Tim Farron has accused Theresa May of peddling “poisonous propaganda” about immigrants that leads directly to hate crimes, as he condemned the Prime Minister’s focus on limiting the number of people entering Britain from overseas.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent, the leader of the Liberal Democrats said Ms May was “playing the immigration card” at the general election by sticking to her target to reduce migration despite opposition even from several of her ministers.
Mr Farron has endorsed the Drop the Target campaign by The Independent and the Open Britain group against the Government’s goal to reduce net migration below 100,000 a year.
Although some ministers want the figure to be omitted from the Tory manifesto on the grounds that it will never be achieved, Ms May has restated her personal commitment to it.
Mr Farron said Ms May “remains a Home Secretary at heart more than a Prime Minister, she is utterly obsessed by the headline figure for immigration”. He was “disgusted” by her stance, which meant that Drop the Target was “needed more than ever”.
He revealed that the rights of the three million EU citizens in the UK would be at the heart of his party’s election campaign. The Lib Dems will accuse the Tories of becoming “the nasty party” – as Ms May branded them in 2002 – by treating the EU citizens as “unwanted aliens”. They will urge the Government to relieve the uncertainty and distress being caused by a “vast, pointless and unworkable bureaucracy”.
The move follows criticism that the Home Office cannot cope with a surge in demand for permanent residency rights by 100,000 anxious EU citizens. They must complete an 85-page form and some have been denied residency because they do not have comprehensive sickness insurance. The Government insists it has taken on an extra 240 staff to cut delays in handling applications, and is confident of winning a reciprocal rights deal also covering the one million Britons in EU countries.
But Mr Farron csaid: “Rather than bringing the country together after the referendum, the Prime Minister has deepened a divide that has split the country in two. Families are living in fear of being wrenched apart, as the Conservative Brexit Government uses them as bargaining chips in their tawdry game of poker.
“By emphasising how immigration must be reduced, she feeds the lie that immigrants are a drain on our country. The result of this poisonous propaganda is people being beaten within an inch of their lives in vile hate crimes.”
Mr Farron added: “Far from her vast opinion poll lead letting Theresa May do the right thing, it seems instead that we are seeing her true colours. She is doubling down on commitments to keep immigration in the ‘tens of thousands’, despite knowing the economic harm it will do given how little she invests in training British workers. And she is still refusing to take international students out of the immigration target figures, even though they are clearly not immigrants and provide a massive boost to the UK regional economy and indeed society.”
Describing Ms May’s “anti-immigration agenda” as “simply not true”. he insisted EU nationals were net contributors to the UK economy.
The Lib Dem leader warned the benefits of the single market would be lost without even achieving the cut in migration Ms May sought. Under pressure from businesses relying on EU workers, ministers have conceded that EU migration might go up or down.
“She wants to sacrifice our membership of the single market to control immigration, even though roughly half of immigrants come from outside the EU so she could do that anyway without leaving the single market,” he said. “But now cabinet ministers are telling her she can’t reduce immigration, because we need labour. So Theresa May could find herself in the ludicrous position of leaving the single market to reduce immigration but with immigration actually staying the same or even going up. All she would have achieved is massive social division, and reducing the size of the UK economy by £200bn over 15 years.”
Mr Farron insisted: “You simply can’t have a hard Brexit and a strong economy. And that is before you consider how migrants have made British society more exciting, dynamic and successful.”
He warned: “The NHS would simply collapse if we told all doctors, nurses and other valued staff from other EU countries that they were no longer welcome. Not only would that be a horrible slap in the face to those who have helped so many British people back to health, it would put the nation’s very health at risk.”
Mr Farron said the UK’s single most urgent domestic priority was probably to give the workforce the skills it needs to provide worthwhile opportunities. “Yet the Government is offering pathetic amounts to train British workers and then just blames the immigrant for filling a job that would otherwise probably go unfilled,” he said.
“To me this whole debate is about more than money. Britain has been successful in recent years in part by becoming a mecca for some of the most talented, industrious people on earth,” he said. “Not only have they boosted our economy, they have made Britain the most fascinating, liberal society on earth. I am proud that the Liberal Democrats are alone among parties in fighting Theresa May’s hard Brexit to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “People coming to the UK make an important contribution to the country, but migration needs to be controlled so the impact is managed. That’s why we will get control of our borders as we leave the EU.”
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