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Home » Home Affairs, Policy

A visible liberal influence on Home Affairs

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 11:36

By Tom Brake MP, Co-Chair of the Lib Dem Backbench Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities Committee

For a Coalition to operate smoothly, compromise is necessary. It is painful but carefully thought-out policies may need to be altered so that a wider common agenda can be pursued. The media can perhaps be forgiven for deeming compromise between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives impossible and the Coalition unworkable – the parties are indeed distinctly different creatures with their own principles, values and outlooks. Yet there has been a remarkable, and perhaps surprising, degree of cohesion between the two parties.

Kenneth Clarke recently announced a radical reform of prison sentencing which will tackle very high levels of recidivism and also reduce the rocketing prison population. This marks a remarkable reversal from previous governments’ orthodoxy where being ‘tough on crime’ was taken to be synonymous with locking more and more people behind bars, rather than stopping them re-offending. In 1993 Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, heralded a significant hardening of the Tory government’s approach to crime and punishment under the auspices of ‘prison works’. Since then, the Conservative Party has been unflinching in its support for custodial sentences. Labour’s legacy is a £4 billion prison-building programme, the largest in Europe, and a prison population of an astounding 85,000 – double what it was in the early 1990s. Before the election, the Conservatives were committed to matching Labour’s increase in the prison estate, a pledge repeated in their election manifesto. This recent departure from traditional Conservative policy rightly shifts the focus away from more prisons and towards more effective rehabilitation.

As well as prison reform, there is a common sense of purpose between the coalition partners with regards to civil liberties. In the last two decades, successive Governments have stripped away our valuable freedoms. Even the most basic principles of British justice, such as the right to trial by jury, have been whittled away. Britain has fought long and hard for the rights and freedoms its people now enjoy and it is a tragedy that we have let these rights be compromised. The Liberal Democrats sought to remedy this by proposing the Freedom Bill, many components of which are now becoming a reality thanks to the Coalition.

The Freedom Bill seeks to address this egregious erosion of our liberties with a wide range of measures: scrapping ID cards; rolling back the surveillance state; reducing the detention without charge period from 28 to 14 days; and stopping the storage of innocent people’s DNA.

Of course compromise and cohesion should never come at the expense of originality and innovation. The Coalition puts the Lib Dems at risk of losing our identity for the sake of practicality. The Conservative Party won far more seats at the election and the Conservatives have had far more recent experience in government, so there is a risk that the Lib Dems will fall into the position of junior partner. The Liberal Democrats have always been the party for pushing the boundaries of received knowledge and developing unique and distinctive policy. Despite the remarkable degree of consensus achieved so far, there are a number of areas where it is essential for the Lib Dems to maintain our unique stance – one such area is immigration – and push the Coalition to move closer to Lib Dem principles.

It is not a secret that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have vastly disparate approaches to immigration. The Tories have often portrayed immigration as a threat to Britain and see their ‘tough on immigration’ stance as a key component of Conservative Party identity. The Liberal Democrats, however, see most immigration as beneficial to the UK economy and society.

Britain has always been an open, welcoming country with a rich diversity of peoples and thousands of businesses, schools and hospitals rely on that. The Liberal Democrats were therefore strongly opposed to a cap on immigration in the run up to the election, believing that such a measure would hinder the economy by depriving both the private and public sectors of a valuable source of skills. The issue of immigration caps will of course cause tension between the two parties but there is a will to find a way through these differences.

If these early months of the Coalition have proven anything, it is that compromise between two distinctly different parties is indeed possible. Whilst there were understandable reservations, it should be noted that an impressive level of agreement has been achieved on a number of key areas of policy.

However, cohesion in the Coalition does not entail the Lib Dems being subsumed under the Tory mantle. To characterise the coalition as a Conservative Government with a few Lib Dems tacked on for good measure would be to completely miss the unique influence the Lib Dems are exercising over policy. In particular, the area of Home Affairs is one in which remarkable changes are occurring – all stamped with a distinct Lib Dem watermark.