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Baroness Royall talks cost of living, utility bills and immigration ahead of elections

By The Citizen  |  Posted: May 05, 2014

Baroness Jan Royall has been talking to The Citizen ahead of the elections

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SHE might be the Forest of Dean’s baroness, but there’s nothing grand about Janet Royall.

She calls in to The Citizen office, stylish in jeans and a leather jacket, and tells me that she’s been busy knocking on doors.

Baroness Royall might be the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, but she’s also active at the coalface of politics. And she’s not afraid to describe herself as a class warrior.

With local and European elections imminent and a General Election next year, that means door knocking.

It’s the cost of living, including utility bills, and immigration that the Labour peer says are the top talking points on Gloucestershire doorsteps, particularly in Stroud and Gloucester, where local elections will be held in three weeks’ time.

“The cost of living is raised time and again. People have huge outgoings and even people in work are struggling,” she said.

“While I’m of course delighted that the employment statistics have improved, I worry greatly about the quality of jobs. It seems to me a lot are part-time and a lot are so poorly paid that people still need things like housing benefit to make ends meet,” she said.

“That some people are forced to go to foodbanks is a disgrace in the 21st Century. The number of people needing help at Gloucester Foodbank has doubled in the last year.”

“People go to foodbanks because they are in crisis,” she said, adding that no one can simply walk into a foodbank, they have to be referred by a professional, such as a social worker.

“Their wages might simply not be enough to sustain their families. When there’s an unexpected bill, they suddenly don’t have enough to make ends meet.”

She doesn’t believe that our benefits system should be ‘soft’.

“If there are jobs and people are able to work, they must work,” she said.

But she has seen people harshly treated by the benefits system, with payments stopped for the slightest reason.

Immigration is the other ‘doorstep’ issue.

“UKIP has skewed our whole values to think all immigration is bad and think ‘why is he getting more than me’,” she said.

“People are understandably worried about jobs and wages have been undermined. But that’s the fault of unscrupulous employers using cheap labour, and that should not be allowed.”

She believes that the previous Labour government made mistakes about immigration.

“We didn’t talk about it, which was ridiculous.

“When people started coming to this country from central and Eastern Europe in 2004, we should have done it in a staggered way.

“We underestimated the number of people who would come to our country and didn’t support the communities where they came enough.

“But UKIP is playing to people’s fears and exacerbating fears makes for an unhealthy society.

“For young people who have grown up with the freedoms offered by the EU, it’s a fact of life which gives freedom and advantages.

“We live in a globalised world. UKIP is harking back to a rose-tinted view of the 1950s and 60s and the Empire.

“I want us to be a strong country, but to be strong we have to be part of the EU. It does need reform, but the best way to achieve that is to work with our colleagues in the EU to get reform.”

As Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, she’s proud of its record of holding the Government to account, although is unsurprisingly critical of the LibDems: “The fragmentation of the NHS could not have happened without support of LibDems. Then there’s the bedroom tax, which appalls me.”

She clearly has been playing close attention to the impact of the bedroom tax, or spare room subsidy, locally.

“In the Forest we have a fantastic housing association, Two Rivers, with 3,800 homes. About 290 have been affected by the bedroom tax.

“Two Rivers has been able to rehouse just 19 of those. That’s not because there are no smaller homes. So 230 homes are now in arrears and will ultimately face the risk of eviction. It simply makes no economic sense whatsoever.

“It seems to be punitive rather than socially just.”

It’s one of the issues that will be at the forefront of the election debates.

“It will be a nasty election.This is the first election in years that nobody knows what the result is going to be,” she added.

Politicians might “look the same”, largely white men in suits, but says Baroness Royall, the political parties all stand for very different policies.

She described Ed Miliband as “a very warm person who cares deeply about the people of this country”.

“He would be a terrific prime minister. He has a deep sense of fairness and justice and understands the economy and global issues.”

Baroness Royall has been at the forefront of the rise of women in public life.

While the number of women in Parliament has risen dramatically, she believes far more needs to be done to increase the diversity of representation in Westminster.

“How many people from Gloucester went to Eton? Or Oxbridge for that matter.

“We’ve still got a class system in this country.

“I think it’s outrageous that your birth gives you such an advantage.

“That’s one of the principal reasons I’m in Labour. The system is so deeply unfair.”

How would the baroness define her ‘class’?

“I was born working class. My parents ran a small shop in Newnham. Now I’m middle class.

“I was fortunate to be one of the people born 10 years after the war and all the advantages of the welfare state and free education. If I hadn’t had a grant I wouldn’t have been able to go to university.”

She spent her early childhood in Hucclecote, grew up in Newnham-on-Severn and has lived in her home in the Forest since 1966.

“I’m absolutely rooted here. It’s my community, I’m proud of them and the Forest of Dean is a fantastic place.”

While she’s been listening keenly to the concerns of the electorate, her main hope is that they actually vote in the local, European and general elections.

“My real passion is that people should vote. How they vote is up to them,” she said.

Baroness Royall was critical of an education system which left many people with a poor understanding of how local government works and its role.

“Local government is hugely important for the wellbeing of our citizens.

“Labour’s policy has now changed.

“One of our big policies will be to devolve more power and crucially more resources to local government.

“I don’t think that a lot of people are aware of the power of their vote”

She’s just returned from Afghanistan where she met women campaigning for democracy who arrived late to a meeting because their office had been targeted by a Taliban suicide bomber.

“They believed that democracy was so fundamentally important to the future of their society that they were prepared to face that danger.

“And here people only need to put a cross on a piece of paper.”

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