General election 2017 interviews: Elizabeth Riches, Liberal Democrat

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The Saint‘s News editor Tom Williams sat down with Elizabeth Riches, the Liberal Democrat candidate for North East Fife in the 2017 General Election, to discuss why St Andrews students should vote for her:

Tom Williams: Elizabeth, why do you believe you’re qualified to be a candidate in Northeast Fife, what’s your background here?

Elizabeth Riches: My background, for the last 27 years I’ve been a councillor, I’ve been honored to represent the East Neuk. During that time I’ve been leader of the opposition on Fife Council and equally important, I spent five years as the Deputy Leader of the council. So that gave me lots of opportunities to meet people who lead organizations, communities that needed support and individuals that had problems with which I tried to help.

TW: Now more generally can you explain to me why students, why you would encourage students to vote Lib Dem?

ER: Why? This is a really good one because obviously there have been times when students put all their faith in Lib Dems and I’m sure they felt they had been cheated. But we’re the party that is outward-looking, we’re absolutely determined that we should be keeping Scotland within the UK and the UK within the EU. I think that looking outwards like that is far more realistic as to what sort of future you, the young people of Scotland, are going to have.

TW: Okay, well, referring back to the EU again – what do you say to the people who say that you should respect the result when obviously the majority voted to leave the EU?

ER: We do respect, absolutely, the result of the referendum, but people who voted, all of us who voted, we simply voted, whether to stay or to go. We did not have any detail as to what an exit would look like so we say strongly that when those details are known – it’s the people who should decide. Whether that is good enough or not. So we do need a second referendum because when we all voted last June, it was simply whether we should stay or go.

We’re the party that is outward-looking, we’re absolutely determined that we should be keeping Scotland within the UK and the UK within the EU

TW: Okay, obviously, you’ve said that Fife wanting to remain in the EU is obviously a student issue. What other student issues will you be fighting for?

ER: I feel very strongly that for students, they need all the support they can, not just where they’re studying – but very simple things like travel, whether we can give such status travel to students, and young people – not just at university age – but possibly up to 24 or 26. Travel is really important to broaden horizons.

So travel is one thing that’s important. I also think for students who’ve come from abroad, when they finish their studies here – we should make sure that they’re able to stay, if they’re able to work and contribute to our economy. There are many more – housing is something that does give great concern to students, whether it’s living in St Andrews where it’s so expensive, and to give people a start on that ladder towards renting, and for a lot of people it’s that initial deposit, so it’s help like that that’s needed too.

TW: Now, linking that back into St Andrews and how there’s a bit of a housing shortage here, obviously, the HMO ban, which stops students from moving into town, has put a cap on it, and some people would say that it’s driving the prices up and preventing students from living in town. That’s up for review this summer. What do you think of the HMO ban and would you fight or lobby against it?

ER: This has been a long running – I would almost call it a sore – because I don’t think it’s helped the relationship between the town and the gown. And if moratorium were lifted I think I would support that. That would enable students to occupy properties within town that probably, simply aren’t suitable for families, so you can’t have the argument that students are keeping other families out of town.

I started, when we first came here, we lived in a flat in St Andrews with a small child, stone stairs, no garden, that’s not the ideal for a family. Students would be quite happy living in properties in town. The HMO regulations are also interesting because they came in because of the need for greater safety in rented accommodation. So if you have HMO properties above shops, those shopkeepers below are going to know that they have well-regulated properties above, they shouldn’t be getting horrible surprises when the wiring goes wrong, and a fire comes out. So I would be supporting lifting that moratorium.

TW: Okay, fantastic. Well the Conservative candidate in his leaflets describes the Lib Dems as an irrelevant force in Westminster. What do you have to say about that?

ER: Absolutely not. I have supported communities in this constituency for all the years I’ve talked about. I have the experience, I know what matters to people here. I know that I can do a really strong job standing up for the people. And I would be a Liberal MP that people could be proud of.

if THE [HMO] moratorium were lifted I think I would support that

TW: Okay. Well, going back to 2010. Obviously it was the Conservatives and the Lib Dems that raised tuition fees, and the Conservatives have continued to raise them – but people in particular felt incredibly betrayed by the promises of Lib Dems. How would you respond to those people and how can they trust you again?

ER: I would say – there is two parts to your question – firstly, obviously, students felt let down. And the lessons that are learnt from that is do not make promises before an election. Because you never know if you’re going to be in a position to actually carry them out. The coalition probably was more of a surprise as a result, and coalitions are difficult.

We have a coalition in Fife Council where I was a deputy leader working with the SNP, and you might think that’s a strange coalition but they weren’t interested in Fife becoming independent. We were there jointly for the good of the people and so I do know how difficult it is to be sure all the things you want to get through will happen in a coalition. It doesn’t – it’s about compromise – and that actually is what politics is about. So I think we have to be honest to students and say that was a mistake. We have learnt, and we need to move forward and show that we can support them in different ways.

TW: Now in the most recent manifesto you make wild promises as well, and as you said you’ve promised a second referendum on the terms of our exit from the EU. How do you plan on following through on these promises because obviously it’s very difficult to do so with the current number of MPs that you have?

ER: We can only do that if we get enough support, and to be honest – we may be able to – we’re not going to suddenly be able to sway the majority in the House of Commons – there’s no pretense on that – so they aren’t wild promises. But this is what we will fight for – how we succeed will depend on how the electorate listen to our message.

TW: Okay now do you believe that it’s fair that our UK students pay tuition fees when Scottish students do not?

ER: I think this is an incredibly difficult one – because it’s not just UK – it’s EU students don’t pay fees either, do they? So I think this is a very hard one – but this is what it is – the result of devolution. Different decisions made in different parts of the country. So you do have to respect that – that’s the decision of the Scottish government.

TW: Now, what other local issues will you be fighting for as the candidate for North east Fife?

ER: Well, one of the issues that comes up – and it’s possibly not on everyone’s radar – is the amount of people who are in fuel poverty. And a lot of these people are living in rented properties – they have landlords who are quite happy to take the money – but are not happy to deal with the problems that are causing the fuel poverty. So if they could have better insulation and deal with damp and this sort of thing. They would be healthier, they’d be happier, and they would also have more money. So I think we need to be working – not just with those people in rented properties – but the landlords who could do something about it. And that would make a difference to a lot of people.

TW: Now your manifesto has come out, can you outline for me how that manifesto will benefit students if the Lib Dems come to power?

ER: Well I think quite a lot of the things that we’ve talked about already – and transport, health, accommodation. One other that’s really, really important – and that’s mental health. And that is something that, sadly, could affect 1 in 4 of us in our lifetime. And the manifesto is quite clear that a penny on income tax taken in England would have money come through to Scotland – that would bring forward maybe up to 35 million pounds. It’s not a lot of money – but I think it could make a huge difference for mental health and for young people, students, even younger people – if they have mental health problems at the moment they can wait – we have one instance of someone waiting for two years. And I just can’t imagine what they and their families go through for that.

TW: Okay, now, obviously the two biggest vote sharers in this election in North East Fife are the SNP and the Lib Dems. Given your promise on second referendum – do you believe that the student vote and the younger people who are particularly opposed to Brexit will help swing this election?

ER: I believe that every vote for Lib Dems will help exactly what we talked about so yes I do hope the students will support that.

TW: Okay, thank you. Why do you think it’s important for St Andrews students to vote in this election?

ER: One of the things, talking with young people – is that they say why do we need to bother to vote? And going around the doors, first of all, I’ve been impressed by how engaged people are in this election. I’ve been involved in canvassing over many, many years and often, we get a glazed expression from the person when you introduce yourself – they are simply tired, they don’t want to know about politics. But this is an election where I see people are really taking a lot of time to think. And they’re happy to discuss the issues, and they’re not straightforward – people don’t fit into pigeonholes, so just because somebody is for independence – you can’t guarantee they’re going to be against Brexit – it just doesn’t work like that.

So I would encourage students to talk about these issues – to try and work out in their minds – I don’t think there are easy answers and they have to weigh it in the end, what’s going to be best for them. Is it going to be the implications of Brexit, is it all the uncertainties that are attached to Brexit? And for students I think it is particularly worrying for those who are thinking of going on to do further studies – something like 25 per cent of this university is grants – research grants or EU grants.

So there are real uncertainties for people who want to go on and study. So I think it’s important students are aware of these sort of issues and they have to think – is Brexit going to be the deciding issue for them, or is it going to be independence? And does the independence bring uncertainty? Because talking with people – neither of these issues have certainties attached to them. People don’t know what currency we’re going to use, people don’t know how we’d be looked after from a defense point of view. There are so many uncertainties on both sides. So it’s not easy – but I would encourage students to consider – what’s the most important thing for them – and for us it has to be keeping Scotland in the UK, and the UK close to the EU.

TW: Thank you Elizabeth Riches for joining us.

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