So, all these EU citizens from poorer countries coming here and claiming benefits. A huge problem? Actually, not so much. My Liberal Democrat Voice co-editor was bang on the money yesterday when he said:
So, for all the uproar and shouting, 94% of overseas nationals entering the UK do not claim out-of-work benefits within six months – c.6% do, compared to c.13% of UK natives. That’s not nothing, but it puts the issue into perspective, doesn’t it?
That’s also the most charitable explanation I can come up with for Nick Clegg’s decision to go along with the Tory proposals, describing them as “sensible and reasonable”. If he’d said the proposals were “blatantly populist but unlikely to have much effect beyond further stoking the public perception that immigrants are to blame for all our ills” he’d have been closer to the mark.Regular readers will be familiar with my "Lock me in a cupboard with a bottle of gin" list of things that I really cannot stand about this coalition. Things already on it include time limiting Employment and Support Allowance, the Bedroom Tax, secret courts and cuts to legal aid. There is, of course, also a list of fantastic stuff we've done, like the Scotland Act, ending child detention for immigration purposes, giving extra money to disadvantaged kids in school having a health minister who knows what he's doing about mental health and a pensions minister who has given the biggest cash rise in the state pension and put them on a fairer and more secure footing. But every time something else goes on the Gin List, the glow of the Good List diminishes.
I'm not saying that Santa Claus will be putting a lump of coal in Nick's stocking this Christmas, but I am well displeased with him for agreeing to Cameron's benefit restrictions. It will save the UK peanuts, but we will lose so much more. If you look at the big picture, what you see is the liberal voice you thought you could depend on to challenge the awful UKIP/DailyMail/Tory anti immigrant rhetoric ceding ground. It's all very well for Nick to say on Call Clegg that he's speaking for the majority of British people, but if the majority of British people are wrong, misinformed and have a view that's contrary to our core values,he should be challenging them to think differently. He should be pointing out where their facts are wrong and giving them evidence to the contrary.
What he shouldn't be doing is giving the forces of xenophobia and conservatism the sort of shot in the arm that was in his email to members last night:
Let others flirt with the prospect of European exit in order to pander to the right. We remain passionately committed to staying in the EU for the sake of British jobs, security and influence in the world.
That does not mean that we are indifferent to the need to reform the EU. On the contrary, pro-Europeans urgently need to reclaim this territory. Otherwise we surrender this debate to the populists and xenophobes – the people who want to pull up the drawbridge and pull Britain out of Europe.
For that very reason I am urging all pro-Europeans to back the changes to the access European nationals have to UK benefits announced by the Coalition Government today. It is precisely because I want Britain to remain an open and outward facing nation that I am delivering these reforms.
Freedom of movement is a cornerstone of the European project and millions of Brits benefit from it every year. But years of mismanagement of the immigration system have undermined people’s confidence in it and this loss of faith must now be addressed. That is the only way to preserve this nation’s warm and welcoming nature. If we are to protect the right to move and work in the longterm, we must ensure it does not become an automatic right to claim benefits.The trouble is he is legitimising the populists and xenophobes by ceding our ground to them. He says one thing and does another. It's just not right.He might use moderate language, but he will be associated forever with David Cameron's more bombastic approach. That is not what you want from an advocate of liberal values.
Sarah Teather, who has been consistently critical of the coalition's immigration policies, had this to say:
Once again we have an immigration policy announcement that has nothing to do with reacting to fact and everything to do with reacting to anti-immigration rhetoric-driven polling. Instead of providing political leadership and tackling immigration myths, these proposals target a problem that doesn't exist while stoking public anger and distrust towards foreigners.
Politicians are often far too afraid of talking about the benefits to the UK and its residents of being part of the EU project, which has freedom of movement at its heart. Over 2 million Brits live in other EU countries with tens of thousands of British citizens claiming benefits in their host countries, a fact many opinion formers seem to conveniently forget.
Reading today's proposals you would think that all EU nationals have unfettered access to the benefit system and that people from all over Europe are flocking to the UK in their millions in order to abuse our hospitality. Yet the reality is far different.
EU migrants already have to have to go through a process of registration before being able to claim benefits, which in itself takes several weeks and requires a fixed address. Plus the Government's own data shows that EU migrants are far less likely to be claiming out of work benefits than UK citizens.If Nick is looking at a problem about immigration that actually needs solving, he would be well advised to look at what's happening to Isa Muaza at the behest of his cabinet colleague Mrs May. The Home Secretary is about to deport a man who is close to death, who hasn't eaten for 90 days in protest at the inhumane conditions we keep those who seek sanctuary in our country. The medics say that he isn't fit to fly, and even if he survives the journey, what's going to happen to him when he lands in Nigeria when he can't stand and can barely speak? I feel such utter shame and fury that my government is behaving so unethically and immorally.
The party is going to be debating immigration at Spring Conference in York in March. If you feel that we need to have a liberal immigration policy, please register here and come along to have your say. If your local party hasn't had its AGM, go along and stand to be a voting rep. If there are spare voting rep spaces, make sure that you organise that soon as the cut-off date will be some time in January.
Now is not the time to be running scared of the Daily Mail. There are more than enough people clamouring to put an illiberal point. Nick needs to get on the stage and loudly proclaim the liberal argument. He is not doing so at the moment. And it's abundantly clear that if he won't, nobody else will. There are vulnerable people who need us to stand up for them. If we let them down, we let ourselves down too.