Speaker’s Corner: cllr Nick Sandford - What kind of city do we want to be?

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There are two major international issues facing the UK at the moment. One is the referendum on our membership of the EU. The other is the refugee crisis. And on both of them we have a Prime Minister who is putting appeasement of the right wingers in his own party above the interests of our country and it’s relationships and reputation in the world.

There has also been a failure of leadership here in Peterborough, as our city council’s Conservative leadership has so far refused to commit to taking in any refugees at all, not even the small numbers over five years in the very limited scheme which the British Government has agreed to.

Liberal Democrats believe that the problem is so immense, the situation so urgent …..that we as a country and as a city should be going much much further.

We say we should be working closely with our EU partners to participate in the already agreed international scheme ….the one which David Cameron has so publicly opted us out of. No-one is saying we should open our borders entirely as they did initially in Germany. What we do advocate is a fair and equitable sharing of the burden between EU countries and across the wider world.

We need to be helping people in refugee camps in Jordan and other countries ….yes. But we also must not turn our backs on the millions of people who are already wandering through Europe. With the onset of the freezing cold of winter, this crisis could be on the point of turning into a catastrophe.

Fundamentally, it’s about what kind of country we are and indeed what kind of city we want to be.

David Cameron said the thousands of people in camps at Calais were a swarm of economic migrants. Well one of the first things the new Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, did on getting elected was to go to Calais and talk to the people in camps outside that city.

And do you know what he found? Not a single person there said they wanted to come to Britain because we have a good social security system. What they did tell him was some pretty horrific stories about how they had been persecuted in their home country and that they wanted to come to Britain because we have a reputation built over hundreds of years for being a safe haven for refugees and those seeking asylum.

I think to some extent our Government hoped they could bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem would go away. It was only after the graphic pictures were published in the press of children’s bodies being washed up on beaches …that our PM chose to act in the most limited of ways.

It’s important that Government recognises the extra burdens on local authorities who do take significant numbers of refugees and compensates them appropriately in both the short and longer term. But those cities like ours with thriving economies and undergoing rapid expansion should be at the front of the queue and not at the back ….. leading just like we did in the 1970s in taking in Asians who had been expelled from Uganda.

Let’s be clear: refugees are not economic migrants. They are often highly intelligent, resourceful and enterprising people. They probably have to be to survive some of the perils of the journeys they have undertaken. In whatever country they settle, they are likely to be a massive asset to that nation’s economy and society……and not a drain on its resources.

Tories like to talk about patriotism. How they love their country above all else. Well I love this country. I love Britain for the tolerant, diverse and decent society that we have. I love Britain and I love Peterborough because we have always been compassionate and welcoming to those who come to our shores in dire need of help and because we are a city where, in the main, people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures live side by side in relative harmony.

But I am not proud ….in fact I am ashamed …of the totally inadequate response of our Prime Minister and our council to this global crisis. We can and we must do better. Doing nothing should certainly not be an option.