Express & Star readers put Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on the spot in Q&A session
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer faced a grilling from Express & Star readers during a visit to its offices.
Sir Keir faced a series of searching questions about pensions, the state of the high street, health and education during a visit to the newspaper's head office in Wolverhampton.
He then mingled with our panel of almost 30 Express & Star readers, before going on a tour of the Express & Star's editorial and digital departments, chatting to journalists and staff.
The panel, made up of readers from a variety of backgrounds put Sir Keir on the spot with some tough questions.
Sham Sharma, chairman of Wolverhampton Business Forum, voiced his concern about the decline of the city centre. He asked how he would address that, given that Labour had been in charge of Wolverhampton Council for many years.
Sir Keir said a future Labour government would abolish business rates, and replace them with a fairer system that would provide a level playing field for high street and online retailers.
"I think there's been a real problem with our high streets and our businesses," he said.
"I think there are a number of reasons for that, one of them is business rates don't really work any more, if they ever did.
"Many businesses say 'we want to thrive, but business rates kick in before we've made any profit', and that means too many businesses feel they can't operate in a city centre any more, or the high street doesn't feel like the high street it once was.
"We want to abolish them and put in place a different approach, which gives a better level playing field."
Tony Whitehouse, secretary of the Halesowen branch of West Midlands Pensioners' Convention, asked Sir Keir whether a Labour government would commit to retaining the triple lock on pensions.
Sir Keir replied: "We will assess the situation as we come into government, but I would want all pensioners to be treated properly and respectfully and have the income that they need to get through whatever is thrown at them, and I don't think that is the position at the moment, I don't think we're properly respecting pensioners."
He said tackling energy bills was also important.
"In the middle of last winter of I was talking to pensioners about their energy costs which were going through the roof, and I've got absolutely implanted in my mind an 84-year-old woman who said that last year she didn't get out of bed before midday because she was too scared to turn the heating on because it cost her too much.
"So there's the pension itself, there are other things that can be done, such as getting energy costs down."
He said in the short-term, this could be achieved by imposing a windfall tax which would be used to provide subsidies, but in the longer term there needed to be more investment in renewable energies to provide cheaper energy that was not dependent on hostile regimes such as Putin's Russia.