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Norman Baker is happy to be the odd man out at the Home Office: Immigration, surveillance, drugs... the new minister differs with Theresa May on all of them

October 13, 2013 12:59 PM
By Nigel Morris in The Independent
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Liberal Democrat has brief to 'make sure there is a liberal voice clearly heard' in the government department

The Home Office has been guilty of "ramping up" its rhetoric on immigration as a diversion from the failings of Britain's border controls, the new Liberal Democrat minister in the Home Office has claimed.

Norman Baker also put himself at odds with Home Secretary Theresa May by warning that plans to force landlords to check potential tenants' immigration status could force vulnerable people underground.

In an interview with The Independent, he denounced the "hysterical" attacks he had faced this week over the book in which he suggested the Government scientist David Kelly could have been assassinated and his murder covered up.

And he disclosed he had been given the go-ahead by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, to range across all policy areas to "make sure there is a liberal voice clearly heard in the Home Office".

Mr Baker made clear his differences with his Conservative Secretary of State over drugs legislation and the so-called "snoopers' charter".

But the outspoken MP, who is regarded as on the left of his party, reserved his strongest criticism for the Home Office's past language on immigration.

Mr Baker said that, overall, he supported the new Immigration Bill, but expressed grave reservations over moves to require landlords to check potential tenants' immigration status before renting them property.

"We have got to make sure we don't end up having a huge burden on landlords, that we don't end up having indigenous British people who may not have a passport or driving licence finding it difficult to get rented accommodation.

"Most important, we want to make sure we don't end up driving people underground."

The scheme will be trialled in one area before being rolled out across the country. Mr Baker's comments suggest his party would seek to block national implementation if it believes landlords are being unreasonably forced to double as immigration officers.

He denounced the Home Office's decision to send vans carrying billboards urging illegal immigrants to "go home" to areas with large ethnic minority populations. The summer campaign caught the Lib Dems by surprise, and the episode is believed to have helped seal the fate of his sacked predecessor, Jeremy Browne.

Condemning the posters as "intimidating", he claimed there had been a "hard feel" to the way Home Office ministers have spoken about immigration to divert attention from problems with border controls.

But he said: "We are now correcting it, so we are getting the processes quicker. But in the past, rather than sorting out the processes, the substitute for sorting them out has been to ramp up the language."

Mr Baker, whose portfolio will include crime prevention and drugs policy, said he believed he had been promoted - and his appointment endorsed by David Cameron - because of his record as a transport minister.

He said a Home Office review of drugs policy was almost concluded and he would be "led by the evidence" in drawing up his recommendations.

But he echoed Mr Clegg who complained this week that the Conservatives were "not willing to look openly and imaginatively" at the issue.

Mr Baker said: "There will be a problem perhaps in reaching a common position. The work's being done. That will produce an evidence base, and even if we conclude collectively there will be no changes this parliament, that will nevertheless inform the next government and indeed the next [Lib Dem] manifesto."

He signalled his hostility towards the Data Communications Bill, being supported by Mrs May, which would give sweeping powers to the police and the security services to monitor everyone's internet use.

He said he would "take account" of his Lib Dem colleagues' objections to the scheme. He added: "I naturally want to make sure we don't end up tipping the balance away from the individual towards the state unless absolutely necessary."

Mr Baker said he believed his new department sometimes lagged behind changes in society - and should learn from the reforming Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins.

He said Jenkins had shown he could act in the public interest while also "reforming and moving society forward in a way which was consensual and liberating".

He said coverage in the "right-wing press" of his views on Dr Kelly's death had been "somewhat hysterical". He said: "If people want to raise the book from years ago, then I suppose they can raise that, but I didn't see anything from my successful time at transport or any other aspects to balance things.

"I'm concentrating on what's happening in the next 18 months."