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We were wrong to go along with Tories on immigration – Ed Davey

Ed Davey says party will campaign to reverse income threshold – ‘one of the worst coalition decisions’

Edward Davey

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The Liberal Democrats were wrong to agree harsh immigration measures such as minimum income thresholds for families, one of the party’s former cabinet ministers has admitted, as the party sets out reforms to “detoxify” the debate.

Ed Davey, the party’s home affairs spokesman who was energy secretary during part of the 2010-2015 coalition, said imposing a minimum income level for British citizens to bring spouses or family from non-EU countries had been devastating for many people and had split up families.

Davey said it had been one of the “trade-offs” of coalition which the party would now campaign to reverse.

“It was one of the worst coalition decisions, one of the toughest for me personally and for many Liberal Democrats,” he told the Guardian. “We didn’t want to give in on some issues, like green energy, the pupil premium, income tax thresholds, and they didn’t want to give in on immigration.

“There were things we did have to go along with which I thought were wrong. This was an uncomfortable compromise, absolutely, and it’s one of the reasons why I would love to get rid of this as quickly as possible – it is nasty and unfair.”

The £18,600 threshold for British citizens to bring non-European Economic Area spouses to live with them in the UK was introduced by Theresa May when she was home secretary in 2012. It was estimated in 2015 that the threshold excluded 41% of the British working population from bringing in a non-EU spouse.

Davey said the cabinet committee that made the final decision had been split, with one Conservative cabinet minister voting against the proposal.

“I remember that moment so clearly; I could not believe what some Tories were saying about immigration,” he said. “They were absolutely determined and they knew we were on the wrong side of public opinion.”

Davey, whose party is set to propose stripping the Home Office of its responsibility for immigration policy, said the Windrush scandal and the wider debate about the future of immigration post-Brexit had shifted the debate.

“Windrush has changed things,” he said. “People are starting to say: these are our fellow citizens. Brexit has raised those questions too. It’s not us and them, it’s people. There’s an opportunity for politicians who believe [in the benefits of immigration] to have a hearing.”

Ahead of its conference in Brighton this September, Davey said the party would propose a plan “a million miles away from a hostile environment, a million miles away from targets”.

The policy paper on immigration is likely to draw criticism, however, because it does not address any form of post-Brexit immigration system or whether EU migrants should be given preferential treatment, because the party’s policy is to stop the UK from leaving the EU.

The paper proposes taking away immigration policy from the Home Office’s remit, and instead dividing the brief between departments.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy would make policy on work permits, the Department for Education would oversee student visa policy, and the Department for International Development would make asylum policy.

Assessment for visa and asylum applications would then be done by a separate agency, responsible to the Home Office, the paper proposes.

“At the moment, the home secretary is under pressure the whole time from the tabloid media and certain parts of politics to stop immigration at all costs,” Davey said.

“It permeates the whole administration of visas, of asylum applications. It creates perverse incentives, bad morale and a massive deskilling of people doing the work. The politics has changed the organisation dramatically.”

The party would abolish the net migration target of 100,000, set under the coalition, which Davey said he had always opposed, as well as closing eight out of 10 detention centres, replacing them with detention in the community while cases are assessed.

The MP, who won back his Kingston and Surbiton seat in June last year having lost to the Tories in 2015, admitted he had initially had concerns about a policy paper that did not address the future of immigration post-Brexit. Work had been started before he regained his seat, he said.

“It’s a fair point to make,” he said. “I thought, why are we doing this now? But Brexit or no Brexit, the immigration system is broken.”

Davey hints he is in favour of the preferential movement of EU citizens, should he have to really countenance the possibility that Brexit will happen. “The nearer you are to the status quo, the better,” he said.

Senior Lib Dems have expressed concern in recent months that the party needs to broaden its reach beyond Brexit. The autumn conference is set to include radical overhauls of party structures, including giving non-MPs the chance to stand in leadership elections.

The leader, Vince Cable, is due to make a major speech on 7 September, though he has denied rumours he is preparing to announce he will stand down.

Davey said he was “really in favour of reform” of the party. “I think the party, unfortunately, while it has improved, is still too slow-moving, not engaging with members and supporters. We need to reach out to the public too, in a much broader way.”

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Liberal Democrats

EXCLUSIVE: Surbiton councillor speaks out after resignation from Liberal Democrat group

James Giles

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A Surbiton councillor has criticised a ‘lack of core liberal values’ as she announces her resignation from the Liberal Democrat group.

Sharron Sumner, who represents the Alexandra ward, covering parts of the Berrylands and Tolworth, said she is leaving the group with a ‘heavy heart’, but feels strongly she ‘needs to have a free voice for Alexandra residents’.

Following her resignation from the Liberal Democrat group, Councillor Sumner intends to remain on the council and will represent her constituents as an independent Liberal Democrat.

I sat down with Councillor Sumner, who explains her reasons for taking this decision today.

Questioning the Liberal Democrat leadership at the Guildhall, she criticised the manifesto for a ‘lack of imagination’, adding “there were no real different pledges in the Liberal Democrat manifesto compared to the Tories. In my view it was a particularly weak manifesto, it lacked imagination, it lacked core Liberal Democrat values.”

Expressing dissatisfaction in regard to openness within the Liberal Democrats at Guildhall, Councillor Sumner revealed a ‘top-down’ approach within the group. She said “I had to fight really hard, prior to the short campaign, to actually allow the candidates who were not existing councillors to even see the manifesto. Originally, the leadership team weren’t going to let candidates who were not existing councillors have an input or even see it.

“I had to go up against the leadership stating that those candidates who could soon be councillors had to have the opportunity to look at it, and either ratify it or make suggestions – that was a real battle prior to the election.”

Another Liberal Democrat member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also described a ‘top-down’ culture within the group.

Councillor Sumner questions this approach, praising a raft of newly elected Liberal Democrat councillors including her ward colleague, Sam Foulder-Hughes, and Norbiton Councillor, Olly Wehring. She added “We’re very lucky in the Liberal Democrats to have such a breath of new experience within the group, and just point to people like my ward colleague Sam Foulder-Hughes, he’s young, dynamic, got some really good ideas, and it’d be great if they were given more opportunity to take leadership on some things. Olly Wehring has worked so hard on leading with the new school in Norbiton, it’d be great if they had more of a free reign on local issues. A lot of these new talented people aren’t being given the opportunity at the moment to really push themselves and make the difference that they wanted to make by being a councillor.”

Councillor Sumner has a passion for issues such as air quality, saying she was “really disappointed that my requests to the leadership to have some really substantive policies added to the manifesto were largely ignored. I urged the leadership to add issues like differential parking charges, where the most polluting vehicles pay slightly more for their parking, and no idling zones outside schools. Both policies have had a positive effect in other areas of London – token policies, such as planting 2000 trees, which whilst may add to the visual appeal of the borough, do  little to tackle air pollution.”

On local issues, such as the Tolworth Area Plan, and 20mph on residential roads in Surbiton, Councillor Sumner is “pleased to have a free voice” to represent Alexandra residents.

Speaking on the Tolworth Area Plan, Councillor Sumner said: “I genuinely feel we should have a resident-led consultation on how the area can delivery the homes that are needed, whilst creating a sustainable community. The evidence I’ve seen so far is a ‘business as usual’ attitude, continuing the plans started under the Tory administration, and I’d like to see much more community engagement on this scheme as it greatly affects how our ward will develop in the future, and so far my calls have been largely ignored.”

On 20mph zones in Surbiton, which has gained popular support in two consultations previously, Councillor Sumner said she was “disappointed” that the Liberal Democrats wanted a third consultation. “I feel 20mph is an issue of such importance to air quality, and the safety of children and vulnerable residents. Major cities like Edinburgh have just rolled out a 20 MPH scheme across the city – I don’t know why we are dragging our heels on it, I’m very upset by this. I feel we should be rolling this out sooner rather than waiting at least a year before it’s looked at, and then 18  months before it can be brought in.”

Concluding our interview, Councillor Sumner wants to reassure Alexandra residents that she will continue to represent them on local issues, sitting as an Independent Liberal Democrat. She said “ Residents can contact me via e-mail, telephone, through my new website, and I want to reassure Alexandra residents that I am there to help them and do whatever I can to make their lives in Kingston as easy and comfortable and possible. If they have any kind of problem, I am more than happy to talk to them and help.”

The Liberal Democrat group at the Guildhall have, this afternoon, been contacted for comment.

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