Immigration: pride over our policy, the importance of words…and a mea culpa

A little while ago I was incensed with being bombarded day and night by media stories about Cameron and negotiations about benefits for EU migrants. This is a blog, at the end of the day (good blogging term there), so I blogged about it. What came out was a knee-jerk rant (“Migrants’ benefits debate is a proxy channel for xenophobia in some quarters” (the last three words being added after publication)). Some of the best blogging is based on knee-jerk rants. Not this time. On this occasion I should have been a little more careful with my words.

In the end, I raised the white flag in the ensuing debate and modified my article to emphasise that I was only talking about xenophobia “in some quarters” and that “I acknowledge that many have genuine and sincere concerns about this policy area for legitimate reasons.”

With some degree of penitence, I recognise that that post was an off-the-cuff rant. I should have used the term “dog whistle” rather than “xenophobia”. But I did stay the course by engaging politely with the comments and it resulted in a very interesting debate.

I regret that I deflected attention from the Liberal Democrat immigration policy, which is, in fact, fairly tough. We don’t say “let them all in” by any manner of means. For months I had been looking for a decent summary of our policy. Then this week, like a man with a hangover stumbling over the cat at 3am, I stumbled over this pithy summary:

Liberal Democrats believe Britain must be open for business and growth but closed to crooks and cheats. Britain needs more students and more visitors to come to help our economy grow. We will encourage people to visit Britain, learn in Britain and contribute to Britain. We will say yes to doctors, experts, entrepreneurs and investors. But we will say no to crooks, traffickers and those who would damage our country.

By bringing back proper border checks – so we know who’s coming in and leaving the UK – we will identify and deport people who over-stay their visa. We will create visible security and firm control, with real processes to count everyone in and count everyone out. No more guesswork on numbers: real evidence to catch out overstayers. We’ll ensure people can speak English and are willing to work. We’ll ensure that migrants, including from the EU, come to work or study, not to claim benefits. And when it’s time for them to leave, we will make sure they return home.

Yes, some are now going to pick holes in our policy and say it’s weak. But we are principled in that we welcome immigration but there have to be proper controls, with full exit checks, there must be deportation for over-stayers, immigrants should speak English and be willing to work, they should come here to work, not claim benefits, and should return home when it’s time for them to leave.

This is consistent with our principles and also responds to public concerns over this area.

Of course everone won’t be happy with this, but I think we can hold our heads up high on this subject.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Eddie Sammon 27th Feb '16 - 2:22pm

    This is a good post. But editors should be allowed to express their personal opinions without much rancor. You are doing it for free, after all.

    My only disagreement with the above is the idea that we need more overseas students. We have plenty of overseas students in our universities, do we really need more? Is more overseas students always better? Surely 90% overseas students wouldn’t be a good thing? 100% definitely wouldn’t be, so surely we can have too much of anything. Should universities even be allowed to charge overseas students more than British students and create the incentive to get more of them? Many will be taking their education elsewhere.

    We have limited space and infrastructure. Pro mass immigration politics is finished at the mainstream level in the UK.

  • Well done on realising where you made a mistake and correcting it.

    I’m on the otherside of the EU debate, but I’m pleased that the debate can stay civil and that I can make my points without being accused of being an ist or phobe. I will try and return civility.

  • There are 20,000 Somalis with Dutch citizenship in the UK. With 80% of the wider Somali population in the UK not economically active and on benefits, that means 16,000 of that 20,000 should return home to Holland under your ‘tough’ LibDem immigration policy.
    So does your mea culpa tell you that they should be rounded up and sent back to Holland, or any other EU country where they first claimed asylum.

    Perhaps these mea culpa’s are not all they are cracked up to be. I can feel your pain from here, I can sense your inner conflict, you probably want to grab for the comfort blanket of the xenophobe label to attack those who would consider such a thing.

    It is perhaps one thing talking tough in abstract terms, it is another thing saying 16,000 Dutch Somalians should be rounded up and sent home.

  • Peter Watson 27th Feb '16 - 2:51pm

    I could imagine a spokesperson for the Conservatives, Labour and even UKIP making exactly the same statement as the Lib Dem policy quoted above, so my question is genuine although risks appearing disingenuous:
    What (if anything) makes the Lib Dem policy on immigration more liberal than that of other parties?

  • Well you do have a tendency to get incensed and make knee-jerk comments but top marks for the self-awareness that that’s what you do.

  • @Paul Walter
    Perhaps the “Elephant in the Room” is the portion of the population who do have concerns but don’t speak out in fear of being labelled? These people may tell the pollsters one thing and do the complete opposite when they have pencil and paper in their hand.

  • Paul Walter

    “We will say yes to doctors, experts, entrepreneurs and investors. But we will say no to crooks, traffickers and those who would damage our country.”

    Even UKIP would agree with that. The big problem is what to do with the 99% that fall in between those two groups.

  • Overseas students are not immigrants. After their studies are over most of them return to their countries to get good jobs. British university degrees are prized and British universities would go bankrupt without overseas students.They have always paid higher fees. My days at university were made much more pleasant by the friendships with those from abroad.

  • “Liberal Democrats believe in the freedom of religion and the equality of those from different cultural backgrounds and as such are opposed to the excessive visa restrictions placed on foreign spouses who are genuinely married.”

  • A good point Cllr Mark Wright. One of my daughters is doing an MA on a very sought after course. At least three quarters of her fellow students are from overseas. I have no problem with our universities running courses designed to extract money from Chinese students – MAs in Marketing, Communications and the like – but it does concern me that British students may be missing out on the chance to further their education because universities receive more money by preferring overseas students.

  • No worries Councillor Wright. Many other countries seek overseas students. United States, Canada, Australia New Zealand, even counties such as India. I know a young South African Zulu lady who is contiuing her studies, don’t worry she went to Sweden. She speaks Afrikaans so she should find Swedish not too difficult to learn.
    There will never be a shortage of places for home students because education is not held in the same esteem as in East Asia. Some British students might even find possibilties of studying overseas.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Feb '16 - 12:45am

    This is far more, you, than the previous article, typical of you though, to even offer a mea culpa , you, and all of us are entitled to a rant !It seems some in our party and on LDV are capable of little else , if the article on AWS and , predictably, about Nick Clegg are anything to go by !

    Your reflection is as welcome as is your , not quite unique, but almost rare, habit ,of coming back regularly to take part in interaction on articles you have contributed.I know it makes it feel far more worthwhile submitting ones tuppence worth, especially if one only rarely contributes a rant , but often , thoughtfulness!

    Immigration is an issue that could send us out of the EU.We need robust , constructive, realistic , compassionate, reasonable, policies.We have them.We need to say so more.You get us back on track , here.

  • Graham Jones 29th Feb '16 - 5:27pm

    How disappointing that the party I joined half a century ago because inter alia it was internationalist and stood for the brotherhood of man (how strangely old-fashioned and out-of-place that phrase feels as I type it) feels the need to subscribe to the bully-boy vocabulary of populism.

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