Exclusive: government blocks release of estimate for Romanian and Bulgarian immigration

In response to a New Statesman freedom of information request, the government says that the release of the figures could threaten "collective responsibility".

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 Politiclast 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. 

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has consistently refused to give an estimate for Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to the UK after 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.