Representatives of the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties answered questions from young people at the Downside Fisher Youth Club on Wednesday night.
The candidates introduced themselves – Loanna Morrison spoke about her experiences as a single mother whose son had been involved in gangs, Val Shawcross outlined Southwark Labour's commitment to devolve part of the borough's youth budget for allocation by young people themselves and Nick Stanton called for the voting age to be lowered to 16.
Speaking about the recession, Nick Stanton said that Britain's banks had been run by "a bunch of bozos". He highlighted the Lib Dem aspiration to make Mandela Way a centre of green technology which he said would provide new local jobs. Loanna Morrison called for it to be made easier for young people to start their own businesses, whilst Val Shawcross said that Labour's commitment to building Crossrail would provide much-needed construction and engineering jobs.
One member of the audience thought that the Conservatives were planning to release sex offenders from prison before the end of their sentences. This was denied by Loanna Morrison who said: "If you commit a crime then you do the time." Other candidates addressed the issue of prison sentences more generally: Nick Stanton highlighted the futility of sending young men to prison for short sentences when the reoffending rate is so high, whilst Val Shawcross pointed out that a short prison sentence could in effect be a life sentence that severely hindered future prospects and suggested that community sentences could be more constructive in some cases.
The candidates were questioned on student finance by a youth club member who had taken an enforced gap year as a result of the meltdown of the Student Loans Company. Nick Stanton said that the current generation of politicians had "pulled up the ladder after them" by imposing student tuition fees despite having enjoyed free university education themselves.
Val Shawcross agreed that last autumn's student loans debacle had been a "total disgrace", whilst Loanna Morrison claimed that it would now be impossible to eradicate tuition fees without UK universities being "swamped" by students from EU countries who she said would automatically be entitled to the same funding arrangements as UK citizens.
On housing, Nick Stanton pointed out that Southwark has more than 15,000 people on its waiting list whilst just 1,200 homes become available each year and condemned the Government for failing to make it easy for councils to build new homes. Val Shawcross said that she thought that Southwark was "a very poor housing authority" that ought to concentrate on getting its existing housing stock in order. Loanna Morrison said that she didn't think that people should necessarily be entitled to a council flat, but that a new market in low-cost homes should be created.
At the end of the hour-long debate members of the youth club were invited to vote using mock ballot papers to indicate which candidate had won their support.
The result was a clear victory for the Liberal Democrats, suggesting that a future generation of Simon Hughes voters is growing up in Bermondsey.
"I've never had the chance to speak directly to politicians like this and ask them about the things I care about," said 21-year-old Leon Bruff.
"You don't think you'll be able to have a proper conversation with people in politics and actually get them to listen, but tonight showed me that's not true. It was a really great opportunity, something that doesn't happen every day."
"One of the most significant issues that emerged for young people in their questions to the parliamentary candidates for Bermondsey and Old Southwark was employment and access to jobs," said Claudia Webb, the club's chief officer.
"At Downside Fisher Youth Club our work with young people tells us what they experience in their daily lives: a struggle to fulfil their potential and overcome the physical, social and psychological barriers that a more unequal society presents."
"The impact of the recession, disproportionately borne by the young people of Bermondsey, has exacerbated the damaging effects of growing up in a society marked by an increased and persisting gap between rich and poor. The debate last night provided a real opportunity for young people to have their voices heard."
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