Former Lib Dem minister Sarah Teather has given a major interview to the Guardian newspaper, in which she bemoans the government's monolithic anti-immigration attitude. Speaking to Decca Aitkenhead, Teather attacks the policies which have sprung from the "inter-ministerial group on migrants' access to benefits and public services" – formerly known as the "hostile environment working group" – on which she used to sit.
One of the proposals the group made was to force landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants. Of that, Teather said:
It's quite an extraordinary change in the relationship between the citizen and the state, isn't it? To expect a private individual to police our immigration system – what's the difference between that and saying you're not allowed to buy a piece of fruit from Sainsbury's without proving you're not an illegal immigrant? Because as a private landlord you are a private individual who is effectively selling a product, and we're saying you're not allowed to sell to this person who can't prove their status.
…It's completely unworkable. I wonder whether or not the people who've designed this policy actually have any idea what Home Office regulations are.
Teather also attacked proposals to force GPs to make the same checks:
If you stop people going to the GP, they'll go to A&E instead, because A&E is not included in this. What have we spent the last 15 years doing? Trying to get primary care to take responsibility, to prevent people turning up at A&E… Do the maths. It's not going to save any money.
On the government's decision, introduced last year, to split up families where the British spouse earns less than £18,600, Teather says:
It's just a disaster… Lots of British citizens who never expected to be caught up in the immigration system are about to see their families split up. You may have tens of thousands in savings, you may have extremely rich grandparents, your spouse may be a high earner – a whole set of things that would clearly demonstrate that you meet the criteria whereby you'd be no burden on the taxpayer – and yet you're still not allowed to bring your spouse here, because we want to demonstrate that we are bringing numbers down.
Teather points to Tory ignorance as the source of some of the problems, citing beliefs that unemployed people wouldn't be hurt by the new seven-day wait to claim benefits because they would have redundancy payments as an example of how her coalition partners are out of touch. But she also argues that there's an element of maliciousness to the policies:
What alarms me is that the immigration proposals feel as if they're hewn from the same rock as welfare earlier in the year, where a lot of that again was about setting up political dividing lines, and trying to create and define an enemy. It's got to a stage where it's almost unacceptable to say anything else, and it bothers me that there is a consensus among the three party leaders that they are all making, well not quite the same speech – there are differences, significant differences – but there's a consensus. It's stifling the rest of the debate, making people afraid to speak. If you get to a stage where there is no alternative voice, eventually democracy's just going to break down.
Vince Cable, the business minister, has since spoken out in support of Teather, saying:
I salute Sarah Teather's comments. We need principled economically literate immigration policy.
But it must be remembered that the undercurrent of the interview with Aitkenhead is party political. The important question to ask over the coming weeks is whether this is a genuine attempt to soften government policy – or just an attempt to put some space between the Tories and Lib Dems in the minds of the public.