour of stopping students for example. On the whole they make a positive contribution to our economy and we need the brightest people to come here. l’m an immigrant from Ireland. My husband is an immigrant. When you look back at the history of this country you see how much immigrants have contributed to our economy and development. In Herne Bay 98.5% of the population is white or British. So you have to question why immigration is such a big issue on the doorsteps. In the town we have very few immigrants. When you talk to people you see their views are often based on… I need to be careful… their views are based on information that doesn’t give an indication of the real issue in their area.
So immigration is a non-issue?
I’m not saying it’s a non-issue. It is an issue for people. But in reality there are very few people in the community here who are actually immigrants. I think we actually need greater debate and discussion about it, not less. I think that when people can see the facts, they might take a different view.
What do you think about the rise of Ukip?
They are an obvious concern, they are another party and they won the European election and county council election in Herne Bay. So the main parties have to accept they are there. But on the doorstep I encounter a lot of disillusionment with the Tories. People are angry that there voice is not being heard, and traditional conservatives are saying they will vote Ukip. But recently I’ve sensed a change, especially since the Rochester and Strood by-election. I think there are people out there who don’t trust them with running public services like the NHS.
On the economy
Can Labour really be trusted to run the economy?
I think during most of our years in government the economy grew and there was increasing prosperity. The actual crash in the economy was caused by international banks and hedge funds. It was a global recession that hit many countries. I think Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling reacted to the situation with Northern Rock and other banks with bail outs. It made sure people’s money in their bank accounts was protected, which was in stark contrast to what George Osborne was proposing to do. In America they had the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but Alistair Darling stopped that happening here.
But surely it was Labour’s job to regulate the banks?
Looking back with hindsight there should have been more regulation. But just look at it since this government came to power in 2010. We’ve had the scandal of the libor rate fixing international exchange rates. Bankers’ bonuses continue to grow, and now we’ve had the HSBC tax scandal, with David Cameron giving a top job to the former HSBC chairman Stephen Green. Since 2010 there has been some criminal behaviour, but not one banker has been imprisoned in this country.
Rachel Reeves has promised to be tougher on benefit claimants than the Tories. Does this make the Labour Party the new “nasty party”?
I’ve taken this up with Ed Balls and I disagree with some of that. Clearly we have to be credible on the economy and managing the deficit because it is important to voters. We’re looking at how benefits costs can be kept down and reduced. It is difficult because we have to have a stable economy at the same time as managing the welfare state so that the most vulnerable are protected. But it is easy to see the difference between Labour and Conservative on issues like the bedroom tax. We’ve had people with disabilities, cancer or on dialysis, and they have been targeted by the Tories. We recently put forward a vote to scrap the bedroom tax, but Sir Roger Gale voted to keep it.
Where is Labour’s plan to reduce the deficit?
Labour said at the last election that we would reduce the deficit, but that we wouldn’t do it all in one term, but over two instead. George Osborne was unrealistic when he said he would eradicate the deficit in five years. He has not been able to do it. He took an economy which was recovering in 2010 and sent us back into recession with his omnishambles budget. Our plan is there in general terms, but the details will be announced prior to the elections.
Herne Bay Gazette, April 2nd 2015