The government's focus on restricting benefits will do little to affect the scale of immigration.
On 1 January 2014, temporary restrictions on the working rights of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK will be lifted.
This has prompted much public anxiety about potential additional pressures that could be caused by new arrivals, stoked by media headlines forecasting large numbers of migrants.
In this climate it is not surprising that large proportions of the public would like to ‘defy’ Europe and extend transitional controls on A2 migrants, even though this is contrary to our European legal obligations.
The government shows no sign of going down this route. It has postponed discussions about the Immigration Bill and Romania and Bulgaria into January 2014 to avoid a vote on the issue.
But it has otherwise sent very mixed messages.
While sensibly refraining from estimating how many people may come and trying to downplay the most sensationalist predictions, it has also rushed through a series of measures to reduce migrant access to welfare benefits and ramped up anti-EU rhetoric in recent months.
Although very difficult to predict the numbers, it is unlikely that we will see the same levels of migration as we did after the A8 states joined the EU in 2004 – not least because other EU states (including Germany, France and the Netherlands) are opening their labour markets at the same time this time around.
It is also the case that Romanians and Bulgarians have already been able to live and work in the UK since 2007 and the statistics show that significant numbers have done so/. There are currently around 158,000 Romanian and Bulgarian migrants living in the UK.
However, we cannot be complacent and brush off legitimate public concerns. Lesson from A8 migration is that while UK economy is flexible enough to absorb large numbers of migrants, rapid and unexpected inflows do create specific pressures in some places – e.g. additional demand for housing, school places and health services.
Instances of antisocial behaviour and community tension can also be caused by the arrival of people who may be unaware of UK laws and customs. From January 2014, the government should make available a pot of money for use as a contingency fund to respond to any pressures created by migration flows from Romania and Bulgaria in the first six months of the year.
This could be set at the same level as the previous Migration Impacts Fund, although it would not necessarily have to be spent. It would simply be a contingency to alleviate any short-term pressures.
Government focus on restricting benefits responds to public concerns, and there is nothing wrong with this policy in principle, but it will do little to affect the scale of new flows – EU migrants as a rule are more likely to be paying taxes and less likely to be claiming benefits than Brits and other migrants, and the overwhelming majority come to work or look for work rather than to live off welfare.
The government should take a hard line against EU migrants who are not exercising their free movement rights to work or support themselves in the UK. However, it should also be alert to the fact that some migrants face exploitation or other structural barriers to working and contributing that need to be addressed.
Some small scale contingency measures to deal with any real pressures that might arise are much more sensible than last minute token gestures that will have little or no impact on flows and which only serve to ramp up public panic.
It is not too late for this – there are opportunities to create new structures and processes that will allow local areas to quickly flag up problems and request support from central government in managing them.
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