A SHORTAGE of school places, as well as the EU and childcare, were the main topics of interest at the Rayleigh and Wickford hustings.

Election candidates tried to convince a keen audience of about 100 voters why they should be the area’s next MP.

The latest in a series of south Essex election hustings took place at Sweyne Park School, Rayleigh, on Friday night.

Eager visitors wrote down questions upon their arrival at the school hall as they sought assurances about local, national and international talking points.

Indeed, there proved to be so many submitted questions it was impossible to put them all to the candidates during the twoand- a-half hour debate.

As the clock counted down towards the 7.30pm start of the hustings, the main talking point was whether the Liberal Democrat candidate, Mike Pitt, would actually appear.

Mr Pitt, whose home address is listed as Cambridgeshire on his nomination form, is an unknown quantity to most voters, and this continued as he failed to show on Friday night.

Rayleigh historian Mike Davies chaired the evening’s proceedings. He set the tone when he announced with a smile on his face, that he would be “ruling with a rod of iron”, prompting laughter from the audience.

Questions posed by the public included pertinent local issues, such as Essex National Union of Teachers representative Jerry Glazier asking about investment in schools and a potential shortage of places.

The candidates were asked about national issues like the EU and childcare, but also faced more unusual questions from mischievous audience members.

Most of the candidates dodged the issue when they were asked if there was any element of their party’s agenda they wished was not there.

But Ukip’s John Hayter gave a straight answer, opposing Nigel Farage’s proposals to allow smoking rooms to be reintroduced to pubs. Mr Hayter said: “I don’t like smoking in pubs – smoke travels and passive smoking is dangerous.”

The candidates also struggled as they were asked to say something nice about one of their opponents.

Tory Mark Francois praised the enthusiasm of independent Linda Kendall, while Ukip’s John Hayter described Labour’s David Hough as a “tolerant and courteous man”.

Mrs Kendall, meanwhile, selected the “invisible man” who was meant to be in the seat next to her, the absent Liberal Democrat Mr Pitt.