The one thing missing from Tim Farron’s Commons speech on the refugee crisis

Yesterday Tim Farron spoke twice in the Commons. We covered his tribute to the Queen, but I want to look at his speech in the SNP’s Opposition Day debate on the humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

Actually, the speech itself was very good and said all it needed to say. I’ve been pretty lucky this week. I’ve managed to switch on the tv twice and, by chance, catch two Liberal Democrat MPs speaking, Alistair in the emergency debate on Tuesday and Tim yesterday.

Tim spoke about his experience in Calais, about how the Government’s response to the crisis has damaged and continues to damage the UK’s standing in the world and he also had a go at them, reinforced by Tom Brake, for raiding the international development budget to pay for the refugees coming here.

If I was going to criticise anything, I’d just say he needs to learn how to pronounce Moray – it’s Murrie, not More-ay, but that’s doesn’t really matter.

An added bonus was that Tim’s speech also provoked the ire of the next speaker, Tory MP Helen Whateley:

I welcome the tone of the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and his support for the Government’s long-term humanitarian commitment. I was rather disappointed that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) set a contrasting tone and that he feels less pride in Britain’s long-term commitment to humanitarian support for refugees.

There was one thing missing from the occasion, though. Or six, to be precise. Tim’s Liberal Democrat colleagues. The solidarity SNP members have for one another is to be admired. They show up for each others’ debates and generally act like a team. The only Liberal Democrat MP who bothered to show up for Tim’s speech in an important debate was Tom Brake who probably had to as Chief Whip. Commons speeches are going to be less important in the scheme of things over the last five years, but when they do happen, in big debates like this, we need to have as many of our posse in there as possible. Tim was not received like Julian Huppert used to be in the last parliament, with derision and anger. It was much worse than that. People just ignored him. Natalie McGarry was having a wee chat to someone in the row behind and everyone else seemed to be blethering to their neighbours and not listening to Tim. It didn’t look great on the tv, so a bunch of people around him being supportive would have been beneficial.

This is not the first time I’ve had to pass comment on what is coming across as a certain lack of team spirit in Westminster. It’s not like it was in the old days. There aren’t 57 of you any more. Work out what’s important and give each other a bit of back up and most especially be there for the leader on these big occasions.

UPDATE: I have had a couple of representations from various people who know about these things that it’s not as practical as once it was for all our MPs to be there on these occasions. People recognise that it doesn’t look great to see him isolated, but in the old days, when we were in opposition, we always knew where the leader would be called in a debate. Our new role puts us much further down the pecking order and it’s often not clear until the last minute exactly when we’ll be called. MPs can’t just sit around for hours when they could be doing other important work.

Also the point has been made that Tim doesn’t necessarily want people to disrupt their schedules to sit in the Commons waiting for him to be called and that if he had really wanted his colleagues there, they would have been.

That’s all fair enough, up to a point. However, we are going to get very rare coverage on the news. There are a handful of debates when it is important that our view is heard, maybe 5 or so occasions over the course of the year. The Queen’s Speech, Budget and Spending Review debates are such occasions. It surely isn’t too much to ask on these rare occasions for people to keep themselves free to give him a bit of back-up. This will become very important on controversial issues such as potential intervention in Syria. Just think about how it all looks.

Anyway, here’s Tim’s speech in full.

I pay tribute both to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who is not in his place at the moment, for his speech and to the Scottish National party for its collegiate approach to this debate; it is massively to its credit. The language of this debate has been thoughtful and positive. We must acknowledge that over the past couple of months the language has not always been so conciliatory or so thoughtful. Only six weeks or two months ago, we heard people, including the Prime Minister, use phrases such as “migrants swarming through Europe”.

I took the opportunity at the beginning of August, during the recess, to go to the Jules Ferry camp in Calais and spend some time there. That does not make me an expert, but I discovered a number of things. First, I found that these “swarms of economic migrants” included far fewer people than the media presented. They were not economic migrants, not that there is anything disgraceful about that, but were by any sensible definition refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan—from places that meant they were fleeing war, tyranny and instability. It was clear to me that although the vast majority of the people were men there were far more women and children than appeared from what was being presented.

I took the chance to talk to about 20 or so refugees and quiz them about their desire to come to the UK. Their answer was that they wanted to come to the UK because it represents the good life—“Ah!” I hear from some on the Tory Benches, “They are coming here to sponge off us.” But no, when I drilled down about what the good life meant to those people I found that it meant stability, peace, an absence of conflict, civilisation and being able to bring their kids up and work their socks off without the fear of losing their home or their family. That is what Britain’s good life is and that is why we are an attractive place to be. Let us not decry that; let us be dead proud of the fact that we have that reputation.

Volunteers in the camp are painfully aware of where Britain stands, and of the fact that, when it comes to asylum applications, France takes more than twice the number we do every year and Germany five or six times the number. The thought that we are being targeted to be sponged off by economic migrants swarming through Europe is dishonest and not true. I came away from Calais with the overall impression that the Prime Minister, the Government and indeed others were reacting not to the reality—they have no excuse not to react to it as they have far better access to research than I do—but to the political story. That is shameful. When they react with dogs, tear gas and fences, that is a political reaction and not the way to solve the problem and make things better.

I said that language is important, but a picture is important too. A week ago, the decision by The Independent, in particular, to print the absolutely heartbreaking picture of the body of Alan Kurdi was one of the most powerful things any journalist could choose to do. There are times when we are critical of the media, but we should be dead proud that that newspaper and others chose to print the picture. It was edgy, it was appallingly hard to look at as a father—I find it hard even to imagine it now—but it changed the tone of the debate in this country. A week ago, there was no plan whatsoever from those on the Government Benches to make the kind of proposals that were made yesterday. They were made because they were led by British public opinion and I am proud of the British public and how they led that change in the debate.

We all have our own stories, but we should all be proud of the values shown in the response of the British people, whatever part of the United Kingdom we come from. In my patch, hundreds of people have offered accommodation, food, money and other things, and that is a reminder that this is not accidental, not a rare thing. It is true to our character as a nation and as a family of nations. It is 70 years since half of the children from Auschwitz arrived—where? It was on the banks of Windermere, believe it or not, in probably the least diverse constituency in the country. Between Windermere and Ambleside, on the banks of the lake, were 350 survivors from the camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere—mostly 13, 14 and 15-year-old lads, including the great Ben Helfgott, who went on to lift weights for Britain in the Olympics in the 1950s but came as a little lad from Auschwitz. The reception of the people in the south Lakeland area to those people was immense. It was true to their character then and the response to today’s refugee crisis is true to their character today. I am proud of them.

I also share a sense of admiration, and even a little envy, when I look at the German response and leadership of the response to the refugee crisis. For what it is worth, I am always up for Scotland, and that support is always repaid, I know, when Scots are so fervently up for England when we play games of various sorts.

Germany’s response to the refugee crisis has added to its standing in the world, it has made it more relevant in the world, and it will clearly be of economic value in the years to come. The Liberal Democrats welcome the plan set out by the Government yesterday to take up to 20,000 refugees, but we are bound to criticise many of the details, not least the fact that we are proposing to take up to 20,000 over five years, so over five years we will take, at best, as many people as the Germans will take in a weekend. We are also critical of the fact that no hope is offered for those in transit. Those are many of the people who are in most danger, under most threat, and for whom we should have most concern.

I am one of two people in the Chamber who would make the point that the commitment of 0.7% of GDP to international aid was achieved with the Liberal Democrats in government, with our unanimous support. Although the Secretary of State and others rightly claim credit for it too, I can point out that there was nobody on my Back Benches decrying the Government commitment to that 0.7%.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous that the Conservative party claims that we tried to cut the international development budget, on the back of a report in the Daily Mail, which is hardly a supporter of the Liberal Democrats?

Tim Farron: My right hon. Friend is correct. It is a great shame. The story of the coalition on this issue is that all the Liberal Democrats and all the Conservatives who were in Government positions supported that target, but there were dozens and dozens of Conservative Back Benchers who, if they had had their way, would have taken that money away.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): The Liberals and the Government are taking credit for the 0.7%. We have all played a part—the Labour party played a part when in government. More importantly, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital that refugees are resettled in such a way that they fit into the community and that ghettos are not created through lack of resources? Previous Governments have used urban aid budgets to do that.

Tim Farron: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It was exactly the reason why I raised the issue of the DFID funding. It is right that funds should be given to local communities to allow for that resettlement. My key concern is that we are taking from the DFID budget, and therefore taking from that 0.7%, in order to fund this work. That money should come from other sources. We ought to remember that the 0.7% commitment to international aid is about conflict prevention, to make sure that the refugee crisis does not get worse in the years to come. It is short-sighted to raid the DFID budget in order to fund refugee settlement; the money should come from other sources.

I am bound to decry the fact that this Government refuse once again to co-operate with others in the European Union on a collective approach. That affects our standing in the EU and the world. We are seen as a country that turns its back on its neighbours, that is not a good team player and that is not able to roll up its sleeves collectively to try to make a difference. The Prime Minister will spend time over the coming months in the capitals of Europe trying to build the case for concessions so that he can make the case for a yes vote in an EU referendum. What chance has he now of getting concessions from people who believe he has been such a non-team player over this most critical issue? He has damaged Britain’s standing and he has potentially put at greater risk Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Lucy Frazer rose—

Tim Farron: I will not give way; I want to make progress.

By limiting the number of refugees we will take to a maximum of 20,000 over five years, the Prime Minister lets down many thousands of refugees. As others have said before me, we support Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposals for an EU common plan. That makes sense and would add to the UK’s stature in these matters. As was mentioned earlier, the UK’s response has been tardy and has not been good, although it is better today than it was a day or two ago. However, there are others whose contribution is utterly risible, not least Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They are wealthy countries that our Government have close connections with. What moral authority do our Government have in banging those countries’ heads together to get them to play a role when they themselves have been dragged to the table so reluctantly? This is about moral authority as much as anything else.

Several hon. Members rose—

Tim Farron: I will not give way.

We expect our Governments to lead and not to follow, but over the past week we have found that this Government have followed. I am glad that they have, but it is a great shame that it took months, and the public outcry after that tragic photograph, to bring them to the table. In the past 24 hours or so we have seen the Government commit to what I suggest—forgive me if you think this is cynical—is the least they think they can get away with in the face of public opinion. I want to encourage us all to commit to the most we can do, for the benefit of our collective humanity, for those refugees and for our nation’s standing in the world.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Barrett 10th Sep '15 - 11:36am

    Sadly your comment “people just ignored him” is true and it will be one of the major problems the party faces in the weeks, months and years ahead.

    When we debated the future of Trident at the Federal Party Conference in Harrogate many years ago, it was something that mattered, not only to delegates, but also to the media and the wider public, as we were seen as a party who might have influence in the years to come. What we were discussing might actually matter to a future government.

    Now, this is no longer the case and we are at risk of being ignored by everyone, no matter how important the issue of the day is. Today it is migration, in the weeks ahead at conference it will be Trident and many other important issues.

    Tim is doing his best, but with twice as many party spokesmen and women in his team now being members of the unelected House of Lords than from the Commons, I am not holding my breath waiting for the media coverage of what they say in the months ahead.

    With Paddy sounding increasingly gung-ho over military action in Syria, I fear that Tim might have a lot more to say on the refugee crisis as it increases in the months ahead.

    Hopefully next time he will be surrounded by more supportive colleagues on the green benches.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Sep '15 - 11:39am

    Tim can get the respect of the House. He has “been in the trenches” with us. His colleagues should show up.

    Interestingly, over the past few weeks there seems to have been two different debates going on regarding the refugee crisis. I’ve only just realised it as I’ve spoken to non political types. The tabloids, read by millions, are banging on about the risk of terrorists coming disguised as refugees. I think some of these stories are very far fetched, but they have currency with the voters.

    I don’t want agreement with this narrative at all, but it is worrying that the debate seems to have separated in two. The “commentariat” are almost completely attached from the working class and even some of the middle class and two different conversations have emerged.

    We could perhaps emphasise background checks for refugees, but this seems a big issue for non-political types.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Sep '15 - 11:42am

    detached from the working class, sorry, not attached.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 10th Sep '15 - 11:42am

    Indeed, John, and where we do get media coverage, we need to make sure it’s helpful and not the unnecessary sort of briefing we saw a few weeks ago.

  • Thanks for posting this Caron, and I entirely agree with your comments.

  • Caron – well said. And well done, Tim, for an excellent speech. Like John Barrett I, too, hope he will be surrounded by more supportive colleagues on the green benches. Policy issues such as the Middle East and the refugee crisis are at the core of what the Lib Dems are all about – they are also issues that highlight the importance of European cohesion and show the danger of leaving the field free for those who would drag us out of the EU or break up the UK..

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Sep '15 - 11:57am

    Spot on, Eddie Sammon, and the timing of the announcment and its combination with the terrorism statement by the Tories was deliberate to play on these fears. Probably the only piece of media that has crossed this emerging borderline between purportedly ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ debates has been the Songs of Praise episode from Calais. The faultline you identify also runs right under the Labour leadership campaign.

  • Helen Parker 10th Sep '15 - 12:09pm

    Thank you for posting this and for the point about the importance of solidarity within the parliamentary group. I thought the lack of media coverage for Tim’s speech was bad enough considering how effective his actions and words have been so far on this issue (if you can manage to find out about them) and didn’t realise his colleagues might not be around to show support. I suppose they have to spread themselves more thinly now there aren’t 57 of them any more, but agree they need to be very visible at times like this. I think there will be a lot of others who note a contrast with the SNP – and perhaps some who misread (deliberately or otherwise) how much importance our MPs attach to this urgent debate. I’m sure they all agree with and have been encouraging people to sign the recent petition calling for the government to accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugee migrants in the UK – but they do also need to make certain as many people know that as possible.

  • “There was one thing missing from the occasion, though. Or six, to be precise. Tim’s Liberal Democrat colleagues. ”

    Interesting, I wonder why? There are some conclusions that could be drawn from this. Was Tim an ever present at his colleagues’ debates in the last Parliament?

  • it’s a shame that they weren’t there because it seems that they missed a brilliant speech. Well said Tim.

  • Thanks for the transcript, Caron. Great work as ever.

  • “The only Liberal Democrat MP who bothered to show up for Tim’s speech in an important debate was Tom Brake who probably had to as Chief Whip. ”

    Two points:

    1. I would agree that with numbers so small that there should be a bit more solidarity, especially in the early days of Tim’s leadership.

    2. Again surely with the number of MP’s being so small the title of “Chief Whip” can be dispensed with…..

  • Sadie Smith 10th Sep '15 - 1:32pm

    Thanks for helpful post, Caron.
    Our MPs are, luckily, able to cope alone. The problem is how tha Party is perceived from outside. Broadcasters feel free to ignore us even more than before the election. And can produce an excuse
    So occasional solidarity displays matter.
    There will also be times when we don’t need anyone in the Chamber.
    A wee bit of planning should sort it.

  • I suppose this problem is the leagacy of Paddy Ashdown. Good idea if he says as little as possible.

  • PHIL THOMAS 10th Sep '15 - 3:28pm

    Tim Farron is such a light weigh. He seems to be irrelevant and no one is interested in what he has to say. He just does not inspire any one. Any one seen Clegg lately ? Is it true that he is on a speaking tour to add to his millions ? Why does he not resign so that the people of Hallam can be represented by someone who cares ?

  • David Parry 10th Sep '15 - 4:53pm

    The point about lack of coverage is going to be one of the hardest to overcome, and those used to getting the ear of the press are in for a shock.
    I was talking to a friend who works as a technician for the BBC and with whom I had a few drinks in Glasgow last year, he told me that they were sending only about 20% of the numbers of staff to Bournemouth and our coverage would be significantly less than SNP (even in England),probably less than UKIP and about the same as the Greens.
    Welcome back to the 1960’s!

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Sep '15 - 11:16pm

    Thanks Matt (Bristol). Good turn of phrase with “highbrow” and “lowbrow” debates. BBC usually acts as the “middlebrow”, but I think it has failed on this.

  • Liberal Neil 11th Sep '15 - 10:20am

    I agree that we should try and make sure Tim is supported when he is making speeches in the House of Commons. However without knowing the reasons for them not being there, which could be many and varied, I don’t think I’d criticise them in public for this occasion.

  • No one cares what the Lib Dem Leader and his tiny band think or say and you really have to get used to that. Start winning local by elections , come out of next May’s local elections with an increased number of seats reversing the trend of the last few year. Then the media and people will start talking about the party again and then they will start listening to what the party is saysaying. For now in most people’s minds we were totally wiped out at the General Election and those that are aware are yet to be convinced about a leader who is still finding his feet.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Sep '15 - 1:29pm

    The increased membership of the Labour Party has affected their election for London mayoral candidate. The experienced and competent Tessa Jowell has been eliminated in favour of an untried MP, who might cause a by-elelction.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Sep '15 - 1:32pm

    There is, as yet, no opinion polling to compare the candidates against ech other, even assuming Zac is the Tory.

  • Neil Sandison 11th Sep '15 - 8:37pm

    What was important was the content of Tims speech and not how many MPs were there . I think we are going to have to learn how to crowd source our media coverage .Speeches sent out to members ,members to tweet and email to friends and neighbours .quotes in focus .make it difficult for the normal organs of the press to ignore or not to report.
    We have to become the Resistance of free speech and campaign for the voice of liberalism.

  • Neil is right: it needs lots of party members to get involved in circulating these sorts of speeches in order to maximise impact

  • Richard Underhill 28th Sep '15 - 12:01am (Advert)
    Another advert says 3 people have unfriended me, (even though i am not on facebook) “See Who”.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Oct '15 - 8:47pm
  • Richard Underhill 15th Oct '15 - 8:57pm

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