Teather’s alternative voice on immigration: “it bothers me that there is a consensus among the three party leaders”

teather_cleggGood on Sarah Teather. This weekend’s Guardian carries an excellent in-depth interview with the Lib Dem former children’s minister by Decca Aitkenhead in which she makes clear her deep unease not only with the Coalition’s immigration policy, but also the political consensus of the three party leaders that public concern about immigration means they must be seen to crack down on it, regardless of whether it’s the actual cause of the problems the public is concerned with.

Sarah begins by talking about the Tories’ perverse decision to heap more and more responsibility for policing immigration onto ordinary citizens, such as private landlords. This, remember, is the party supposedly of free enterprise, yet here it is introducing (unworkable) legislation requiring greater bureaucracy.

“It’s quite an extraordinary change in the relationship between the citizen and the state, isn’t it? To expect a private individual to police our immigration system – what’s the difference between that and saying you’re not allowed to buy a piece of fruit from Sainsbury’s without proving you’re not an illegal immigrant? Because as a private landlord you are a private individual who is effectively selling a product, and we’re saying you’re not allowed to sell to this person who can’t prove their status. …

We’re going to end up in a situation where if you look a bit foreign or sound a bit foreign, you’ll struggle to rent a property from a reputable landlord. You’re going to end up with an awful lot of people with an absolute right to live here finding that they can’t get anywhere to live. What’s going to happen to those people? How is that sensible?”

She tells too of her despair at the policy of splitting up families based on a simple income measurement, regardless of whether those affected will actually claim benefits:

Last year the coalition introduced a rule that prohibits any Briton earning less than £18,600 from sponsoring a visa for a non-European spouse, rising to £22,400 for families with a child, and a further £2,400 for each extra child. “It’s just a disaster,” Teather despairs. “Lots of British citizens who never expected to be caught up in the immigration system are about to see their families split up. You may have tens of thousands in savings, you may have extremely rich grandparents, your spouse may be a high earner – a whole set of things that would clearly demonstrate that you meet the criteria whereby you’d be no burden on the taxpayer – and yet you’re still not allowed to bring your spouse here, because we want to demonstrate that we are bringing numbers down.”

She addresses directly the question ‘If she feels so strongly, why did she not resign from the government earlier to make her point’. Instead, she controversially abstained on the policy of introducing a benefits cap while remaining in post (to the chagrin of many Tories):

“It was a really difficult – a really difficult – decision,” she says, her voice dropping low. “Believe me, I reflected on it with every hour there was.” More than any other issue? “Yes, more than any other issue – in my life.” In the end she decided not to vote against the cap, which would have forced her to resign, “because I had done everything I could possibly do to damage that policy, and at that stage by resigning I would have damaged the government but not the policy.”

And her concerns are not restricted to the Coalition. Nick Clegg’s recent pronouncements, for instance ditching the party’s pro-amnesty stance for long-term illegal immigrants living peacefully in the country, do not escape her fire:

“What alarms me is that the immigration proposals feel as if they’re hewn from the same rock as welfare earlier in the year, where a lot of that again was about setting up political dividing lines, and trying to create and define an enemy. It’s got to a stage where it’s almost unacceptable to say anything else, and it bothers me that there is a consensus among the three party leaders that they are all making, well not quite the same speech – there are differences, significant differences – but there’s a consensus. It’s stifling the rest of the debate, making people afraid to speak. If you get to a stage where there is no alternative voice, eventually democracy’s just going to break down.” …

Pressed further, and with squirming reluctance, she cites a speech by Clegg in May that floated the proposal for an “immigrant bond”. “The immigration bond was a slightly potty idea that we as a party had derided when the Labour party took it down off the shelf and dusted it off. But what disappointed me more was the way the speech was briefed. It was briefed that the bond was like a bail payment. Well, that links immigrants to criminals in the public eye.”

(She’s spot-on about this, as I wrote at the time: Nick Clegg’s illiberal hat-trick: now immigration joins ‘secret courts’ and media regulation on the pyre.)

It’s brave, anguished interview, and well worth reading in full.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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17 Comments

  • This is the government that values looking tough on immigration higher than allowing British people married to foreigners, even those with British children to live in the UK.

  • Simple were a small island limited resources we dont want the flood or trickle flow of immigrants IT DONT MAKE SENCE Id put a full stop to an im not being racist more pragmatic we have lots people unemployed too who need work we have a housing medical energy and other shortages get real

  • Terry
    Plenty of people in Britain want to emigrate. A lot of British people go abroad to work.

  • The visa fees have increased in recent years making it more difficult for a British citizen to bring his foreign spouse and children on a family visit to the UK. To have to post a bond would make it out of the question.

  • And yet we have a major problem with illegal immigration in the UK. How does she propose to deal with it? Not at all, seems the answer.

  • John Roffey 15th Jul '13 - 9:21am

    I think there is little doubt that the policies of the three main parties is in response to UKIP’s rapid rise and particularly with regard to the lifting of restrictions on Bulgarians and Rumanians next year:

    From a ComRes Poll:

    Topline results:
    • 79% of British people oppose ending immigration controls on new EU states Bulgaria and Romania from 2014.
    • 7% support removing immigration controls.
    • 89% of those aged 65 or older oppose ending immigration controls.
    • Across all social classes there is consistent opposition to ending immigration controls. 79% of both AB and DE classes oppose ending controls. C2 voters are most likely to be opposed at 81%.
    • Opposition is strongest in Yorkshire and Humberside with 88% of respondents against ending controls. In the West Midlands the figure is 87%. The South East (82%) and Scotland (81%) follow behind.
    • Support for maintaining immigration controls is consistent amongst all voters for political parties, even those who have been supportive of immigration in the past. 60% of Green voters, 73% of Liberal Democrats, 75% of Labour voters and 86% of SNP voters oppose ending immigration controls on these new EU member states.

    http://www.comres.co.uk/poll/838/get-britain-out-immigration-poll.htm

    From UK Polling:

    Asked about specific government policies on immigration, views are once more the typical anti-immigration responses: 71% support requiring a £3000 bond for visitors from high risk countries, 84% support the idea of forcing benefit claimants to learn English or risk losing benefits.

    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/category/immigration

    … and from the Telegraph:

    Although support for tougher measures is overwhelming among UKIP and Conservative supporters, it is also backed by a majority of Labour voters and around half of Liberal Democrats.

    When people are asked which party they trust most to handle immigration, UKIP comes top, chosen by 25% of the public as a whole, followed by the Tories (18%), Labour (14%) and the Lib Dems (6%). However, as many as 29% trust none of the four parties.

    Put another way, 18 million Britons pick one of the three traditional parties, but as many as 24 million reject all three by saying UKIP or ‘none of them’. No wonder David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are all trying to find ways of talking about immigration that reassure their traditional supporters.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10096817/On-immigration-welfare-and-crime-cynical-Britain-just-does-not-believe-politicians-anymore.html

    Another issue where the Party must decide whether it will follow the wishes of the people – and wait until they have won the argument before adopting an alternative policy – or stand up for what they believe is right and lose even more support.

  • Andrew Colman 15th Jul '13 - 10:22am

    First it was public servants, then it was benefit claimants, now its immigrants, who next?

    Time to lay the blame for the economic crisis where it “really” belongs

  • I also share Sarah’s concern “the political consensus of the three party leaders that public concern about immigration means they must be seen to crack down on it”. However, I’m more concerned that they seem to be more concerned about “being seen to do something” than actually doing something substantive about it ie. totally failing to “walk the walk”.

    I also share her concerns about the “decision to heap more and more responsibility for policing immigration onto ordinary citizens, such as private landlords.” Although, I would want to make it a crime to ‘knowingly ‘ aid and abet an illegal immigrant, without due official authorisation (ie. a landlord can be authorised to take in illegal immigrants awaiting their cases to be heard).

    I’m less clear about her position on the earnings requirement. To me the principle that someone who wishes to bring someone in from abroad should be able to demonstrate that they are capable of supporting them, without immediate recourse to the state for additional assistance, is obvious and ethical. However, like the benefits cap, how the line is calculated and drawn can be debated.

    I don’t share her concerns about Nick dropping the “pro-amnesty stance for long-term illegal immigrants living peacefully in the country”. Putting aside the merits of offering an amnesty (which have been debated recently on LDV), just the practicality of proving (ie. court level of evidence) that a “long-term illegal immigrant” really is a long-term illegal immigrant begins to show how unworkable the proposal really is.

    So yes I think Sarah is right to talk out, if only to encourage other politicians to come out into the open and really address the public’s immigration concerns – remember “the customer is always right even if they are wrong”.

  • It seems to me this is a case wher Liberalism & Democracy point in different directions. In this case most people are wrong but they are still the majority. How far can we go in telling them that we know best ?
    When I was canvassing in 2010 the amnesty was the issue that attracted hostility, in fact I have never seen such anger in 20 + years of canvassing, it never got to actual violence but it sometimes felt close to it.
    Do we want to give our enemies extra sticks to beat us with ?

  • Julian Tisi 15th Jul '13 - 1:37pm

    To John Roffey “Another issue where the Party must decide whether it will follow the wishes of the people – and wait until they have won the argument before adopting an alternative policy – or stand up for what they believe is right and lose even more support.”

    I disagree completely that this is the choice. The problem is that the public debate has become – as Sarah Teather acknowledges – completely one sided. There is an unchallenged consensus that most immigrants are leaching off the British state – completely ignoring the reality that if anything suggests the opposite. If only one group of people – and why not the Lib Dems? – were to stand up firmly and put the other point, the public debate might shift. We would lose some votes in doing so but I think we would end up attracting far more votes than we would lose. I think there is a lot of traction in becoming the anti-UKIP party – rejecting simplistic, populist solutions and standing up as the party that was actually in favour of a more open world, with immigrants actively welcomed so long as they met certain minimum criteria (I thought our policy – is it still our policy?!) of a points based solution was a rather good one.

    I’m sorry to say that it’s to our shame that we don’t have the courage and stand up clearly and make this opposing point – that we’re so afraid of the UKIP / Tory / Labour anti-immigration consensus that we can’t stand up for what we believe, for fear of beling labelled the “soft” party on immigration.

  • John Roffey 15th Jul '13 - 2:05pm

    I doubt if you are alone in your belief Julian. However, I think it is reasonable to make the opposing case.

    There does seem to be a general consensus here that the Party has made a pig’s ear out of its opportunity to move on to greater successes as a result of being part of the Coalition government. There are nearly two years to turn things around – a time when significant strategy and policy changes will draw great attention in the MSM.

    If, however, the Party does get less than 10% of the vote at the GE and loses the majority of its seats, as seems very likely – without a significant change in its approach – and it is not required as a coalition partner by the leading party – the L/Ds will be viewed as a significant failure.

    If this is the case – there will be little interest in what the Party does do after the GE – and it will be a long way back to any kind of prominence.

  • David Allen 15th Jul '13 - 2:16pm

    Sarah’s most perceptive concern is that the three party leaders all follow much the same consensus.

    In principle, all politicians should be in dialogue with the public. They should listen, and try to do what the public want. They should also speak, and try to convince the public that their own principles are right. The difficulty, of course, arises when the majority of the public do not seem to agree with your party’s principles. It is a bad politician who ignores what the public say, but it is also a bad politician who immediately ditches his own principles and lets the focus group dictate what he says.

    Nowadays, sadly, the focus group rules. The three parties are all converging. Labour don’t really believe in austerity, but they say they do, because the focus group tells them that the anti-austerians have lost the argument amongst the public. Lib Dems don’t really hate immigrants, but they act as if they do, because the focus group tells them to.

    The people who take a very different attitude are the tabloid press – the Mail and the Express in particular. Day after day, they stick to a clear, consistent political line, come what may. They win the political argument, because they are the only mass information source who are consistently arguing the same viewpoint, presenting that evidence which supports it, and reinforcing their position with a very high workload, equivalent, of course, to one “Focus” every day!

    They dictate to the focus group, and the focus group dictate to government.

  • Manfarang true so lets at maximum match number of (brittish) leaving country to live work to number comming in to do same far far more comming in now than British leaving

  • David Allen
    Bring back the News Chronicle.

  • “In this case most people are wrong but they are still the majority. How far can we go in telling them that we know best ?”
    Sheer arrogance. If this is the prevailing LD view, you deserve all you get.

  • Andrew Colman 16th Jul '13 - 9:58am

    Quote
    “The people who take a very different attitude are the tabloid press – the Mail and the Express in particular. Day after day, they stick to a clear, consistent political line, come what may. They win the political argument, because they are the only mass information source who are consistently arguing the same viewpoint, presenting that evidence which supports it, and reinforcing their position with a very high workload, equivalent, of course, to one “Focus” every day!”

    Therefore we Lib Dems need to bypass the tabloid press. We need to use other means to get the message across including IT media, many new forms of which appearing on a global and local scale (eg streetwise.com). We also need to use word of mouth. We should remember that only about 10% of the population actually buy the tabloids and they are in decline

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