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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