Election 2019 Politics

Stephen Kerr interview: Part 1 – Tuition fees and the climate emergency

The incumbent Tory MP talked tuition fees and the climate emergency.

In the run up to the general election on December 12, Brig hopes to interview the potential candidates before polling day.

Incumbent Tory MP Stephen Kerr sat down to discuss a range of topics including tuition fees and the climate emergency – which gets suitably heated. Part 2 will include LGBTQ rights, Scottish independence and Brexit.

Education 

Do you believe that higher education is an investment in the nation’s future? 

Absolutely. So are other activities that young people get involved with such as apprenticeships, college places and so are young people that go straight into the work place. Absolutely, we must invest. 

So, you believe that it’s an investment in the nation’s future, why shouldn’t the nation pay for it? 

I think that when you have opportunity of higher education, my personal belief is that you should pay a contribution towards the cost it. 

In 2017, you voted against scrapping tuition fees across the UK. 

I did on the Labour amendment. You’re now going to be quoting endlessly no doubt, TheyWorkForYou.com. What it does is it inverts votes against amendments that the opposition put to government programmes to say that I voted against things.  

So do you believe in free tuition then? 

I actually think there is a problem in Scotland at the minute. If you ask the Scottish universities’ leadership, they’ll identify that there’s a financial problem in Scottish universities and its growing. 

So you think we should fix that with reintroducing tuition fees? 

I think we need to review the way that the costs of higher education are made. Absolutely, I do. We should look at all options.

My party believes there should be some form of a graduate tax. Because, at the end of the day, you do get certain advantages for the rest of your life by making use of public facilities. While I know its very attractive to students to think they can come to Scotland and… where did you come from by the way? 

I came from England so I’m still paying.

So, you’re paying anyway. I think the reality is that we need to make sure our universities are well funded. Do you know how much the Scottish government pays toward a Scottish student’s tuition fees? It’s about £16,000 a year.

What’s happening because of that is the university’s funding model is not working. Those are not my conclusions; those are the conclusions of the university leadership.  

So one of your solutions for solving this could be reintroducing tuition fees? 

Well, I think we need to review it. We need to review the funding of our universities. 

So it’s a possibility?

Well we need to consider everything. 

Ok? 

I’m not saying one thing is a solution. What I’m saying is, it would be silly if you’re genuinely interested in the health and well-being of the university sector, which I definitely am, to say ‘well, we just continue running this into the ground, until it’s broken and destroyed or devalued.’ I’m not prepared to go down that road, so I’m prepared to look at everything.  

My whole political philosophy is based on what works. I mean, I’m not in favour of burdening students with massive debts or interest rates, of course I’m not. 

Like it is in England? 

I think the English model bears revision. That’s my personal opinion. I think there should be something done about the total level of debt and the means of which its replayed and the level of interest rate – as do a lot of my colleagues.

That’s why I’m reluctant to go down the road you’re enticing me to go down, to offer a single solution to what is a complex problem. We need to be open-minded and review all the options. Not rule anything out, but also not be too prescriptive from the get-go. 

So why don’t we know what these solutions are in your manifesto? Are they yet to be discussed? 

These issues are devolved. When my party brings forward its manifesto 2021 Scottish general election, you can be sure there will be something in there.  

I look forward to it. 

Extinction rebellion protesters

Climate Emergency 

What will you do for Stirling on a local level? 

There are some parts of Stirling where air quality is a huge concern. I believe we need to do something more about buses. By a certain date, I would like to see it by the next parliament, that certain areas will be free of buses with internal combustion engines. I would like to move quickly to electric or hydrogen buses.  

I would like in Stirling to invest further in cycle paths. We’ve got the most beautiful countryside in the whole of the United Kingdom in this constituency and we should be investing in cycle paths. I mean, I support everything that’s been done so far, but I’d like to see cycle paths that allow people to cycle all the way out into beautiful rural Stirlingshire – all the way to Loch Lomond. Just open up the country to bikes. 

We need to invest in the necessary mass infrastructure for electric cars because it doesn’t exist today. That’s what they do in Norway, by the way, in Oslo. There’s huge city car park which is essentially a mass recharging facility, we need to have ambitions to do that and we need to give people incentives to do that as well. 

What do you think of the climate strikers? 

Look, I’m not going to disguise the fact that I don’t think it’s right that people don’t go to school one day of the week, I think that’s wrong. I totally understand and endorse the determination of those young people to get climate change properly on the political agenda. To give that subject the primary focus of attention – it should be other than things like the independence referendums and all that other stuff.

I’m just, I’m not a fan of them not being in schools to be honest. As far as what these people are drawing attention to, I’m totally on board with that.  

So, do you have a target? Are the Conservatives aiming for net zero emissions by 2030? 2050? 

No, no, no its in law. It’s in law. On the basis advice of the committee for climate change which was set up under the climate change act of 2008. Their advice is that it is realistic and attainable to get to net zero, for the UK economy by 2050.

I spoke in that debate and was privileged enough to be in the chamber when that moved into law, in effect. We’re the first country in the world to put into law, to actually have climate change targets for the decarbonisation of our economy. We were the first country in the world to do that. It’s not just words and good intentions, it’s now what will we do specifically to get it to happen. That’s what will be quite challenging. 

And it’s in law now? 

It’s in law. The government is now obliged to produce plans in order to hit the carbon budget.  

In regards to sticking to lawful deadlines, toxic air results in nearly 400,000 deaths a year in Europe. 

Yes.  

The Conservative government have consistently been breaching EU standards on nitrogen oxide concentrations for years. In fact, they were taken to Europe’s highest court by the European Commission for it last year. This is just one example of failed climate targets during your government’s history, why should we trust you now? 

Well, I think you’re being very selective in your view of the achievement of progress in this area. The fact is, we’ve made fantastic progress since 2010 in reducing carbon emissions and, I mean, can we be better? Absolutely, we can be better.

The Conservative Unionist manifesto, we are committed to introducing a legislation on air quality. So, we’re going to set the bar so we all work harder at reducing air pollution and the contaminants that make the rise in respiratory conditions unacceptable.  

But why is this only now? Nitrogen oxide levels have been illegally high since 2010. 

Well, does it matter? It’s now. Were going to do something about it. We have to do something about. 

But based on the governments history why sh– 

-The government hasn’t…this Conservative government and its predecessors in the coalition and, by the way, its predecessor under Gordon Brown, have a very strong record when it comes to emissions. If the rest of the world were to follow the example set by Labour and Conservative governments, we would be in a much better place. We emit less than 1% of the world’s emissions.  

It’s not the rest of Europe that were taken to court for this specific issue though, it’s just a few select countries. 

Well, you’re being very narrow in your focus of what you’re measuring the progress of the UK government against.  

Against the rest of Europe? 

You should look more broadly. On a broader front. The UK is setting the lead for these things. If you go to COP24 which was held in Copenhagen, it was the UK minister, Claire Perry, who was the star of the whole conference because of the leadership she presented as the UK government’s determination to get this right. So, you’re picking on one thing. 

I appreciate that but issues of climate change are often framed with very broad answe- 

No, no, no, no, no.  

That’s why I’m focusing on nitrogen oxide levels specifically. 

No, no, no, no, no. Well. why don’t we focus on the work that’s being done on the introduction of low emission vehicles – why don’t we focus on that? Why don’t we focus on our energy mix and that’s how that’s dramatically improved? We went weeks during the summer there, were we didn’t rely on a single bit of energy from fossil fuelled energy generation sources. I mean, were making great progress.  

But you’re picking on one thing, very normal journalistic thing to do. Pick on one little corner and then say “Oh the whole picture bad.” –

It’s not a little thing, it caused 400,000 deaths a year. 

The whole picture is not bad, it’s encouraging – but we must do more. 

So, you acknowledge we’ve been failing to meet these targets since 2010? 

No. We have hit our carbon budgets since they were set in law. 

Not Europe’s standards though. 

I beg your pardon, but we’re one of few countries that have got carbon budgets against the 1990 levels. We’re making progress, but we can do more. What’s the point of your question?? 

The point of my question is to do with trust in the Conservative government in regards to meeting climate change targets. 

We have to acknowledge the existence of the climate change act in 2008 which was actually down to Ed Miliband, and he deserved credit for that. And the commission for climate change are constantly challenging the government. I have been on the select committee for two and a half years.

We are constantly challenging the department business energy and industrial strategy with these targets. I personally am challenging the government. But I’m not going to sit here and have you rubbish everything we’re doing and say nothing’s happened – 

I’m not. 

-saying that there has been no progress, because that is absolutely not the case. What we should be talking about now is the challenge that lies ahead and what we are going to do to respond to it. And I think we need to be ambitious in key areas. 

Who do you think will suffer first if we fail to meet those targets? 

The poorest people in the world are going to suffer. The very people I have mentioned earlier that Britain has taken a special role and responsibility in trying to help, proportionally more than any other country. The only other country who has more in total is the United States.

 Let’s get this in perspective –Britain’s emissions are less than 1% of the worlds emissions. Our annual emissions are the equivalent of a day and half of China’s emissions. 

We’re not governing China. 

Yes, we’ve got to govern ourselves. I’m trying to give you some perspective because you seem to think Britain will solely be responsible for this issue – 

No, no I don’t think- 

And what I’m arguing for is that Britain should take its moral responsibility for climate change seriously – and we do. Because we were the first country to have an industrial revolution, we were the first country that moved into the fossil fuel based revolution, and the rest of the world has followed. Some more blatantly like India and China.

What we’ve got a responsibility to do is make sure that our economy is clean, green and de-carbonised. We’ve also got a responsibility to take what we learn in terms of scientific innovation and take it to the world. That’s what we should be looking for – not being nit-picky about whatever.

It’s easy to find things where we’re not doing well, but let’s talk about where we’re doing well and talk about what we can do to make sure our country can meet its challenge – and we can! You should be more optimistic. 

I’m not. 

You’re pessimistic. You need some enthusiasm for this, it’s our planet we’re talking about. We can spend our time knocking spots off of each other about what happened on this date in the past or we can look forward together.

The reason we’ve made progress in the past few years especially is not because of Labour governments, or Conservative governments, or coalition governments – it’s because politicians across parties have worked together. And yes, we challenge each other and that’s politics, but we’re all united in our determination to get there. I can assure you of that.  

We’ll get it done by being bi-partisan, not by attacking each other because of the past. We’ve got to talk about today. 

So..moving on? 

Moving on. 

So moving on, why should someone who is concerned about climate change choose a Conservative plan over that of the SNP or Scottish Green’s? What makes yours the best? 

Well, you’ve not listened to anything I’ve just said. That’s disappointing. 

Yes, you were talking about cooperating with other parties. 

It’s not a Conservative plan, or a Labour plan its ‘our’ plan, it is our country’s plan and we need to work together across parties to get it done. 

But different parties have different targets and different methods of getting there. 

No, we have set in law as a UK parliament, the government sponsored this, in accordance with the declaration of a climate emergency and the guidance of the independent committee for climate change –we have set a target of 2050. Now we need to get a detailed and ambitious plan. 

The Greens have set a target of 2030. 

They have. But I repeat again, the independent committee for climate change said that the target that was attainable in terms of transitional viability and practical reality is 2050. That going to be challenging enough. To minimise or somehow say “oh, that’s just so far in the future you’ll never be accountable for it’ – there’s going to be milestones, targets, carbon budgets.

The government have released the twenty-five-year environment plan for, example. You know about that? You know about that? No? That was eighteen months ago, the government released a twenty-five-year environment plan. So, we will scrutinise that, hold the government to account and make progress.  

That concludes part one. In the next article, we’ll discuss taxation, LGBTQ rights and referendums.

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