The present Tory and Lib Dem government is the first British coalition government since the 2nd World War, and some commentators think it will not be the last. The Lib Dems constantly remind us that coalitions are here to stay; at least they hope so. They are delighted because they see themselves becoming a permanent fixture of government. If this is true, and Labour is working hard to ensure it isn’t, then it behoves the Lib Dems to show that they can be relied on to provide good government.
In opposition, it falls to Labour to criticise the government’s policies and, of course, to propose their own. That’s the purpose of an Opposition in our unwritten constitution. And, equally important, in opposition Labour has been right to insist that the Coalition provides good government – i.e. the government’s policies should be thought through and tested against evidence. They should be clear, properly costed, joined up and so forth. In too many cases these qualities have been lacking.
The introduction of the Health and Social Care Act (2012), for example, was a complete and utter shambles and a good example of bad government. Labour will never forget that after all their posturing, wringing of hands, amendments for this and for that – the Lib Dems allowed the Tories to get their way and to hasten the process of dismantling the NHS.
Other examples of bad government are two-a–penny.
Here we examine the introduction of half-baked immigration policies. The Home Office has been in a permanent state of crisis since May 2010 and, as we will show, the Lib Dems must take their share of the blame for the coalition’s poor standard of government.
Billboards and Visa Bonds
The Tory and Lib Dem’s coalition agreement, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, (March 2010) specifically states:
– We will introduce an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work. We will consider jointly the mechanism for implementing the limit.
– We will introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system, for example via student routes, and will tackle human trafficking as a priority.
One example of these new measures involved the now notorious campaign to display billboard posters, some mounted on vans and lorries, in London. It was introduced in the summer to send a ‘tough’ message to immigrants who had entered Britain illegally or had over-stayed the limits of their visas. The message read:
In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text HOME to 78070 for free advice, and help with travel documents. We can help you return home voluntarily without fear of arrest or detention.
The campaign was scrapped on 30th October but not before it had been passed by the coalition government, defended by David Cameron, attacked by Nigel Farage of UKIP, angered first, second and third generation Black and Asian Britons and dismayed more or less the whole of the charitable sector that deals with the fallout from ill-judged immigration controls. At the campaign’s demise even its architect, Home Secretary Mrs Teresa May, described it as a ‘blunt instrument’.
Naturally, the Lib Dems yelled ‘Not me Guv’ with Vince Cable typically scrambling to distance himself from the illiberal policy. Commenting on the Government’s report of the impact of the campaign, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Julian Huppert said:
“Over 1,000 people complained about these vans and we always said they were distasteful and inappropriate.”
But why did the Liberal Democrats allow this discriminatory and repugnant campaign to be trialled in the first place? Didn’t they know that they could have stopped it in its tracks before it upset so many people? Why could they not see that it was directly contrary to everything for which they claim to stand?
This is a clear example of bad government but read on …. Worse is to follow.
Speaking in March 2013, and needing to think differently about the various ways in which illegal immigration was occurring, Nick Clegg proposed the introduction of ‘security bonds’, later known as ‘visa bonds’ and later still as ‘bail bonds’. The £1000 bonds would be paid before visitors to the country entered and if the visitors over stayed their visit they would lose the cash. Such bonds, he said, would have to be proportionate, non-discriminating and targeted with regard to high-risk countries.
The policy Mr Clegg was supporting in March had been criticised in the past as “half-baked” and “clearly discriminatory” by Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes but Mr Clegg urged critics to reconsider it, saying it could be a “useful, additional tool”.
Mr Clegg said, “If we get this right, there is no reason why this cannot make the system work more efficiently.”
Mr Clegg’s announcement was light on details and shrouded in ambiguity. What is high risk? What constitutes discrimination? How would the Border Agency manage it? Still he persisted with the plan.
As recently as September this year Mr Clegg remained in favour of the scheme in which the price of the bond had tripled to £3000. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, Mr Clegg confirmed that a pilot scheme would go ahead. He suggested the re-named bail bond would become a general tool for border officials rather than a blanket policy covering all visitors irrespective of how genuine they appear.
The impact of this policy announcement has reverberated in Black and Asian communities and may have caused lasting damage to the standing of both coalition partners. The Voice newspaper reported suggestions that Nigeria – one of the world’s fastest growing economies – was considering retaliating when it comes to British visitors.
Further splits in the Lib Dem party’s bond policy emerged and most notably Sarah Teather, Lib Dem MP for Brent, said that it was a major reason behind her decision not to represent the Lib Dems at the 2015 general election. She said:
“The idea of using immigration bonds is as poorly thought out now as it was when it was first raised in 2000. Not only is applying it only to visitors from certain countries clearly discriminatory, it is also completely unworkable.
“I am deeply concerned by the impact this policy could have on my constituents. If, for example, a couple in Brent want to invite their family to their wedding, they could be faced with having to pay a £3,000 deposit for 20 or 30 people, which is a huge amount of money by anyone’s standards.
“It is also highly unlikely that this policy will prevent those who want to flout the immigration rules, including human traffickers, from doing so as visas become purchasable. Instead, it will be legitimate visitors who can help boost our economy who will be punished and prevented from entering the country.”
On November 3rd the Home Office confirmed the Home Secretary was scrapping the policy.
Enter the spin doctors:
– The Prime Minister said that the policy was initially Nick Clegg’s. He said, “This was an idea that the Deputy Prime Minister first proposed but we are not proposing to go ahead with it.”
– Nick Clegg claims that he has stopped the policy in its tracks.
And this is the way it is being reported in the press in Britain and the Commonwealth. From Mr Clegg’s point of view this must seem like a good result. “Ultimately, Liberal Democrats in Government were clear that we would not agree to the Home Office’s version of the policy. As a result, they have dropped it.”
But if we step away from all this for a moment let’s see what has happened here:
1. Nick Clegg’s initial proposal was vague, unworkable and discriminatory. It gave succour to the far and centre right in the Tory party;
2. The Tories saw that the policy was in tune with their draconian views on immigration and could be ratcheted up in their campaign to attract UKIP voters;
3. The Lib Dems lost control of the policy once it got into the Home Secretary’s hands;
4. The policy upset Black and Asian Britons and some senior Lib Dems such as Sarah Teather;
5. The policy upset major Commonwealth countries including Nigeria and India;
6. The policy has been scrapped and both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have sought the credit for scrapping it – though both share the responsibility for starting it.
As a master class example of bad government this is hard to beat – but no doubt the Lib Dems will try!
Britain Can Do Better Than This