Open letter to Lib Dem MPs: The Immigration Bill is illiberal

Dear Lib Dem MPs,

We Liberal Democrats have long been proud of our internationalism and compassionate stance towards refugees and immigration. Not an ‘open borders’ party, but a party which believes controlling our borders does not conflict with welcoming newcomers or upholding their human rights.

By contrast the Conservatives care little for rights, European or otherwise. Theresa May is engaged in creating a “hostile environment” made so unpleasant for “irregular migrants” will simply pack up and leave, and minority ethnic British citizens could end up being racially-profiled if they ‘look foreign.’ This approach is diametrically opposed to the values I believe Liberal Democrats hold dear.

A YouGov poll showed that public concern about migration is mainly focussed on our borders proving there is no demand to make life intolerable for those already here.

The new Immigration Bill does nothing to make Home Office bureaucracy any more efficient, preferring instead to deny accommodation and healthcare regardless of the human misery it causes in homelessness and illness.

Our party is currently consulting on our own asylum and immigration policy. I would guess we are unlikely to agree to the kind of punitive approach proposed in the Bill. As our parliamentarians you should therefore decline to support a Bill that is essentially for the benefit of the Tory election strategy to head-off UKIP.

Members haven’t voted for this approach. It was not in the coalition agreement, and I know you didn’t enter politics to vote for this kind of legislation.

This is the eighth piece of legislation on asylum and immigration since 1997, none of them improving the way the system works, each one being progressively chipping away at migrants’ rights.

Successive governments have argued that public concern needs to be addressed yet the lesson over the past 16 years is that Right-wing tabloids and commentators are never sated. They always want to go further and each Act paves the way for an even harsher Act. Our party, with our values, should be the first to bravely come off this negative hamsters’ wheel.

Rather than curtail the ability of our independent judiciary to overturn officials decisions and weaken the right to family life by undermining Article 8 of European Convention of Human Rights Theresa May needs to improve initial decision-making by her department.

A £3,000 fine for landlords seeks to turn them into border officials. Legitimate landlords are ill-equipped to understand the wide variety of immigration statuses and they will end up demanding proof of immigration status from every would-be tenant but more likely profiling those who ‘look like’ immigrants.

This could take us back to the bad old days of the 1960s and 70s when landlords hung signs saying “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” in their windows, and as Liberal Democrats we cannot be associated with such a backward step in race relations.

We do not want a Britain where Black and Asian citizens are routinely asked to produce their papers.

It is hardly unusual for migrants not to have original documents in their possession anyway, especially when they are gathering dust in the Home Office, and the measure certainly won’t stop unscrupulous ‘bed-in-a-shed’ landlords who are already outside the law.

Making it harder for already vulnerable, often distressed, people to access a roof over their heads or a bank account puts them further outside society and is more likely to drive them underground where they face exploitation from the criminal fraternity which ministers rightly say they also want to crack down on.

The Bill also risks creating a climate where prospective employers do not want to ‘take the chance’ that the candidate may not have permission to work due to confusion surrounding the documents they carry.

This is a deeply illiberal Bill and I would ask you to vote against it.

* Issan Ghazni is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and former National Diversity Adviser for the Liberal Democrats. Issan blogs here

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  • The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives quite rightly opposed the previous government’s plans to introduce ID cards. I’m concerned that the thrust of this Bill, with the emphasis on ‘proving’ your entitlement to NHS care or to rent a flat, is effectively re-introducing ID cards by stealth. The same applies to the recent checks by immigration officers at London stations. How do you prove you are a British citizen and entitled to use public services other than carrying round your passport at all times?

    Issan writes that: “We do not want a Britain where Black and Asian citizens are routinely asked to produce their papers.” Actually, I think the outcome will be that (to avoid accusations of racial bias) everyone will be asked to produce their papers in future. Even UKIP have criticised this aspect of the Bill with their spokesman saying that they don’t want Britain to become the sort of society where the authorities routinely demand to ‘see your papers’.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Oct '13 - 6:30pm

    Superb letter Issan. I agree completely, and hope our MPs are taking note. And that they feel the same way!

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Oct '13 - 8:56pm

    I am concerned about the government and our party getting heavy-handed with non EU immigration to make up for the fact that we have so much EU immigration, which is not the right way to go about things. I think we should be in favour of open borders, but they really need to be opened up slowly otherwise we’ll end up with riots on the streets.

    The UKIP dream of micromanaging who comes into the country and who doesn’t, which is appealing to many voters, just isn’t economically viable and we need to make that clear. You can’t have it both ways – otherwise other countries will start telling UK citizens to go home. We need to be open to the rest of the world.

  • Jonathan Hunt 21st Oct '13 - 11:24pm

    In many ways, the roles of government and people seem to have been reversed.

    Once upon a time, it was the fear of the unknown that made some people afraid of being put in cooking pots by black citizens, and CoE congregations spurned people more Chritian than themselves. Then, governments of both colours tried to play a responsible role in in helping accept immigrants into this country — many of whom had fought for it in World War Two — and sought in various ineffective stages to outlaw discrimination. .

    The more BaME people who live in your community, the more employed at your place of work or where you co-exist on a daily basis, the more we accept one another as individuals, the less racism exists. The e National Front gave up holding rallies in areas of high immigration like Peckham, protected and often encouraged by the police. They found little support.

    Citizens who lived with the reality were, on the whole, unsympathetic to their message. Thus proving that it is the fear of immingration, rather than immigrants themselves, that fascists feed upon.

    Today, it is not fear of Caribbean or Indian people that now frightens people in the suburbs and market towns. It is millions of Romanians and Bulgarians, whom few of us have ever met, that are the bogey persons UKIP the BNP and EDL, fear will “swamp” us and promise to stop. And, also, attempt to aim at a kind of unfairness, that people who haven’t paid towards the NHS should not get healthcare on tfor free.

    What is different now is that forces of government are helping to whip up this discrimination. Theresa May, who appears to posses a relentless desire to be prime minister, seems to be intent on demonstrating that even if Conservatives never were the Nasty Party, they are now,

    Racism exists in this country, but in more insiduous ways. Sadly, in many arms of government, especially the police to and the border agency, and in many local authorities. But is this Bill the first that helps to generate discrimination among people who are not normally racist?

    Most small employers or small landlords do not want to discriminate againt BAME poeple, but can’t afford the fines threatened by this Bill. It is easier to say no to black and Asian applicants and would-be tenants. Discrimination forced on them by govenment.

    This has to be a defining Bill for Liberal Democrats. If our parliamantarians vote for it, how long can those of us who have spent much of our lives campaigning against racism remain in the party.

  • Temporary visitors and students currently receive free care in Britain. This will be scrapped by the Bill, which brings in a surcharge of about £200 for migrants applying for visas of between six and 12 months and about £150 for students.
    There cannot be a large number of temporary visas issued and any way I am sure that the applicant would have to show he or she is in good health. Likewise most students are young and unlikely to be in need of expensive medical treatment.It was a selling point that overseas students could receive free treatment after six months. I wonder how many potential overseas students will now go to other countries for their education as a result of increasing fees and charges.

  • Great article Issan.

    Also I agree with Jonathan Hunt “This has to be a defining Bill for Liberal Democrats. If our parliamentarians vote for it, how long can those of us who have spent much of our lives campaigning against racism remain in the party.” We need to watch our MPs closely and hold them to account!

  • Great article Issan. Agree completely. Nothing more to add.

  • Robin Bennett 22nd Oct '13 - 2:44pm

    We seem to be doomed to a fear of Big Brother more appropriate to the old Soviet Union than to a nation with entrenched democracy, freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. If only, if only Lib Dems would accept the PRACTICALITY of identity cards. All the “proof of identity” procedures which bedevil our relations with banks, businesses, government and now landlords would be swept away. Passports could be left at home for use only for foreign travel. Officials and others could carry out quick, simple checks for so-called “illegals” . And – equally important – those amongst us who are entitled to be here, but were not born here, or who are of minority enthnicities, would have the assurance of knowing that they can carry on their person at all times acceptable proof of their right to be in the UK. In some countries an identity card is for poor immigrants their most valued possession.

  • Dreadful tone to the debate. Some principled speeches against, and a scary lack of comprehension about how this will be seen in minority communities by some Tories. Very depressing.

  • Jonathan Brown 22nd Oct '13 - 10:41pm

    @Robin – interesting point. I personally am in principle in favour of ID cards… But… I didn’t trust Labour with introducing them and don’t trust the Tories either. I don’t drive, and would often find it valuable to have an ID card rather than carry my passport around. But I do not believe that governments of either colour would bring ID cards in for the right reasons, and do believe both parties would abuse the systems built upon them and enable other institutions to create new problems (e.g. ID’ing ethnic minorities as a form of harassment). I’m willing to accept a certain amount of compromise with the nastier of the two nasty parties on a variety of issues, but I can’t say I’m confident I’d trust a Lib Dem government (if one were to ever exist) to do it properly either.

  • Jonathan Hunt’s perceptive points can be usefully generalised. A generation ago, governments were prepared to court unpopularity in order to achieve the public good. These days, governments mine resentments for votes and put the public good second.

    Why? Well, when I was a young Alliance politician we campaigned for the end of ideology and dogmatism. Be careful what you wish for, I now tell my younger self.

    A generation ago, the class-based parties could rely on solid class support, so they could take risks to achieve the public good. Nowadays, voter opinion is shallower and more fickle, so the parties play everything remorselessly to win votes.

    I don’t know what the answer is. But it isn’t the modern Lib Dems, that’s for sure.

  • I feel this letter and John Hunt’s points are both fantastic, let us hope some of the parliamentary party take them seriously. (Hope, sadly, being the key word.)

  • Robin,
    The PRACTICALITY of identity cards include forgers would make false ones and a card with a lot of information could be lost or stolen causing big problems for the holder.

  • Legitimate holder I should say.

  • Robin Bennett 23rd Oct '13 - 3:07pm

    @Manfarang. Any government official who is checking IDs should have the facility to check it instantly against a central data base. As to what valuable or essential information goes on the identity card, I guess it’s a bit like credit cards – as soon as stolen, notify the issuing authority to have it “stopped”.

  • anyone who heard sarah teathers speech should have stood and cheered….conversely Simon Hughes who wa s probably stating the party position …said he would give benefit of the doubt at this stage…Labour abstention was sad but predictable as they are frightened of voters believing they would let anyone come in.What a terrible basis for a debate. If at the Committee stage this bill is not substantially changed Lib Dems have to oppose otherwise this might be the final straw for those like me who have worked in the party over 50 years.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 23rd Oct '13 - 9:28pm

    It was with the greatest sadness that I read the list of names of LibDem MP’s that supported this Bill, and it was also enlightening just how backward Labour has moved on immigration issues.

    The desire to win the ‘bigot’ vote has become all consuming to all of the parties it would appear that as some people are willing to walk from what they used to espouse as their core values.

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Oct '13 - 9:57pm

    R Uduwerage-Perera – Out of interest, please can you define what you mean by, ‘the bigot vote?’

  • “It was with the greatest sadness that I read the list of names of LibDem MP’s that supported this Bill …”

    Well, here are the ones who voted against it:
    Leech, Mr John
    Teather, Sarah
    Ward, Mr David

    That’s all folks.

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Oct '13 - 10:35pm

    Manfarang – When I go to visit my wife’s country I am required by law in that country to register my presence at a local police station. On registration I am given a card that I am required to carry, valid for 3 months. Under the law of that country I am required to show the card on demand and showing the card is necessary for me to have access to pretty much anything. Now suffice it here to say that in this particular country I am not exactly difficult to pick out as foreign. In 15 years I don’t think I have ever been asked for the card with the exception of an elderly man who wanted to see one out of curiosity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as a source of state oppression, nor has anyone thought worse of me because I have such a card. Anyone could feasibly try to forge one of these cards (though forgery is a crime) but the same could be said of just about any document.

    Now, of course, I am aware of the wider point about databases rather than ID cards per se. My point is that I’m starting to set a sense that some people seem to want it both ways in this debate. If we want strong borders and effective immigration law, then that needs more than warm words. There is much to criticise and little to commend about many things that have been done in the name of immigration control. But I am wary of any party (stress, any) that presents a politics to me that is long on criticism and short on proposal. As the article correctly points out, there is a review at the moment and I wait for the outcome. But I’d hope that any review is going to ask hard questions – like whether registration cards, used in other countries, a valid policy alternative.

    Control to mitigate illegal migration, which by the way affects legal immigrants like my wife, should not be taboo in any sensible political debate. Taboos make for poor policy.

  • I think Issan’s statement “A YouGov poll showed that public concern about migration is mainly focussed on our borders proving there is no demand to make life intolerable for those already here.” begins to get to the heart of the matter. Potentially, ignoring a very small minority, the majority of people do want immigrants to be treated as they themselves would expect to be treated, namely as civilised human beings. However, aided and abetted by a media who likes bad news better than good news, people seem to have lost faith in the government’s ability to police our borders, to reasonably deal with ‘illegal’ immigrants and to effectively manage the numbers of new immigrants each year – particularly as we have a significant proportion of the existing working age population either unemployed or economically inactive. Naturally, when such feelings come up against inaction or in-appropriate responses from those in authority, people’s frustrations will tend to come to the fore and be expressed in more emotive terms. For example, you only need to look at long running disputes between neighbours to see in many cases that emotion has taken over from reason. Hence I believe that Issan has put his finger on something that we all need to be reminded of, when trying to present and resolve this complex problem that is transforming our society and its culture.

  • I never thought I would say this (due to Roland having such different views to my own), but I think Roland’s point is completely on the mark.

    @Chris, I am truly appalled to see that only three Lib Dems voted against this bill.

  • I am sick an tired of do gooders giving money and time to these people solely coming here for the benefits that we tax payers are paying for. Enough if is enough and get rid of these Lib Dems if this is there stance.

    I’m not opposed to people that can benefit but a point system like in other countries would at least help

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