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Election / Candidates face questions from public at BBC election hustings

Drugs, tunnels and fuel poverty were among the key discussion topics – with candidates finding common ground on some issues

The five candidates with chair Adam Guest in the centre. Photo: Dave Donaldson

IT WAS all going on at Mareel on Tuesday night – a Ukraine fundraiser with live music in the cafe bar, films on the cinema screens up above and a general election hustings in the middle in the auditorium.

Around 100 people attended the well-run BBC Shetland event, but anyone looking for blockbuster drama or spark between the candidates may have been left a little disappointed.

Instead it was fairly civil stuff as five of the six candidates set out why the Shetland public should vote for them in the Northern Isles constituency on 4 July, whilst tackling questions from the audience.

They were already in the mood having fielded questions from inquisitive pupils at a Brae High School hustings earlier in the day.

Drugs was perhaps one of the more thorny topics at the Lerwick event, with Green candidate Alex Armitage’s view that they should be decriminalised and regulated not sitting too comfortably with some.

He felt that prohibition has not worked in stemming the use of drugs, and that change is needed.

But Dr Susan Bowie said from the audience floor that she was concerned about a “drugs for all” policy.

And Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael, who has been Orkney and Shetland’s MP since 2001, suggested Armitage should be more careful with his words around drug use.

Also taking to the stage were Robert Leslie from the SNP, the Conservatives’ Shane Painter and Conor Savage of Labour.

Reform UK candidate Robert Smith, who previously said he will not engage in the election process, was not present but a clip was played from a recent interview he gave to BBC Radio Shetland.

He said there was “little point” in spending much time on the election and his admission that he was “just a paper candidate” drew a smattering of chuckles from the audience.

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In the opening remarks Armitage said he “cares deeply about our bairns’ future” and recognised the climate emergency, while encouraging a “wealth tax” on billionaires and autonomy for Orkney and Shetland.

Carmichael said national politics in the last few years had “descended into chaos” under the Tories and the SNP, and island communities need to be heard by government.

Leslie meanwhile said Orkney and Shetland would be better off as part of an independent Scotland in the EU and added that the islands need more powers over “energy, the seas around them and over their future prosperity”.

Savage, whose party is topping the polls nationally, said it is “time for a change” with a Labour government and added that his priorities include the cost of living and improved external transport links.

Lastly, Painter said the islands are being failed by an SNP government in Holyrood that is “focused on independence above everything else” and spoke up for topics such as investment in infrastructure and supporting crofters.

The first question came from an S2 pupil at Brae High School, who asked if the Conservatives’ proposal to introduce “national service” was a gimmick.

Defending the proposal, Painter said it was a fully funded policy which creates opportunities for young people.

He said it would either involve non-combat military work, or volunteering in areas like search and rescue, the police or the RNLI.

The plan did not impress the other candidates, however, with Leslie for instance saying it was the last thing young people needed after enduring Covid lockdowns and restrictions.

The prospect of tunnels as long-term replacements of inter-island ferries also drew consensus among candidates – with everyone on the same page in favour of fixed links.

Armitage, a Shetland councillor, said there was a hope within the SIC to start “digging” for a tunnel potentially as soon as 2027 but questions remain over financing them.

Fishing also got a mention from the floor, from Shetland Fishermen’s Association officer Daniel Lawson, who – against the prospect of offshore wind farms west of the isles – asked about the risk of “an unprecedented spatial squeeze at sea”.

Savage advocated a collaborative approach between offshore wind developers and the fishing industry, whilst protecting the marine ecosystem – but not at the expense livelihoods in coastal and island communities.

Event chair Adam Guest asked Leslie about the topic of highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) – a controversial policy put forward by the SNP and the Greens which provoked great concern from the fishing industry and was eventually dropped.

Leslie noted that the SNP has taken a step back from HPMAs and raised the Lib Dems’ own plans – but Carmichael said there was a difference between HPMAs and marine protected areas.

Meanwhile Armitage said he felt the Greens got it wrong on HPMAs and said he felt it was a policy designed from the “top down”.

From left to right: Robert Leslie (SNP), Alex Armitage (Greens), Shane Painter (Conservatives), Conor Savage (Labour), BBC Shetland’s Adam Guest, Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrats). Photo: Dave Donaldson

There was a question from the audience about what candidates would do about the drugs problem in Shetland, and how support can be improved to help those trying to get off hard drugs.

Armitage – a doctor working as a paediatrician who has written policy for the Greens on the topic – said there is an “out of control problem with drug use in Scotland” which is affecting Shetland too, but said prohibition has been a “complete failure”.

He said regulating drug use would take it out of criminals’ hands and also enable health professionals to be involved and providing support.

Carmichael agreed that prohibition has “failed” but said his views did not quite go as far as Armitage’s when it came to regulation.

But the Lib Dem reiterated that addiction needs to be looked at as a health issue, not a criminal justice matter, and criticised the levels of mental health funding in Scotland.

Savage referenced the links between mental health and drug use, while also advocating support for policing.

Painter said the drugs death crisis in Scotland is a “national shame” and advocated treatment, presentment and reintegration, highlighting a Conservative policy on the ‘right to recovery’.

Leslie meanwhile said the “battle” that was fought in getting a safe drug consumption room set up in Glasgow showed the relationship between the UK and the Scottish governments on drug policy, and added that services supporting people in need certainty of funding.

Speaking from the floor, Dr Bowie – who works as a GP – said she was concerned by Armitage’s stance on decriminalising all drugs and comments he made on Twitter that drug use is a “normal”, human thing to do.

She said parents would find it upsetting if they had a child with a heroin problem for instance who was able to access drugs “easy peasy”.

Armitage said in response that people have used drugs throughout history, adding that there would be folk in the room who have used illegal and legal drugs, as well as alcohol.

“The key thing is that we have to reduce harm from drug use,” the Green candidate said.

Carmichael showed concern at Armitage’s choice of the word “normal” – suggesting it “legitimised” behaviour and said it was not a sensible thing to say when standing for public office.

There was also support shown from candidates for local charity Dogs Against Drugs.

Meanwhile Shetland’s high levels of fuel poverty also got a mention, with Carmichael supporting increases in the Universal Credit benefit, Armitage speaking up for a social energy tariff and Savage mentioning Labour’s plans for a publicly owned energy company based in Scotland.

Painter noted the Conservatives’ measures to help households when energy bills shot up and also advocated supporting the oil and gas industry, while Leslie said there was an “inequity” in the energy market that needs changed.

Candidates also showed support for greater insulation for properties.

The five were also asked how they have changed their behaviour in the face of climate change, with heat pumps, public transport and using one’s voice all cropping up in the responses.

Lerwick community councillor Stewart Hay also asked what act they would like to see introduced first if they were MP, with Carmichael picking a Shetland tariff – lower bills for locals given that the isles is becoming a net exporter of energy.

The cost of energy was also on Leslie, Savage and Painter’s minds, while Armitage spoke up for a wealth tax.

As the event clued up, some candidates, supporters and punters floated through next door to the Ukraine fundraiser to the Eastern European sounds of local band Odesa.

Local issues in one room, and an international issue in the other – plenty to discuss in the cafe over a pint ahead of the 4 July election.

The recording of the election hustings can be listened to on BBC Sounds.

All six candidates’ personal manifestos including details on how to get in touch with them for further questions and discussion can be found on the Shetland News election page.


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