Debate Magazine

Clegg Should Ditch Illiberal Immigration Bond

Posted on the 22 March 2013 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

leadersandheadlinesIn just over two years Nick Clegg has gone from supporting an amnesty for asylum seekers to imposing £1,000 immigration bonds, a sure sign that his political compass has become seriously addled by the power of high office.

For all the positive passages of his immigration speech this morning the Deputy Prime Minister’s plan to slap a four-figure deposit on non-EU visitors from “high risk” countries is a piece of red meat designed to go down well with the carnivores in the Right-wing press.

He didn’t spell it out which high risk countries but it is likely to include Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In other words the scheme that would target nations of colour, operated by the UK Borders Agency which already racially-profile visitors.

Combined with Clegg’s wish to ditch the Liberal Democrat policy of ‘earned citizenship’ for asylum seekers whose claims remain unprocessed after ten years – dubbed an ‘amnesty’ at the last election – Clegg’s speech scores zero on the social-lib-o-meter.

Given that the Coalition have already reduced non-EU migration by a third – a point trumpeted by Clegg and Conservative commentators today – we have to ask why the Government need to crack down even harder on an area where they have already made significant progress, it that’s the word.

His speech will no doubt play well amongst a quarter of the population hostile to immigration, as identified by Searchlight’s Fear and Hope poll based on a 5,000 sample.

The trouble is these are not voters who are naturally disposed to voting Lib Dem. The Searchlight report cross-references views on immigration with the political sympathies and found, not surprisingly, just eight percent of those hostile to migration fancied the Lib Dems as opposed to 24 percent of Conservative supporters. In other words Clegg is chasing votes that are largely out of his reach.

Conversely his speech risks alienating large portions of the population who have relatives in the Indian sub-continent and Africa who make up a large chunk of the electorate in several marginal Lib Dem seats. Whichever way you slice the mustard Clegg’s intervention is unlikely to benefit the party in the long term. Come the next election BAME communities will remember it while other voters will have forgotten it.

The migration bond idea is also an example of political cross-dressing as it was first floated by David Cameron in 2011 and resurrected last month by the Home Secretary Theresa May. Worse, May’s comments in the Daily Mail in favour of the scheme appear remarkably similar to Clegg’s.

The migration bond idea goes back to 2000 when Labour raised it only to drop it in a hail of criticism. Labour floated it once more in 2008 before again ditching it as the plan was condemned as being unworkable and discriminatory.

Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, warned that such bonds will “antagonise settled communities in Britain and enrage our allies such as India”, comment he repeated today, and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said it would be a “deterrent” to visitors.

In fact Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes told the BBC in 2008 he thought the bond plan was “clearly discriminatory”, adding: “When will the government learn that what we need are sensible policies, not tough-sounding but half-baked ideas?” Yet today he sent an email to party members praising Clegg’s speech.

In 2011 Cameron called for a “a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.” More recently speeches by Labour’s Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, both sought to sound tough by supporting the Government’s cap on immigration. So we are now in a position where all three major parties are fighting for a tiny space to the Right of center.

For Clegg the opportunity to put some clear ideological water between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives has been squandered as he tried on Tory threads for size.

The only progressive position on these issues is now represented by the Greens and Respect with just one MP each. No wonder the public say all major parties are the same. On this issue it is largely true.

The very fact that all three major party leaders feel the urge talk tough on immigration and speaks volumes about the pincer effect of the Daily Mail and Daily Express on one side and UKIP and Migration Watch on the other, plucking improbably large numbers from the air to increase the fear factor.

While a sizeable chunk of the population undeniably have concerns about immigration this is largely caused by the drip-drip of daily sensationalised press headlines and radio chatshow presenters stirring up hostility.

It is the responsibility of progressives in politics to challenge the myths and dog-whistles not pander to them. Clegg said in his speech he did not want an “immigration arms race” but the satellite evidence suggests he is in fact building an immigration nuclear policy.

The impact of immigration on schools, jobs, housing and health is vastly exaggerated and encourages the public to scapegoat newly-arrived communities for pressures that have vastly more to do with under-funding and austerity cuts than the immigrants themselves.

There was much mention this morning of Britain being a “tolerant” nation and adopting a “zero-tolerance” approach to abuse of the immigration system, but the dictionary definition of tolerance is putting up with something you don’t like. Shame there was no mention of zero-tolerance towards racism.

At the same time Clegg talked of the “wonderful diversity and openness… great British traditions.” Not a memory the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s and 60s or the first generation of Indian and Pakistanis in the 1970s will be able to recall easily.

In the next breath Clegg said: “The Government is also looking at the access migrants have to services and benefits. Fairness isn’t just about what people put into the system.”

This is peddling an old myth that has been disproved by evidence. As Alex Massie, writing in the Spectator, pointed out on Tuesday:

There are more than half a million Polish-born people living in the UK. Some 6,390 of them, according to this DWP report from last year, are claiming the JSA.

“And a study by academics found that immigrants were 60 percent less likely to claim state benefits or tax credits despite the huge gap between their high levels of education while being disproportionately concentrated in low-skilled professions, 28 percent less likely to live in social housing and paid 37% more in direct or indirect taxes than they received in public goods and services.Indeed the study concluded:

In our view, there is little reason to believe that, in the longer run, immigrants… constitute a net burden to the welfare system. This is also in line with the results of the analysis on the probability of welfare claims, which shows that immigrants – even if they were identical in a large number of characteristics to natives, like age, education, number of children and disability – would still be less likely to claim benefits.”

Another old chestnut in Clegg’s speech was the myth that people are not allowed to talk about immigration, normally spouted by people that talk about it endlessly. Clegg said: “There’s a common allegation that, among the political elite…there’s been a conspiracy of silence on immigration.” If only.

Yet beyond the actually words used, there is the more vexed issues of the sub-text and the code-words – whether intended or unintended – that pepper politicians’ speeches on this issue. References to the views of the British public seem to suggest they refer only to white Anglo-Saxons rather than the whole of our multicultural society who have just as much claim to be British.

Clegg’s speech follows a pattern of more integrationist and less multicultural political rhetoric and is one more step to the Right, creating the impression Britain is pulling up the drawbridge at the very time it needs the economic benefits migration brings.

I also found Clegg’s speech deeply illiberal because the bond will only apply to certain countries while others will not be affected. Free movement for some but not for all based on ability to pay. I doubt, for example, that white citizens of New Zealand or Australia – where the idea of the bond scheme orginated – will be forced to cough up a grand. And how would Britons like it if every country they visited for a holiday forced them to pay £1,000 for the privilege of stepping onto their soil?

Illegal immigrants, especially those smuggled in by criminal gangs, are likely to bypass the system just as they do at present. And the scheme only affects non-EU countries whereas the public are most concerned by immigration from within the EU who cannot be hit with the bond.

The people it will most hit are those traveling in for weddings and other family occasions. Often we are talking about 20 or 30 visitors at a time. Britain already asks for guarantees of accommodation and finances from their sponsors. Who is going to stump up an extra £20,000 to pay for bonds for relatives to attend a wedding? All this will mean is smaller weddings and greater resentment towards Government.

Clegg claimed his plan would not be “entirely dependant on your ability to pay the security bond”, but the use of that word ‘entirely’ is important to note.

Permission to visit will now be based on ability to pay, the ultimate Tory philosophy. Great for Middle Eastern playboys, less good for the poor. It’s like hanging an enormous ‘no money, no entry’ banner on the cliffs of Dover. What we need is not so much the closing of immigration loopholes as the closing of tax loopholes.

In times of economic depression the Far Right traditionally prosper, so upping the ante on these issues risks playing Russian Routlette with the chances of allowing them to capitalise on such sentiments to spread hate.

Xenophobia and fear of immigration are two sides of the same coin. Clegg may well want to mainstream the issue thereby taking a weapon out of the hands of the extremists but the nature of Britain’s press and public discourse will not allow progressive arguments to win unless there is a more concerted effort to challenge the myths and stereotypes.

Yet we heard little today that challenged the myths. As anyone who has been through customs can testify, the myth of uncontrolled borders is as preposterous as the notion that all people on benefits live million-pound houses, have flat-screen TVs and enjoy foreign holidays.

Immigration has been controlled since the early 1980s and immigrants are one of the most legislated-for parts of our society with countless Acts of Parliament being passed over the past two decades. Indeed the bond scheme is only possible because Tony Blair’s first Home Secretary Jack Straw introduced measures in the 1999 Immigration & Asylum Act allows the UK to require a financial security from temporary migrants, which can be forfeited if they fail to leave the UK after the expiry of their visa.

To their credit the Liberal Democrats pledged to end the practice of detaining children of asylum seekers. Yet as the Independent pointed out this practice is still occurring. But what about the wider issue of why we need Immigration Detention Centres, prisons for asylum seekers, in the first place?

For the vast majority of detainees their only crime is to claim refuge in a country that prides itself on ‘tolerance’ and many of whom are facing deportation because of a culture of disbelief within the Home Office’s immigration department. A system that frequently ignores or discounts evidence of persecution. And a system where some asylum seekers are so fearful of returning that they self harm while others receive broken bones courtesy of brutish heavies hired to literally throw them out of Britain.

Clegg’s speech was a closely-guarded secret before today with no advice taken from race or immigration experts in the party. The immigration working group, chaired by the former minister Andrew Stunell, was not informed and neither was the federal policy committee.

Checking the social media, many party members are outraged. Liberal Youth put out a statement that said: “Nick Clegg’s ’security bonds’ policy will stifle foreign entrepreneurship and investment in Britain. We should be encouraging people to start up businesses in here, which create jobs and economic growth. We cannot say we are being open and tolerant on immigration, whilst putting up further barriers to those who want to come into this country, to work and to get on.”

The normally loyal Stephen Tall, from Lib Dem Voice, tweeted: “I tried hard to give Nick Clegg’s immigration speech a fair hearing. But it’s lazy, lazy stuff. No attempt to tackle myths and no attempt by Nick Clegg to emphasize the positives – economic as well as cultural – that immigration offers. Cop-out liberalism.” There was also a backlash on the Alliance of Liberal Democrat Facebook group.

The best thing Clegg can do now is quietly drop the bond plan. After all, he is not exactly known for his word being his bond.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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