“There is no excuse for weak controls on illegal immigration,” said David Ward MP at a fringe at Liberal Democrat conference, adding this was an issue on which he said his party could tend to be a bit “wishy-washy liberal”.
Speaking at the British Future fringe in Brighton, he said he had “not heard of any complaints” about cracking down on abuses through bogus colleges.
He added: “The key thing is not being a racist, and also proving it”, Ward said, citing Bradford’s refusal to take £1.4 million of “Prevent” funding on extremism, while the project was only Muslim-centric, so that the funding renegotiated to make sure it could also tackle the far right as well as Islamist extremism. He said that he would “fight to the death” for proper help for those who had the right to be in the UK, he had no qualms about cooperating with the border authorities over those who did not, even if that led to complaints about “dobbing in”. “I may still get called a racist by some in the Muslim community, but others will then say, ‘don’t be daft, just look at his record”.
Ward also spoke about the “shameful” treatment of Roma communities across Europe, a point applauded by the LibDem audience, saying EU efforts to address this had achieved “bugger all”.
Simon Hughes MP, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, also said he disagreed strongly with LibDem colleagues in the European Parliament who were critical of the British opt-out from the EU Schengen area: “I think it is really important that the UK is not a member of the Schengen agreement. As we are an island, I think it is important that we have our own checks at our own borders, because I think people are not going to trust the checks at the other side”
The fringe meeting’s title Is It Possible to be Liberal and Popular on Immigration? challenged the party to set out how liberal principle could be combined with the political challenge of securing public consent. It was the first of three events which British Future, a non-partisan think-tank, is holding on the public politics of immigration across the conference season.
Pollster Peter Kellner warned that liberal principles would not easily chime with tougher public attitudes on immigration. “My short answer to the question would be no,” said Kellner, President of YouGov. “But, as George Galloway might put it, no does not necessarily mean no in this case.” Though there was broad public support for reducing migration, the level of priority which voters give to the issue was easily exaggerated by opponents of migration, he suggested. “Immigration is not as salient as some pressure groups seem to think,” he said.“It comes high up the list of issues facing the country. But it tumbles right down the list when you ask how much an issue matters to you and your family”, said Kellner.
British Future trustee and former CentreForum director Alasdair Murray warned the party against retreating from the challenge of securing public consent on migration in the face of hostile attitudes: “The temptation for us must be to think ‘let’s not talk about migration at all’ and apart from a few textbook spats over students, we haven’t done much talking about it. We seem to want to avoid it. But we shouldn’t – and by the next election we won’t be able to”, said Murray.
Watch our short videos from the session or other reports here.