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At Coventry Women’s Question Time…

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…while others were trick-or-treating, voters grilled the PCC candidates for the West Midlands.

This Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) hustings event was organised by Coventry Women’s Voices (CWV) to give voters in Coventry the opportunity to find out where their candidates stood on key issues affecting women in the city.

I attended the event, which took place on 31st October, as a member of CWV, to live blog for WVoN.

The event was very well attended, both by those who came along to ask the questions and those who were there to answer them: only five candidates were expected, but all seven turned up.

The seven candidates for the West Midlands are: Matt Bennett – Conservative; Bill Etheridge – UKIP; Cath Hannon – Independent; Bob Jones – Labour; Ayoub Khan – Liberal Democrat; Mike Rumble – Independent and Bishop Derek Webley – Independent.

Extra chairs were arranged and the evening got underway.

Initially all the candidates were asked to give a three-minute introduction about themselves and their policies.

Less than ten minutes in we had the first, mildly entertaining, faux pas from the UKIP candidate Bill Etheridge, who informed the room  – mostly full of politically engaged and concerned women – that many of the issues he would be addressing particularly affect us ‘ladies’.

You could feel the room cringe.

Not sure if he picked up on that though.

Over the course of the evening questions were asked about child trafficking/grooming rings, domestic violence, youth centres, police stop and search powers and the Nuneaton SARC. You can see a full list of all the questions submitted prior to the event here.

For me, and it appears for many others, there was one question which ended up sticking out in my mind.

Or rather, one answer, which caused a justifiably outraged response.

Coventry organisation KairosWWT – which offers safe spaces for women at risk of, or caught up in, prostitution – asked the candidates “What will you do to ensure that the policing of street prostitution does not criminalise women but recognises vulnerability and the need for support?”

As the first six answers were given there seemed to be a unanimous agreement that women caught up in prostitution should have access to help and support as needed.

Then we got to Derek Webley, an independent candidate.

His answer went something like this (from the live blog): “We must not overlook that prostitution is a choice too..people who have made the choice as a means of earning. We need to be honest about it. We don’t criminalise them, but they are not all victims.”

As you may well imagine, the response to this comment from many attending the event was shock and outrage.

A commentator from the audience immediately challenged what Webley had said: “Choice is not the right word to use at all. It is not a choice for so many. There is no choice there at all.”

A tweet to WVoN from the event reflected this opinion:”Web[e]ley needs to try being a prostitute himself if he thinks it’s so great and an empowerful “choice”. #wanker”

For one attendee, this was a stand-out moment in the evening: “How on earth can the current incumbent chair of the WMP authority actually believe that most prostitutes are in this out of choice?! And be stupid enough, naive enough to say this at a women’s event! Shocked and disgusted.”

Considering this was an event delivered by a women’s organisation, with a very clear remit to question the PCC candidates about issues that affect women in Coventry, they all showed a worrying lack of awareness of what those issues might be, and lack of understanding as to how such issues could be tackled.

Many attendees to the event came away feeling disappointed that the candidates had not spoken more about women.

“I was deeply unimpressed, none of the opening statements mentioned women or acknowledged that our issues were the focus of the event, and I left knowing who I wouldn’t vote for and wishing that I didn’t have to vote for any of them.” (Anon)

“The event was well planned and well attended, but I was taken aback by the lack of reference to women’s issues in each of the candidate’s statements, to be honest.  I did not feel that any of them really took on board the seriousness of violence against women, and so we got platitudes about consulting with women’s groups, rather than a sincere understanding of the problems.” (Anon)

This brilliant blog by another attendee puts it perfectly: “I watched seven individuals blunder and soundbite their way through a series of questions – questions it was searingly obvious they knew little about.

“The event was planned months in advance by Coventry Women’s Voices and came attached to a manifesto (on issues affecting women and girls) that the organisers were lobbying candidates to sign up to. There are several clues in there as to the likely content and tone of the evening.

“You know? WOMEN? Issues affecting WOMEN? Coventry WOMEN’S Voices? I doubt even rampant capitalising and size 60 font would have alerted this lot to the necessity to perhaps engage in a little light research before attending.”

It is a shame that an event that was so brilliantly planned and executed was let down by the very people who should have taken advantage of the opportunity to win some votes.

Unfortunately, as these comments reflect, I came away with a good idea of who I would not be voting for, but still with no clear direction as to who had earned my vote.

However, the event did have one very positive outcome.

All the candidates pledged that if they were elected they would immediately address the situation preventing Coventry people who have suffered sexual assault accessing the planned Nuneaton Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) a few miles down the road: instead having to attend a centre some 30 plus miles away.

CWV, “welcomed the unanimous commitment by all candidates to be Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands that they would reverse the current police policy on referrals to the Coventry SARC.

“Five out of seven candidates also signed up to the Coventry Women’s Voices 7 point plan for tackling violence against women. Matt Bennett, Bill Etheridge, Bob Jones, Ayoub Khan and Mike Rumble signed up to the plan. Cath Hannon and Derek Webley did not although both said they were sympathetic to the issues raised.”

With under a week until the elections on 15 November, and deep concerns about the election turnout, it seems like anyone who does want to vote is going to have to do most of the legwork themselves when it comes to making an informed decision.

The CWV event was a fantastic opportunity for us to meet and assess our candidates face to face, and it’s clear that many of us there care deeply about the decisions our new PCC will make.

It’s a shame that none of them demonstrated the same depth of concern.

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