Something moved the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister to make a speech on immigration this morning, and we can only assume it was the heat he is feeling from the result of the Eastleigh by-election. His party might have won on the occasion, but the message he seems to have taken from the tightness of the race, with very anti-immigration UKIP and Tory candidates coming second and third, is that the Lib Dems need to swing to the right on the pressing issue of people movement.
Mr Clegg opened his contribution by saying that his mission was to maintain the UK as an open and tolerant country. Without any hint of irony he then said that the way to do this was by maintaining ‘zero tolerance’ of immigration ‘abuse.’
His speech reviewed all the standard paradoxes of modern British society: leading politicians who are themselves the children of immigrant parents; an economy that depends on people crossing borders for so much of its vitality; and NHS that would “fall over” without its migrant workers; and a university system that depends on international students for a big slice of its finance.
But still the British people show signs of discomfort at having to live with these realities. It would have been interesting to explore some of the reasons why this is undoubtedly the case but Mr Clegg is in too much of a hurry to unpack these rather complicated issues. Instead he rushed straight to his politician’s explanation, which was to say that ordinary people don’t like it because the other pack of politicians screwed up.
“The previous government left us an immigration system in disarray. I cannot stress enough just how chaotic it was”, he said. (He then went on to make the incorrect statement that Labour had “got rid of exit controls”, revealing that he isn’t entirely au fait with all the facts about exactly what it was the previous government had been doing.)
Hurray for Tory policies
He then went on to identify the Lib Dems with the claims that his Tory colleagues have been making for the success of their policies.
“Since we came into government, net migration has fallen by a third. We’ve limited immigration from outside Europe. And within the EU, we have kept the transitional limits on Romania and Bulgaria, until the point where every member state has to remove them.”
But there is still a need to push further in this direction if the British people are to be provided with all the assurances they seem to crave for a type of immigration which is ‘under control’.
Mr Clegg said that these assurances could be divided into three parts:
“One: that we are getting a grip on who’s coming in and who’s going out.
“Two: that we can deal with people staying here illegally.
“Three: that the system as a whole benefits the UK and doesn’t put too much pressure on our state – particularly in these straitened times.”
With regard to assurance one, this was being provided in the form of strict controls at the borders, checking everyone coming in and going out.
On assurance two, he promised he would get tough on “people staying here illegally”.
This involved a considerable backtrack on the policy he argued for during the general election campaign in 2010, when he advocated an ‘earned route to citizenship’ for people who had breached the immigration rules but who had nevertheless proved hardworking and law-abiding. His view is that this approach now risks undermining confidence in the rigour of the immigration control system and it was time to do a complete turnaround on the proposal.
Tougher fines, and bring on bonds
He announced that he had asked one of his leading Lib Dem MPs, Andrew Stunnell, to lead a review of this and our other immigration policies in the run up to 2015. Now that they are in office the Lib Dems wanted to to restore people’s faith in the system. This meant:
“confronting illegal activity with a vigour never seen from Labour.” By 2015 be wanted people to know that “a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for an immigration system they can believe in.”
It also seems to be a vote for the policies forged by Conservative Party, hook line and sinker. Indeed, to show he really means business, Mr Clegg said he’d be calling on the government to double the fines levied on business found to be employing people in breach of the rules from the current level of £10,000 to £20,000 per worker.
He said he wanted to deal with people overstaying visas by introducing a bond system, directed at specific groups, which would require unspecified sums of money to be set out up front which would be forfeited in event of an individual overstaying. His plan is that this possibility will be investigated through a pilot test of the proposal.
In response to questions which pointed out that proposals of this sort had been considered and rejected in the past on the grounds of the level of discrimination that would necessarily be involved, he said that he would not only make it work, but also that it would have the effect of providing an improved service to visa applicants who currently get a raw deal out the system. Exactly how this will be achieved will presumably emerge from the pilot scheme he intends to push ahead with.
But if stiffer fines and discriminatory bonds all seem to be measures which to mark the closure of a distinct liberal approach to the management of migration, a truly jaw-dropping moment arrived when he implied Lib Dem support for the £18,600-plus income requirement now imposed on people want to sponsor spouses, partners and children to join them in the UK.
RIP decent liberalism?
When Mr Clegg finally finished, there didn’t seem to be much left of the liberal voice which had once stood out in the mainstream of British politics which was prepared to appeal for greater fairness and a stronger element of justice for migrants. If the policy outline here remains unchallenged the Lib Dems seemed to be fated to merge their once independent stance on this issue with that of their Conservative partners in the coalition.
The reality is that the three mainstream Parliamentary parties are increasingly clumping together in support of positions which they justify to voters on the grounds that they truly are necessary in order to meet the supposed dangers of abuse and irregularity.
The effect of this is to shift the entire centre of politics sharply to the right, making the job much harder for those sections of British society who continue to speak out in favour of the genuinely open and tolerant approach which Mr Clegg is now deserting.
There are many in the Lib Dems who will be as dismayed by this turn of events as those who remain the staunch supporters of the rights of migrants. Some of them remain influential in the leadership councils of the party. Perhaps we need to put together a quick campaign to urge a reconsider of this overt and unbidden lurch to the right on the party of the third party in the UK political mainstream, before even more damage is done to the cause of decent and fair treatment for migrant communities in this country.