The coalition needs to get its line straight on Romania and Bulgaria

Nick Clegg contradicts Iain Duncan Smith and says that the government has estimated the number of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants expected next year.

Has the government estimated the number of Romanians and Bulgarians expected to emigrate to the UK next year? At the moment, it depends who you ask. Following a freedom of information request by the NS, Eric Pickles's department told me last week that it "holds" the information but was deciding whether "the public interest in withholding [the figure]...outweighs the public interest in disclosing it". Following an identical FOI to the Home Office, I was similarly told that a figure could be released after an "internal review". 

But in an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, Iain Duncan Smith suggested that no  figure existed. Here's the transcript.

 

Eddie Mair:
… estimates of Romanians and Bulgarians who might come here. It’s one thing not to 
release them, but have they been compiled?
 
Iain Duncan Smith:
Not to my knowledge. 
 
Eddie Mair:
You haven’t seen any statistics?
 
Iain Duncan Smith:
No, no, no, I’ve asked whether or not there is any reasonable or rational figure that 
can be gained. And to be honest with you, the last government got it so badly wrong, 
it just shows you that estimating the numbers coming through is incredibly difficult.
 
To complete the confusion, Nick Clegg said this morning on his LBC phone-in show that he had "seen estimates but they are estimates". He added: "I don’t think we as a government should start bandying about estimates which at the moment are not very precise."
 
It's easy to see why the government is reluctant to release an estimate. If the figure is higher-than-expected, it will be attacked from the right for "losing control" of immigration (and will be powerless to act since EU law guarantees the free movement of people). If the figure is lower-than-expected, it runs the risk of suffering a similar fate to Labour, which mistakenly forecast that just 13,000 people a year would migrate from eastern Europe to the UK after 2004 (300,000 did). But to have any credibility, minister should really agree whether one exists. 
A protester waves a Romanian 1989 Revolution flag during a protest at Piata Universitatii square. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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