POLITICS
13/07/2013 11:01 BST | Updated 13/07/2013 12:33 BST

Politicians Don't Understand Harm Caused By Damaging Immigration Rhetoric, Says Lib Dem Sarah Teather

The ugly rhetoric used by politicians about immigrants is fuelling people's attitudes to their neighbours, a former coalition minister has said, condemning coalition collegues who do not understand "the power of language".

Sarah Teather, who lost her post as children and families minister in last September's reshuffle, said her decision to speak out was motivated by concern that all three main parties had "seen the same opinion polls", and were chasing the anti-immigrant vote with no regard for the consequences.

"It's got to a stage where you almost can't say anything else and that bothers me that there is a consensus among the three party leaders. It's stifling the rest of the debate, making people afraid to speak," she told the Guardian.

sarah teather

Sarah Teather has spoken out about colleagues use of language over immigration

"I'm angry there are no alternative voices on immigration," she said. "There is a suddenly this new consensus that has stifled the debate on immigration, and I find it truly terrifying."

Teather complained that David Cameron initially ordered the creation of a 'Hostile Environment Working Group' in government with a brief to discourage migrants from coming to Britain.

"We tried to FoI [Freedom of Information] it out, and they would not let us. I was trying to get it out because, to be honest, I was so appalled," she said.

However, after Liberal Democrat objections the group was renamed the Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants' Access to Benefits and Public Services.

The Brent Central MP said the introduction of a "bond" system for some immigrants had the effect of linking them to criminals in the public mind.

"I wonder whether colleagues have any understanding about language and the implications of language," she said.

"Language is one of the powerful things you have as a politician, and we need to consider that. People's attitudes to their neighbours is formed partly by the things we say on television, and the way in which they are reported. Silence in the face of language that others are using is not enough."

Teather said Tories had argued in coalition that no Briton earning less than £40,000 should be able to apply for a visa to bring a non-European spouse into the country.

However, Lib Dem ministers successfully got the threshold reduced to £18,600.

As well as plans to criminalise landlords who let property to illegal immigrants, the government has announced plans to charge immigrants to use the NHS and give UK citizens priority for social housing, and are even considering asking schools to check whether pupils are illegal migrants, according to leaked emails revealed by the Guardian.

"We're going to end up in a situation where if you look a bit foreign or sound a bit foreign, you'll struggle to rent a property from a reputable landlord," Teather said.

"You're going to end up with an awful lot of people with an absolute right to live here finding that they can't get anywhere to live. What's going to happen to those people? How is that sensible?"

It is not the first time the coalition have been criticised for insensitive language when it comes to immigration.

Earlier this month, the Home Office came under fire for sending an ill-judged tweet featuring several illegal immigrants being bundled into the back of a van.

The tweet read: "There will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new #ImmigrationBill".

Awale Olad, public and parliamentary affairs officer for Migrant Rights told The Huffington Post UK: "How can migrants possibly believe that they will be treated fairly and equally under the law when these kinds of threatening positions are adopted by the government?"

The Home Office's twitter replies were flooded with comments from those calling the tweet hostile and inflammatory.

In March, Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, told the Guardian Britain treats Bulgarian and Romanian citizens like a scourge and said it was time to blow the whistle on such shameful rhetoric.