The much-missed Conrad Russell said you should read something three times before you pass comment on it. I've done that with today's speech on immigration by Nick Clegg. I've also had several cups of tea and am frantically hunting for some smelling salts to revive me. Leaders are supposed to lead and to challenge established thinking. I have no problem with him sticking his neck out on an issue if that is what he wants to do. It's important that we listen to him and if we don't like his ideas, to calmly and respectfully tell him so.
It seems odd that he chose to ask the party to ditch its immigration policy today when he could have done so at Conference in Brighton two weeks ago. It seems that he has done little internally to prepare the ground, not even discussing his plans with the Federal Policy Committee.
Let's look a bit more closely at what he said.
Well, at least one of the three main party leaders hasn't ingested the Daily Mail's rhetoric on immigrants and recognises the importance of a rational debate.
The political mainstream has a duty to wrestle this issue away from populists and extremists. A duty to shift what can be a highly polarised debate – particularly in difficult economic times – onto practical and sensible ground.
And recognises the positives of people coming to make their lives here:
Of course, if you believed every headline, you’d think that when immigrants aren’t stealing British jobs... they’re all living the high life in 12-bedroom Kensington mansions, courtesy of the state. But that’s a complete caricature of the truth.
(Although I think I'd have preferred the use of the word nonsense somewhere in that last sentence)
The majority of people who come here work hard and make a contribution. Many have served – and still serve – in our armed forces. And if every member of an immigrant community suddenly downed tools, countless businesses and services would suffer. The NHS would fall over.
So where did it all go wrong?
There was a clue very early on that this was going to make many Liberal Democrats feel very uncomfortable.
We need an immigration system that is zero-tolerant towards abuse.
If you are going to highlight one feature that you think a public service should be, surely "fair" would be a good start, particularly when you are talking so much about a fairer society? That would be a system where the right decisions are made in good time and people are treated with respect. In short, almost everything the UK Borders Agency doesn't do at the moment. It troubles me that he defended the Coalition's cruel policy of a minimum income for those who want to bring their spouses to live in this country. I have friends married to non EU citizens who are currently living abroad. Is it right that they can only live together here as a family if they're affluent?
I find it strange that he didn't talk about the asylum system, where people are forced to live on next to nothing and get little help, even at the most vulnerable times of their lives.
Nick's speech contained three major ideas:
- He wants to remove our policy of a path to citizenship for those who had been in the country for more than ten years;
- Security bonds for people from "high risk countries" who want to visit the UK;
- Charging for translation services if people won't learn English.
On the first, he said that " it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law." That was an attitude encouraged by the likes of the Daily Mail. Would it not be better to find the language to reach the people who believe their rhetoric than ditch a pragmatic idea?
It gets worse
I am not sure I understand how asking people from "high risk countries" to pay a deposit which is returned to them when they leave is compatible with "so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups." The proposal is discriminatory in nature against every single person from that country who wants to come here.
Sometime in the next few days, I'll be heading to Inverness when my nephew, Baby Ethan, is born. The only barrier I'll face in doing that is the snow gate at Drumochter. If I lived in the EU, I'd have no bother getting in to see him, and nor would there likely be a problem if I was from the US or Canada, or Brazil. Pakistan, though, that would be different. I've worked on immigration cases. I've seen people struggle to get their siblings in to see them for the last time before they die of Cancer. I think the solution is getting the visa handling services to treat people fairly, not force them to find even more money. I'm not convinced a security bond would stop people being turned down indiscriminately and having to wait months for an appeal, either. Nick specifically said that:
Visiting Britain to celebrate a family birth, or a relative’s graduation, or wedding should not become entirely dependant on your ability to pay the security bond.
How, though, do you prevent that from happening?
I've spoken English all my life and I find the immigration rules complicated
The very idea that we could weaken people's position in an incredibly complex system by making translation services available only to those who could afford to pay for them is the very opposite of what I understand fairness to mean. Now, I agree that if you live in a country you should attempt to speak the language. I've laughed at ex-pats we've met in Spain who have no intention of learning Spanish. But expecting non-native speakers to find their way through the system without help is not on.
What happens now?
There is no doubt that Nick's remarks will incite heated debate within the party. My suggestion is that everyone who has any direct experience and knowledge of the immigration system and its many failings gets in touch with Andrew Stunell, who is leading Nick's review into our policies. We need to treat this review like we did the communications data stuff and make sure that the recommendations which come out of it are fair, liberal and evidence based.
If today's speech is Nick playing good cop ahead of Cameron's speech on immigration, the ensuing debate is not going to be easy. There are plenty people who want to be tough on immigration. Surely it's our job to be liberal?