Sarah Teather attacks the Government's treatment of immigrants

In a major interview with the Guardian, the former minister for children and families speaks out over the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Government.

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.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.