As temporary controls on immigration end, all UK parties – including the SNP – are struggling to address the issue, finds Tom Peterkin
NOT since Count Dracula moved from a central Romanian region called Transylvania to terrorise London have the inhabitants of a certain corner of Eastern Europe had such a bad press.
“I must tell you that eight out of ten pickpockets are from Romania,” thundered a Conservative MP last week, displaying a line in dramatic rhetoric that would have done Bram Stoker proud.
The statistic produced by Philip Holloborne, the member for Kettering and a former special constable with the British Transport Police, was just one in an avalanche of other allegedly damning facts and figures.
Holloborne stopped short of accusing Romanian immigrants of sucking the blood out of Britain, but it was impossible to escape that he held a dim view of many of those who have made the journey from Eastern Europe to live in the UK.
According to Holloborne, Romanians are seven times more likely to be arrested in London than a British national. Romanians account for more than 11 per cent of all foreign offenders, “despite making up ... just a tiny proportion of residents”, he claimed.
Not only that, but last year Romanians accounted for almost half of all arrests for begging, he continued.
These remarks – and others like them –have not gone down well in Palace Green, Kensington, in the plush surroundings of the Romanian embassy where Ambassador Ion Jinga is said to be dismayed at what he regards as an inaccurate portrayal of his countrymen as ne’er do wells.
But Holloborne’s comments do reflect a strand of thinking being expressed by those on the right of the Tory party, who are looking ahead to the lifting of immigration controls in a few days time on 1 January.
Talk of crime waves, floodgates opening, benefits being plundered and scarce jobs being snatched from home-grown workers have been in the air for months in an anticipation of Bulgarians and Romanians being granted full access to the UK labour market.
New Year’s Day will see the relaxation of temporary curbs, which were imposed on people from the two so-called A2 countries, which joined the EU in 2007, in an attempt to protect British workers from falling wages and increased competition for a limited number of jobs.
Under EU law there can be no extension of these restrictions, which until a few days time insist that most Romanians and Bulgarians seeking employment required a work permit (apart from the self-employed and workers travelling to the UK to pick fruit under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme).
With the Conservative party being challenged by the uncompromising stance taken on immigration by Nigel Farage’s Ukip, Tory ministers have felt the need to act.
But in doing so they have upset the delicate balance required to maintain their fragile coalition partners, the Lib Dems, who instinctively recoil at the thought of a lurch to the right.
So it was that under pressure from right wingers, who believe “something must be done”, a leaked document floated plans by Home Secretary Theresa May suggesting that immigration from the EU should be capped at 75,000 a year. Such a measure would cut net migration from EU countries by 30,000 from the current 106,000 a year.
It was a proposal that infuriated the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose spokesman described the plans as “one-eyed”. “Illegal” and “undeliverable” were other adjectives used by the Lib Dem leader to describe the document.
“If we pull up the drawbridge now and say to German lawyers or Finnish engineers or Dutch accountants that they can’t come to work here it would be a disaster for our economy,” said Clegg. “The City of London would grind to a halt overnight,” he added.
Most observers agree that Clegg has a point. There is also the small matter that imposing a limit on immigration would be an attack on the principle of freedom of movement across Europe and, therefore, would pose fundamental questions about the UK’s relationship with the EU.
So, the reality is that May’s leaked proposals are a non-starter.
Faced with fears that an influx of European migrants would milk the benefits system, the Prime Minister is looking at another way of taking action.
It was on Wednesday that Cameron said he would rush through legislation banning migrants from other EU countries from claiming unemployment and housing benefits until they have been in Britain for three months.
The move was part of a package of measures to restrict “benefit tourism” announced last month, but has been accelerated amid concerns about Romanians and Bulgarians coming to Britain.
Again, it was a move betraying nervousness at the heart of Downing Street at the potential reaction of Tory voters – not to mention backbenchers – if there is a perception that the government is not doing all it can to prevent Romanians and Bulgarians coming here en masse.
Similar sentiments were behind Cameron’s most recent pronouncement on the issue on Friday when he said he would veto any countries from joining the EU unless tighter restrictions are imposed on them.
At a summit of European leaders in Brussels, the prime minister warned that any new accession treaty would require unanimous support from the EU countries as Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Albania wait to begin negotiations to join.
But while the issue of immigration has been a particularly hot topic in the south of England since the 2004 EU enlargement, it has been regarded as less of an issue in Scotland.
In fact, north of the Border, the historic challenge has been to attract talented foreigners to Scotland, in recognition of the fact that immigration is one of the biggest drivers of economic growth. So much so that a key policy of Jack McConnell’s Labour-led Holyrood administration at the turn of the century was to reverse that brain drain by introducing his Fresh Talent Initiative.
With the referendum on the horizon, immigration policy in an independent Scotland is very much on the agenda. Polish-born people now represent the most numerous non-UK born group in Scotland (55,231), followed by Indians (23,489) and the Irish (22,952).
Moreover, the most recent figures show that nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of non-UK born persons resident in Scotland in 2011 have arrived in the country since 2001.
When compared with elsewhere in Great Britain, Scotland had a smaller non-UK born share within its population (seven per cent) in 2011 compared with England and Wales (13 per cent).
Significantly, the non-UK born population increased at a higher rate in Scotland (by 93 per cent) than in England and Wales (by 62 per cent) between 2001 and 2011.
With that in mind, certain sections of the right-wing press have been critical of SNP plans to pursue a different immigration policy in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. Last week headlines warned of thousands more immigrants pouring into the country following a Yes vote when the external affairs minister Humza Yousaf spoke of plans to encourage population growth by attracting more people to Scotland.
At the same time, Conservative MSPs warned that differing approaches to the issue within Britain would mean that border controls would have to be set up between Scotland and England.
In this instance, the Conservative argument on border posts appears logical, but Alex Salmond’s independence white paper rejects such a scenario.
According to the 650-page blueprint for independence, Scotland would remain in the current Common Travel Area with the rest of the UK and Ireland, thereby negating the need for border checks on the Scottish-English border.
The white paper suggests a points-based system to provide incentives that will make working in the remote areas of Scotland more attractive – an approach the SNP argues is at odds with the “aggressive approach” to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees adopted by Westminster.
With differing challenges facing different parts of the UK, no-one knows precisely how the New Year lifting of restrictions will play out. Will the flood predicted by some, actually turn out to be a trickle?
As the debate has raged, estimates of the Romanian and Bulgarian influx have differed wildly. At the top end of the scale was a prediction by the American think-tank The Democracy Institute, which suggested that 385,000 people will migrate from Romania and Bulgaria to the UK over the next five years.
The pressure group Migration Watch, which has deep concerns about the scale of immigration into the UK, suggested 50,000 people per year. A more conservative estimate was provided by a UK government report which, in 2010, forecast that 8,000 Romanians will come to Britain in 2014.
One academic institution to have looked at immigration in great detail is the Migration Observatory based at Oxford University. It says there is no easy or accurate way to tell how many people will come to the UK as a result of the changes – but there are, however, some pointers.
One point to note is that the expansion of the EU in 2004 saw only three EU nations – the UK, the Irish Republic and Sweden – open up their labour markets to the A8 countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland) without labour market restrictions.
That made the UK a sought-after destination. On 1 January the entire EU has to ease restrictions, so the UK may not be as high on the list of desired destinations.
Also, this time round, the number of potential immigrants is not nearly as high. The combined population of the A8 countries is around 70 million compared with the 29 million people in the A2 countries.
What is known for sure, is that even with the transitional controls in place, there have already been large numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK. In 2007 there were about 34,000 people born in the two countries working in the UK compared with 135,000 now.
For those worried about benefit tourism, there are some reassuring statistics.
About 77 per cent of men and women from the A2 countries participate in the labour market. That compares favourably with UK-born people, who have a rate of 76 per cent for men and 71 per cent for women.
The first arrivals in the new year will only intensify the political heat – at least until the full scale of new immigration emerges.
What is clear, however, is that the issue contains political traps for both the Scottish and UK governments. Don’t be surprised if they treat it warily in the coming months.