Comment: The immigration bill is ugly, divisive politics

By Sarah Teather

Last week, the government's much trailed immigration bill was introduced in parliament. It is fair to say that it represents the worst type of politics.

The policies it contains are designed to sound tough – playing up to common misconceptions of the impact of immigration – but will instead divide communities while failing to deal with any of the problems that are endemic in the immigration system.

Many people who I see come into my constituency office in Brent have been waiting for a decision from the Home Office on their application for a number of years. This is an experience that many MPs will be familiar with. Cases get lost in the overly-bureaucratic and inhumane system which time and time again is shown to produce exceptionally poor quality decisions, which is why so many initial decisions are overturned on appeal. But instead of sorting this mess out, the government is trying to prevent people from being able to make an appeal.

The bill will also see the government going through with the proposal to charge temporary migrants, including students, for access to the NHS. This is designed to tackle a problem that the Home Office have repeatedly been unable to prove exists. International students bring so much to our universities but this levy will put off many from coming to study here – just imagine how much it could end up costing a post-graduate student with a young family. It also completely ignores the contributions that migrants pay through the tax system and the evidence that shows migrants are less likely than their UK counterparts to receive NHS treatments.

The bill will also force landlords to carry-out the job of immigration officers and, rather than making the lives of rogue landlords harder, these plans will instead lead to more and more people being taken advantage of. Reports of landlords in London discriminating against black would-be tenants are truly shocking, and I am extremely concerned that this policy will simply make matters worse. Indeed the only result might well be that anyone who happens to look or sound a bit foreign will find it increasingly hard to find accommodation and will be forced into overcrowded and unsanitary housing.

I am exceedingly concerned about the impact these policies will have on individuals, on families, and on communities up and down the country, but I am equally concerned about the direction of travel the immigration debate is taking in this country. What is more worrying is that politically there doesn't even seem to be a debate.

With the general election now only a little only 18 months away, we have a consensus across the political spectrum that, while there may be disagreements about the finer details, there is a need to 'get tough' on immigration – a need that is a result of opinion polling, rather than being based on evidence. And one of the consequences of this consensus is that political leaders are in an arms race to the bottom of which party can look and sound hardest on immigration, ignoring the very real impact this debate, and the language used it in, has on the lives of individuals in our constituencies.

The UK is far richer, both economically and culturally, as a result of our diverse communities and cultures. I see this everyday in my constituency of Brent Central in north west London. But this bill puts all this at risk, making the UK more hostile to all migrants and creating tension and mistrust towards anyone who looks and sounds a bit foreign.

Sarah Teather is the Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, founder of the all-party group on Guantanamo Bay and chair of the all-party group on refugees.

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