Nick Clegg’s speech on immigration: the good, the bad and the ugly

The much-missed Conrad Russell said you should read something three times before you pass comment on it. I’ve done that with today’s speech on immigration by Nick Clegg. I’ve also had several cups of tea and am frantically hunting for some smelling salts to revive me. Leaders are supposed to lead and to challenge established thinking. I have no problem with him sticking his neck out on an issue if that is what he wants to do. It’s important that we listen to him and if we don’t like his ideas, to calmly and respectfully tell him so.

It seems odd that he chose to ask the party to ditch its immigration policy today when he could have done so  at Conference in Brighton two weeks ago. It seems that he has done little internally to prepare the ground, not even discussing his plans with the Federal Policy Committee.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what he said.

The good

Well, at least one of the three main party leaders hasn’t ingested the Daily Mail’s rhetoric on immigrants and recognises the importance of a rational debate.

The political mainstream has a duty to wrestle this issue away from populists and extremists. A duty to shift what can be a highly polarised debate – particularly in difficult economic times – onto practical and sensible ground.

And recognises the positives of people coming to make their lives here:

Of course, if you believed every headline, you’d think that when immigrants aren’t stealing British jobs… they’re all living the high life in 12-bedroom Kensington mansions, courtesy of the state. But that’s a complete caricature of the truth.

(Although I think I’d have preferred the use of the word nonsense somewhere in that last sentence)

The majority of people who come here work hard and make a contribution. Many have served – and still serve – in our armed forces. And if every member of an immigrant community suddenly downed tools, countless businesses and services would suffer. The NHS would fall over.

So where did it all go wrong?

There was a clue very early on that this was going to make many Liberal Democrats feel very uncomfortable.

We need an immigration system that is zero-tolerant towards abuse.

If you are going to highlight one feature that you think a public service should be, surely  “fair”  would be a good start, particularly when you are talking so much about a fairer society?  That would be a system where the right decisions are made in good time and people are treated with respect. In short, almost everything the UK Borders Agency doesn’t do at the moment. It troubles me that he defended the Coalition’s cruel policy of a minimum income for those who want to bring their spouses to live in this country. I have friends married to non EU citizens who are currently living abroad. Is it right that they can only live together here as a family if they’re affluent?

I find it strange that he didn’t talk about the asylum system, where people are forced to live on next to nothing and get little help, even at the most vulnerable times of their lives.

Nick’s speech contained three major ideas:

  • He wants to remove our policy of a path to citizenship for those who had been in the country for more than ten years;
  • Security bonds for people from “high risk countries” who want to visit the UK;
  • Charging for translation services if people won’t learn English.

On the first, he said that ” it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law.” That was an attitude encouraged by the likes of the Daily Mail. Would it not be better to find the language to reach the people who believe their rhetoric than ditch a pragmatic idea?

It gets worse

I am not sure I understand how asking people from “high risk countries” to pay a deposit which is returned to them when they leave is compatible with “so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups.” The proposal is discriminatory in nature against every single person from that country who wants to come here.

Sometime in the next few days, I’ll be heading to Inverness when my nephew, Baby Ethan, is born. The only barrier I’ll face in doing that is the snow gate at Drumochter. If I lived in the EU, I’d have no bother getting in to see him, and nor would there likely be a problem if I was from the US or Canada, or Brazil. Pakistan, though, that would be different. I’ve worked on immigration cases. I’ve seen people struggle to get their siblings in to see them for the last time before they die of Cancer. I think the solution is getting the visa handling services to treat people fairly, not force them to find even more money. I’m not convinced a security bond would stop people being turned down indiscriminately and having to wait months for an appeal, either. Nick specifically said that:

Visiting Britain to celebrate a family birth, or a relative’s graduation, or wedding should not become entirely dependant on your ability to pay the security bond.

How, though, do you prevent that from happening?

I’ve spoken English all my life and I find the immigration rules complicated

The very idea that we could weaken people’s position in an incredibly complex system by making translation services available only to those who could afford to pay for them is the very opposite of what I understand fairness to mean. Now, I agree that if you live in a country you should attempt to speak the language. I’ve laughed at ex-pats we’ve met in Spain who have no intention of learning Spanish. But expecting non-native speakers to find their way through the system without help is not on.

What happens now?

There is no doubt that Nick’s remarks will incite heated debate within the party. My suggestion is that everyone who has any direct experience and knowledge of the immigration system and its many failings gets in touch with Andrew Stunell, who is leading Nick’s review into our policies. We need to treat this review like we did the communications data stuff and make sure that the recommendations which come out of it are fair, liberal and evidence based.

If today’s speech is Nick playing good cop ahead of Cameron’s speech on immigration, the ensuing debate is not going to be easy. There are plenty people who want to be tough on immigration. Surely it’s our job to be liberal?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Is Nick a Liberal or a Democrat? With this and secret courts – where both times he has made party policy up on the fly – in opposition to the Liberal views of members – I would have to answer No.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Mar '13 - 4:05pm

    Will, he absolutely is. This was the guy who when he stood for leader said he’d go to jail rather than have a compulsory ID card.

    I am troubled, though, by this and the secret courts stuff and the effect it will have on the party. That’s why I have suggested constructive engagement with Stunell’s review.

  • Having read the speech (once, not three times) what really worries me is that there are chunks of it where I could hear the voice of Teresa May or Michael Gove reading it. I don’t agree with the justification for ditching the 10-year policy – it kind of reads as though it’s being reviewed not because it was wrong or unfair, but because the real meaning of it was distorted by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. If we’re starting now to consider policy because it looks good for the media over policy which is the right thing to do, then that worries me greatly – and it’s the fault of the leadership for not communicating the policy properly.

  • I’m afraid as a mere voter rather than a party member I am seeing less and less reasons to support the party. This smacks to me of jumping on the Daily Mail type rhetoric. Whilst Caron is content to believe in him and his liberal credentials, I would have no confidence in them at all. Like Blair he will say what people want to hear to gain power, it’s not just liberalism he lacks but apparently integrity.

    I doubt whether he is “asking” the party to ditch its immigration policy, I think he has already shown that he, again like Blair, has decided that involving members in policy decisions is just a bit too limiting. Whatever the members decide a large number of MP’s have already shown they are happy to ignore it. I’d say your policy has changed.

    And to be honest Caron, as he didn’t have the moral courage to discuss a point of principle such as secret courts with his members I very much doubt he would have gone to prison for one….

  • I agree entirely with the above (albeit that I have not read the speech even once!). I think Nick may feel that because he got beaten up in the final debate that there is something wrong with our immigration policy whereas it is absolutely right. Not only is it within the traditions of Liberal and Liberal Democrat policies, it is also clear to anyone that we can’t move forward on immigration policy without dealing with the legacy of the past – people living here in the shadows who need to move into society proper and start paying tax!

    Finally, the speech contrast uncomfortably with Vince Cable’s excellent remarks and criticism of the ludicrous net migration policy. (If I can be excused a quick rant on this – it represents the most illogical public policy objective of all time because it can be achieved most easily by making life in the UK so unpleasant that people want to leave and nobody wants to come. The truth of the matter is that we need to recognise that a desire for immigration into the UK is the flip-side of leaving in an economically successful and open society that is attractive to people globally. Even the US politicians get that point).

  • P.S. On a more pragmatic note, I might add that a key factor in me joining the party many years ago was Paddy Ashdown’s principled position in proposing to allow Hong Kong Chinese to come into the UK after the Chinese handover. I often meet other activists who say the same (or cite other unpopular causes that the party stood up for). One of the reasons for disillusionment amongst a number of activists is that we don’t seem to be making the running with those issues any more.

  • I’m not sure I have an issue with anyone saying we should have zero-tolerance for abuse in our immigration system. If you build the right immigration system, you should be ok with punishing people who don’t abide by it’s rules.

  • “Will, he absolutely is. This was the guy who when he stood for leader said he’d go to jail rather than have a compulsory ID card.”

    Which proves what? That he can come up with a good soundbite?

  • Paul Pettinger 22nd Mar '13 - 4:55pm

    Secret courts and now rhetoric to placate Daily Mail readers about immigration. Imagine though the experience of Social-Liberal also having to endure greater marketisation of the NHS and the Party being wedded to the Conservative’s slash and burn economic policies.

  • David Allen 22nd Mar '13 - 5:24pm

    “I’m not sure I have an issue with anyone saying we should have zero-tolerance for abuse in our immigration system.”

    Well, but when the government routinely abuses its own immigration system, what has Nick to say about that?

  • Alex Sabine 22nd Mar '13 - 5:41pm

    Good post, Caron. A depressing speech from Clegg on what should be a touchstone liberal issue. I think he is quite right to want to confront the immigration issue head-on, but he should aim to be ‘a voice, not an echo’ amid the noisy political and media discourse on this subject. This was a missed opportunity.

    I suspect this security bond idea will prove to be mere kite-flying, and will quite soon disappear without trace. It promises to be simultaneously discriminatory, bureaucratic, and irrelevant to the element of immigration that is most likely to drive the numbers and public anxiety (the end of transitional controls on Bulgaria and Romanians at the end of this year).

  • David Allen 22nd Mar '13 - 5:49pm

    “It seems odd that he chose to ask the party to ditch its immigration policy today when he could have done so at Conference in Brighton two weeks ago. It seems that he has done little internally to prepare the ground, not even discussing his plans with the Federal Policy Committee.”

    Well, let’s start by recognising that any political leader is bound to face the issue of how best to exercise leadership and push through policy changes against internal opposition. There are any number of ways to do that without causing maximum offence. A leader can fly a kite, for example by making a bold statement of aims and then letting members debate what specific changes they can accept. If things get tough, a leader can lay his/her leadership on the line, as Blair did with Clause 4, and use a combination of democracy and arm-twisting to settle an issue.

    Clegg doesn’t do any of that. Time and again, Clegg uses dissimulation to lull potential opposition into quietude, followed by surprise attack with the steamroller. Suddenly, vague ramblings turn into highly specific concrete proposals. They are concrete because Clegg wants them cast in concrete before anyone has time to react.

    There wasn’t just one Clegg Coup. There have been multiple follow-up coups.

    About time we had zero tolerance for someone who abuses our systems?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Mar '13 - 5:54pm

    About time we had zero tolerance for someone who abuses our systems?

    Why can’t I think up lines like that?

  • “I’m not sure I have an issue with anyone saying we should have zero-tolerance for abuse in our immigration system.”

    But on the point Nick was making (Visa overstays) there are strong sanctions for people who do this – ie future applications are automatically refused for 1-10 years

  • Yes the amnesty policy was flawed but so is this. Clegg is an embarrassment. I have an idea. Every time Clegg decides to make policy up as he goes along, he has to pay a deposit. If the idea is, like this one, poor and counter to core party philosophy, Clegg loses his idea deposit. After a few months he’ll either run out of cash or remember that this isnt a party of just one person quite yet and there are processes to follow to develop policy.

  • Foregone Conclusion 22nd Mar '13 - 6:44pm

    @David Allen,

    “Time and again, Clegg uses dissimulation to lull potential opposition into quietude, followed by surprise attack with the steamroller.”

    This. A thousand times this.

  • Charles Beaumont 22nd Mar '13 - 7:13pm

    Zero-tolerance should be a two-way street: yes, zero-tolerance for those that abuse the immigration system. But also, zero-tolerance for UK Borders Agency when it screws up, delays, or wrongly miscategorises an individual visa case. And, furthermore, let me add voice to those who say they don’t understand the immigration system. As a native English speaker with lots of experience of dealing with government paperwork, when my son was born overseas we were initially refused a UK passport for him (thereby rendering him stateless, by the way) as the documentation for a passport application is subtly different if you apply overseas (even when both parents are Brits). This is just one example of the incredibly complex nationality and immigration rules.

    Nick’s speech seemed to miss the fact that we’re in a “global race” and we have sent a clear signal that we don’t want Johnny Foreigner coming to our country. If the Liberal Democrats aren’t willing to make the positive case for immigration, then I guess it’s time to give up.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Mar '13 - 7:14pm

    About time we had zero tolerance for LDV editors who abuse their position.

    Probably the most important characteristic needed of an immigration system is a general acceptance by the population. Without that, immigration brings social tension and strife.

    Anyone who has read Nick’s speech without prejudice will see that the speech is basically about this simple reality.

  • Charles Beaumont 22nd Mar '13 - 7:22pm

    Richard – I read the speech without prejudice. It’s not that I think that he is misrepresenting popular opinion. It’s that I think that there are some difficult issus (e.g. death penalty, immigration, the EU, a few years ago homophobia and anti-semitism) where a bit of leadership is necessary. This is not code for political suicide. It’s a question of leadership. Immigration brings benefits (which can be demonstrated quite easily through economic statistics) and is unpopular. So a party leader from a party that professes liberalism and economic literacy should be able to make this point and make the case for immigration. And if not, that leader should explain how it will mitigate the impact on the UK economy given that we are making our immigration system less open than others.

  • Alex Sabine 22nd Mar '13 - 8:18pm

    Well said Charles, I agree 100%.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Mar '13 - 8:35pm

    I very much doubt that there are any economic statistics at all that are capable of showing benefits of immigration, nor any showing disbenefits. To show specific benefits you would normally have to compare one option with another – which is difficult because there is only one reality, and so only one option available for measurement.

  • Sorry, but I feel the Lib Dems under Clegg are rapidly becoming the enemy of what I believe in, in much the same way that the Conservatives under Thatcher were in the 1980s (when I joined the party). And it’s not just Clegg, because the great majority of the parliamentary party are going along with it without so much as a whimper. At times like these, I really feel like saying “To hell with the lot of them”.

  • I know someone who’s father was British mother European and wife American. His daughter has to ensure her children are born in UK to ensure citizenship. I have also worked for a computer company where we could not get an engineering specialist to support a system for a UK university and it took months to get him a visa whilst we had to take specialists from their normal jobs to cover the site, there were no design engineers born in UK available.

  • @Peter Hayes
    “I know someone who’s father was British mother European and wife American. His daughter has to ensure her children are born in UK to ensure citizenship.”

    Not sure of the point you’re trying to make with this statement, as you have not given any details of the place of birth and nationality/passport held by each at relevant times, including that of the daughters husband. From the information given, the daughter’s default nationality is probably American – assuming the mother hadn’t surrendered her US citizenship prior to her birth, hence the daughter’s children would also by default be considered as having American citizenship. The question then arises as to whether the children qualify for dual-nationality. However for the place of birth to be the problem you make it out to be, the daughter’s normal place of residence would have to be outside of the UK and the child’s father to not hold UK citizenship…

  • @Roland
    Actually, I can relate to what he is saying, my mother and father were British UK born but I was born overseas. Because of that, when I wanted to apply for a passport I had to supply his birth certificate and their marriage certificate. It would have been a bit less galling if my certificate didn’t show that my father was a serviceman (including his service details), plus I was also serving at the time I applied.
    Ensuring my kiddies were UK born will make their life easier.

  • Meh to Conrad Russell’s thrice-read advice.

    Speeches are made to be spoken, so try listening instead.

    There is an internal power struggle going on in the party between the Manifesto Committee and the Federal Policy Committee.

    This has arisen because the FPC is being sidelined by its own idealistic ineffectualness and is being supplanted by the more pragmatic Manifesto committee.

    The last general election showed that writing a manifesto based on direction from an democratic FPC is beset with problems. We got hammered, both during the campaign and afterwards during the coalition negotiations, because of FPC weakness.

    We continue to hammer ourselves because we have not resolved this problem – for instance the current FPC is repeating the same mistakes by scheduling its reports after when the manifesto decisions are being made.

    I like the FPC, but it is a shambles because it is being run by a bunch of elitist amateur experts who have not grasped the real demands of a political party. It is run more like a think tank.

    If we want to stop tearing ourselves to shreds then the FPC must professionalise and give our leader (whoever that may be, now or in the future) a real mandate to negotiate effectively with any potential partner. If we do not then we will condemn our whole party to irrelevance again just when we are on the verge of making a truly meaningful breakthrough.

    Because whenever we don’t tell the leader what to say in our name we have failed to give him the consolidated view of the party by which to represent us with, and this creates a glaring weakness ruthless opponents can easily exploit – such as in this particular instance when a concession on immigration was clearly part of a trade-off made in order to advance our wish for fairer taxes.

    While the FPC is excellent at designing principled policy based on facts, it is the role of the Manifesto group to determine policy priorities according to the fundamental value of each.

    It is because tangible policies like raising the income tax threshold have an in-built means to be introduced they will necessarily override strongly-held, if poorly expressed ideals in other areas – precisely like ‘freedom of movement’.

    I am intensely frustrated by the well-meant waffle of so many committed activists who cannot see the woods for the trees, and it is all too easy to accept the critique of our more fair-minded opponents who tell us this internal imbalance is hindering our electoral chances.

    Whereas prior to 2010 we were fantastic at representing our ideals but struggled for meaningful ways to express them (with rare stand-out exceptions such as opposition to the Iraq invasion), the transition to being in government has highlighted that our administrative approach is far less capable of dealing with questions posed in the here and now.

    It is not about Clegg, it is about how we organise ourselves as a party.

    Unless we wake up to and address the challenge which faces us we will show we are neither able nor deserving of high office, and voters will respond accordingly.

  • @Chirs_sh
    I understand exactly what you are talking about, because you gave context to your situation, whereas Peter omitted relevant detail leaving us to speculate about the specific circumstances and the point he was trying to make.

    In my family we have regularly over the years had parts of the family returning to the UK with their new children and spending time (whilst here) getting UK passports for the children, which seems to be a less demanding process than the child (as an adult) trying to do it .

  • @Caron: I have to say, as someone with all too much experience of UKBA, your point about them is something I can agree whole heartily on. UKBA is not just a force of evil because it ruins lives, it is also a pragmatic nightmare in that constantly ruins our international reputation. What the racist, self-important UKBA officers do not realise is that there are a lot of very important people in the world who are not British and not many of these people have a very positive view of UKBA, which unfortunately means that they have negative view of Britain as whole. In the globalised would, a positive external reputation is important. It is a shame UKBA do not understand.

    -I also agree with you that these insane proposals are basically saying you are fine to come here if you are rich enough. Since when did the liberals get on the ‘liberty is only free to those who can afford it’ train?

    We, as a party, have to stand strong on this issue, not just because it is the right thing to do (which it is), not just because, lets face it, very few of those who really dislike immigration will vote for us even if we toe the Daily Mails line, but also because if the Lib Dems cannot stand up for Asylum seekers and immigrant groups, who can?

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