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Lib Dems Grilled By Friezland Pupils

Elwyn Watkins and Annette Brooke at Friezland School today.

Liberal Democrat by-election candidate Elwyn Watkins faced his toughest interrogators of the campaign so far today. Pupils from Friezland School, who are holding a mock election of their own, welcomed him and his party colleague Annette Brooke for a question-and-answer session.

The youngsters certainly didn’t hold back, and the politicians had to think on their feet to deal with all kinds of questions, ranging from the new Tesco supermarket at Greenfield, to the Phil Woolas leaflets.

As teacher Lisa Carter looked on, Mr Watkins said the leaflets had made him feel “horrible” and “rotten” and told the pupils that, just as they have school rules, politicians have rules too, and Mr Woolas had broken them.

The Labour, Conservative and Green candidates will also be visiting the class between now and polling day, and if today was anything to go by, they’ll certainly have to be on their guard.

Mrs Brooke later spoke to Saddleworth News, and said she’d been hugely impressed by the youngsters: “We kept coming back to the economy one way and another, which shows that in the long run it’s the economy that matters, even with young people of that age.”

She also insisted that Sure Start children’s centres, such as the newly-opened one in Dobcross, would be safe under the coalition government, despite Labour claims the budget for the scheme is no longer ringfenced.

Mrs Brooke said: “I’m passionately in favour of Sure Start. I’m chair of a new all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start, and my motive for that is to keep an eye on things and to be very challenging to ministers. That’s what you have to do as the junior coalition partner.”

Elwyn Watkins and Annette Brooke take questions from the Friezland pupils.

She added: “The money is there. There’s talk about whether services need to be more targeted, and in some respects I think that’s true. There’s so much good work that’s gone on in Sure Start, but there’s been an awful lot of money spent. And I don’t think you could look me in the eye and actually say every penny has been well spent.”

Mrs Brooke continued: “I think as a nation we’ve woken up really late to the fact that we need to support young children and families, and what we mustn’t do is have Sure Start destroyed in any way whatsoever.”

On the government’s decision to scale back family tax credits and child benefit, Mrs Brooke commented: “I’ve been very wary about getting rid of child benefit for those with incomes over a certain level… we are the junior coalition partners, but that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t have a loud voice.”

She went on to explain more about the Lib Dems’ influence over government policy, and gave the example of the recent debate over planned cuts to school sport funding. Mrs Brooke said: “I decided I’d stand up on the floor of the house and actually say I’m against this, and all the reasons why I was against it. So it’s not a cosy coalition. I tried to do it as constructively as I could, and at the end of the debate I had a personal note from (Education Secretary) Michael Gove thanking me for my constructive comments.”

She added: “That’s how I think things have to work. We mustn’t just say ‘we agree with it all,’ while we’re learning how to be a coalition I think there’s been a bit of that. But I think when we feel really passionately about something, and I feel passionately about Sure Start and the schools partnership money, which has in part been restored now, we have to stick in there and really really fight for those things that are important for us.”

Mr Watkins told the class the lies told about him by Phil Woolas had made him feel "rotten" and "horrible."

You can listen to our interview in full here.

A total of ten candidates are standing in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. You can get in-depth interviews with Labour’s Debbie Abrahams here, BNP candidate Derek Adams here, Conservative Kashif Ali here, Peter Allen of the Greens here, Pirate Party UK candidate Loz Kaye here, Stephen Morris of the English Democrats here, UKIP candidate Paul Nuttall here and Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins here.

The other candidates are David Bishop of the Bus Pass Elvis Party and Nick “The Flying Brick” Delves from the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Polling day is on Thursday. Lots of other senior politicians have been campaigning in our area in recent weeks, and you can read and listen to David Cameron’s interview with Saddleworth News here. You can hear from Foreign Secretary William Hague here.

An interview with the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is here, while a chat with Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable is here. You can hear from Labour leader Ed Miliband here, here and here, and a conversation with Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson here. UKIP leader Nigel Farage spoke to Saddleworth News here.

To read full coverage of the by-election so far from Saddleworth News, click here.

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