Immigration has become the dog pit of British politics: a place only the political rottweilers are willing to go. It is time for a party to drag the debate back to rational ground, where it can be based on facts not prejudice, by fairness, not vitriol. That is what the Liberal Democrats have sought to do by adopting a policy yesterday that sets out a comprehensive liberal approach to making migration work for Britain.
We know that the response of many people to immigration is fear. It could, therefore, be considered odd that the Liberal Democrats, with our long tradition of tolerance, should decide to go on the attack on immigration. It makes sense, though, because it is exactly the government's mix of populist gimmicks and administrative incompetence that has created the fear we want to tackle.
The foreign prisoners scandal last year did a massive amount to damage public confidence in the immigration system. Visa processing for visitors is abysmal in some consulates, with up to 40 per cent of refusals unfounded in some posts. The administration at our border checks is so bad that queues at Stansted and Heathrow have become a national joke.
Liberal Democrats have never argued for a free-for-all immigration system. Immigration is a process that needs to be managed - it should not occur in a policy vacuum. The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether to manage immigration but how to do it. I believe immigration can only be successful - and seen by the public as an opportunity rather than a threat - if three conditions are met.
First and foremost, the system must work. We must have rigorous border controls with entry and exit checks. We can only adopt liberal policies within Britain, if we first know who is coming in and out. The government's alternative of identity cards and endless intrusive biometric checking is both less liberal and less workable. We must also prioritise resources to track down and stop the people traffickers that cause misery to countless vulnerable women, children and refugees every year.
Second, we must plan for the effects of immigration on public services, housing and the economy. In particular, we need to focus on areas where population changes have been the fastest. At the moment there is an unacceptable three-year time lag between population changes in local areas and …