(On his week in charge while David Cameron is on holiday.)
Dear Mr Clegg,
I was pleased to read today that you have come out against the “Go Home” van pilot scheme being run by the Home Office in various London boroughs to encourage illegal immigrants to leave the country. Apparently you were “surprised” by this development, while Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron has called for the posters to be shredded and Vince Cable has denounced the scheme as “stupid and offensive”.
It’s wonderful that the Liberal Democrats have found their voice, especially while parliament is on recess and David Cameron is out of the country on holiday. It must be difficult to be part of the government and yet so powerless that such a damaging yet pointless publicity campaign (because let’s face it, two vans driving aimlessly around six London boroughs is really just a mobile dog whistle to the UKIP and BNP constituencies, rather than a serious bid to tackle the issue) – can be rolled out without your knowledge. However, with David Cameron’s jack boot lifted from your neck, you and your party are rushing to make
some political mileage a principled stand over a misguided policy that echoes the worst “Go Home” campaigns of past decades towards all immigrants, illegal or otherwise.
It is not enough to condemn the policy, we must ask where it comes from. Brace yourself – if this van policy was a surprise, what I’m going to say next requires smelling salts. In an interview with the Guardian on 12 July, your colleague Sarah Teather MP spoke about a ministerial group set up at the explicit request of David Cameron that:
“exists for the purpose of requiring ministers across government to come up with new ways to make immigrants’ lives more difficult, by outsourcing the scrutiny of their legal status to professionals who must act as unpaid immigration officers.
The Lib Dems did manage to get it renamed, and it now goes by the title of the inter-ministerial group on migrants’ access to benefits and public services. But when first conceived, “on the explicit instructions of the prime minister”, it was called the hostile environment working group – its job being to make Britain a hostile environment to unwanted immigrants.”
According to journalist Decca Aitkenhead, Teather “shuddered” when she said this, as I’m sure you are now at reading this. How can this be? A working group *at the heart of government* expressly aimed at making immigrants’ lives in the UK as difficult as possible! Not openly, through the visa system, but clandestinely, by insidiously making their status a hindrance in every part of their everyday lives.
Then, as now, the Liberal Democrats sought to hide their blushes. In that case, by renaming the committee rather than challenging its very existence and purpose. And now, by crying foul in the media instead of challenging this sort of nonsense around the Cabinet table, where the broad brush strokes of policy intent are discussed.
How could such an odious campaign like #racistvan (to give it its twitter moniker) not emerge from a government that has set its sights on harassing the immigrant community? It’s not enough to say that the van is targeted at “illegal immigrants”. Despite the dubious claims from No 10 that “it’s working” , this type of inflammatory PR is offensive to all immigrants, people like me. Tax payers. Family members. Neighbours. Colleagues. Friends. We’re people with lives and stories, not a faceless horde bent on destroying the fabric of British society. Illegal immigration is a reality, abuse of the system happens, but not on the scale suggested by this government’s cynical scaremongering. Statistics are woefully lacking, but where they exist, they are misused, a useful fig leaf to cover the failures of successive governments to invest properly in housing, hospitals and schools.
Deputy Prime Minister, you should sit down. There’s more. Your government is planning to press ahead with the visa bond for tourists from certain “high risk” countries (wait…wasn’t that your idea?) and there are plans to make doctors and landlords responsible for checking the immigration status of their patients and tenants. I’m sure this won’t lead to private landlords refusing to rent to people whose names sound foreign in order to avoid an entanglement with the UK Border Agency. And while parliament is on recess, the PR machine rolls on. No matter how ineffectual these vans are, immigration will be the talk of the summer as No 10 keeps feeding the media beast. And while you and your colleagues do not have to face your coalition partners across the Cabinet table, the Liberal Democrats will continue to contrast themselves positively with the Tories – at least until everyone gets back to work.
Last weekend, I heard an anecdote from an acquaintance who said that there were Border Agency staff conducting spot checks at a tube station in West London. To be honest, it sounded preposterous. But today a Twitter user tweeted a picture of Border Agency staff doing the very same at Kensal Green station.
In 11 years of living happily here in a country I have come to love I have never witnessed such hostile rhetoric and actions. I don’t carry my identity card on me every day as it’s the only proof of my leave to remain in Britain and I like to keep it locked up safe at home with my passport. Is this what Britain has come to? As a black woman with an unusual name, I’m probably very likely to be asked to show my papers.
What if I don’t have them?
What if I refuse?
Mr Clegg, this is the out working of your government’s attitude towards migrants. And now that you know, what are you *really* going to do about it?