David Cameron once promised that his government would be "the most open and transparent in the world" but Eric Pickles was remarkably evasive when asked how many Romanians and Bulgarians he expects to migrate to the UK when the EU transitional controls end next year. Appearing on The Sunday Politics last month, the Communities Secretary told Andrew Neil:
I’ve been given a figure, I’m not confident on the figure, and until I’m confident on the figure I’m not going to quote a figure.
In the interests of transparency, I submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for Communities and Local Government asking to see the figure that Pickles was so reluctant to give.
A month later, the department has replied (see below), confirming that it "holds" the requested information (the expected number of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants) but adding that it requires "further time" (another 20 working days) to decide "if the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the public interest disclosing it."
Fascinatingly, one of the exemptions cited by the department is that the release of the figure would "be likely to prejudice the maintenance of the convention of the collective responsibility of Ministers of the crown."
It's easy to see why the government is reluctant to release its estimates. 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).
Asked by MPs yesterday how many Romanian and Bulgarian migrants were expected to arrive in 2014, immigration minister Mark Harper said: "Speculative projections about future inflows cannot be made with any degree of accuracy and are therefore not particularly helpful".
Nonetheless, I am promised another response from Pickles's department by 12 March. We will soon find out how "transparent" Cameron's government really is.