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

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2013

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.