A couple walk past shops catering for eastern Europeans in Boston, in Lincolnshire. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Romanian and Bulgarian stats show up immigration scaremongering

The lifting of restrictions has had no significant impact on the number working in the UK.

Hold the front page! Britain NOT "swamped" by Romanian and Bulgarian workers, after all. You're unlikely to read about it in many newspapers tomorrow but new figures published today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show what we were told would happen, didn't.

Yes, as expected, the number of Romanian and Bulgarian-born workers in the UK has increased since the beginning of 2013, from 112,000 in the first three months of that year, to 140,000 in the first quarter of 2014. But this represents a fall from the period October-December 2013, when the number of A2-born workers stood at 144,000.

Transitional controls on the working rights of Romanians and Bulgarians were removed on 1 January 2014, giving them full access to the British labour market. Last year, many predicted that this would encourage "floods" of new migrants from these countries to come to the UK, with the most scaremongering literature implying that millions might take advantage of their new rights. Others focused on fears of "benefit tourism", suggesting that large numbers would migrate in order to take advantage of Britain's more generous welfare system.

In response to these concerns, the government rushed through a series of restrictions on the access of European migrants to welfare benefits at the end of 2013. These were purportedly designed to crack down on abuse of the welfare system, although no doubt also reflected fears within government about the increasing unlikelihood that their net migration target will be met before the 2015 general election.

Today's statistics reveal the dangers involved in predictions of this kind. There are more Romanians and Bulgarian workers in the UK than there were a year ago, but early indications suggest that the lifting of restrictions on their ability to work has had no significant impact on the size of these flows. As IPPR and others have argued, many of those who wished to come and work are likely to be here already. The real -and welcome - effect of the end of these controls may simply be that it will be easier for them to find regular employment. Indeed, the rate of A2 migrants in employment has also risen since last year, from 71.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2013 to 76.2 per cent for the same period in 2014.

Meanwhile, the government's restrictions on welfare benefits seem to have had little effect on the desire of European migrants to work and contribute to the UK's economy. The number of UK workers born in the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004 has increased substantially over the past year, from 687,000 in January-March 2013 to 802,000 in the first quarter of 2014. This may reflect higher levels of chain migration from these states, as communities have become more established. Yet with an employment rate of 81.5 per cent (which is much higher than the British-born average), these workers can hardly be characterised as a group of welfare scroungers that have come to live off the state.

Migration to and from the UK will always ebb and flow in response to changing economic and social conditions. It is vital that the government has a good understanding of these flows and the impacts that they can have on local areas. As today's data show, this is where attention should be focused, rather than on making predictions that only serve to scare the public and lower the quality of the UK's migration debate.

Alex Glennie is Senior Research Fellow at IPPR

Alex Glennie is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.