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Working towards a competent immigration system

October 16, 2013 4:26 PM
By Julien Huppert MP in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

ImmigrationAs a liberal, I believe that we benefit from immigration. Overall, this country is a richer place, economically and culturally, because we have people from around the world coming here to work, study and play. I want to see an immigration system that works, is fair and allows us to benefit from the best and brightest as well as offering sanctuary and asylum for those fleeing the most desperate situations imaginable abroad.

However, that case is not made often enough. We hear constant rhetoric from the Tories and the right wing press about how we must clamp down on foreigners, and Labour are often no better - why is it that just about the only thing Labour have apologised for is their liberal immigration policy?

Of course, there are problems. There are people who come here illegally, exploiting loopholes in the system. There are people who are exploited by landlords, crammed into accommodation unsuitable for their numbers. People sometimes have to wait years for the Home Office to determine if they can have asylum in this country, and people are left destitute by that process. People come here to access our excellent free health service, and leave without paying the costs.

There is much we can do to improve our immigration system, and it should not be about anti-foreigner rhetoric. But having heard all that awful rhetoric coming out over the summer, I was terrified about what to expect from the Immigration Bill. Theresa May and David Cameron threatened all sorts of things, in an effort to sound tough on foreigners, from turning school teachers into immigration officers to punitive bonds. And we know where the more extreme Tories wanted to be - just look at the 'Alternative Queen's Speech'. Returning asylum seekers to the 'nearest safe country', restricting access foreign nationals have to public services such as schools, criminalising illegal immigrants regardless of the reasons they've come here, and more.

But the bill, now that it has come out, is not anything like as bad as I had feared. The worst of the Tory excesses have been stripped out of it - although it's still nothing like the Immigration Bill I would write if given a free hand. I would focus far more on sorting out the visa service - UKBA as was - so it was fit for purpose.

There is still a way to go before we have a Bill we're happy with. For starters, the idea that landlords should check immigration papers is absurd. The Tories wanted to introduce this system across the country. We said no. The scheme is likely to lead to landlords discriminating against those who look 'foreign' and increase the numbers left homeless and destitute. Their option would of course be to burrow further underground and into the hands of rogue and exploitative landlords. There is a problem - there are vulnerable people crammed into inappropriate accommodation. But this is not the solution.

They wanted this to start everywhere - we're allowing them to try it, in one place and one place only. That will make it easier to scrap afterwards, but should also make sure they don't come up with it again and again - they may realise they need worked through policies rather than gimmicks in future. A new vote has to happen before it rolls out further - and we won't let that pass.

As for the £200 service charge to access the NHS, I actually don't think it's all that bad. People from outside the EEA are currently supposed to pay, and are supposed to be asked for their immigration status. Mostly, though, they are not asked and don't pay. This is not a good situation, where the rules are applied randomly to some people and not others.

This way, once someone has paid, they get an NHS number, and then will never have to answer questions in hospital about their status, and they won't have to pay. Frankly, £200 for free medical care for a year is great value - if you went to the US it would cost far more.

There are other things I want to see dealt with in this Bill - ways of liberalising our current systems, and I will seek to achieve them, from fixing the problems of people unable to inherit citizenship, to improving our asylum system.

We have often been painted by Labour and the Tories as being weak on immigration. I want us to show that we are competent on immigration. We should argue for systems that work, that let the right people in, quickly and easily, and rejecting people who shouldn't come here fairly and reasonably. We should make the case for the benefits the UK gets from immigration, but be honest where it does cause us problems. We should be liberal and proud of it.

* Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and our guest speaker at the European Dinner after Regional Conference

John Wheaver - Kettering and Wellingborough Comments

It is all about capturing the lynch-mob vote. Few of those campaigning loudly on immigration know or care whether it is a problem - they do believe there are votes in it from people too ready to believe the dishonest propaganda fed to them. Again - fed to them by people who only care about selling their news-media.