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14 May 2014

Romanian and Bulgarian stats show up immigration scaremongering

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

By Alex Glennie

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.

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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

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