On Thursday afternoon, Parliament will get a chance to debate the issue of the lifting of the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migration to the UK. Sadly this debate will be in Westminster Hall (the so-called second chamber) and without a vote as the government have not allowed the Immigration Bill, and my amendment to it, to be considered before the Christmas recess. A total of 73 MPs have now signed my amendment that would keep the restrictions for a further five years. It would have been far better for the standing of Parliament for us to have had the chance to challenge the government's position and have a vote before the restrictions are lifted - but at least the debate today will allow us to test the government's position in some more detail.
The issue of further unrestricted EU migration has been a hot political topic in recent months, and is of great concern in constituencies up and down the country. This should come as no surprise given what happened the last time citizens of Eastern European countries had unfettered access to the UK - the previous government estimated that we would experience numbers between 5,000 and 13,000 per year, when in fact the number reached the hundreds of thousands.
The concerns on the lifting of restrictions are many. They include:
- the impact on our employment market, where despite recent marked improvements, many more people, and especially young people, are unemployed than before the recession;
- the cost of welfare payments to new arrivals - both out-of-work and in-work benefits;
- the lack of housing in this country;
- the increased demand on already over-stretched public services including schools and the NHS.
We are assured that there will not be a problem this time that the numbers will not be as great. If that was the case, then why have we kept the restrictions in place until the very last day we are permitted to do so in the Accession Treaty? Why have most Western European countries also kept the same restrictions to date? We can only presume from this, that these governments fear the numbers will be significant.
Sadly our government has declined to produce an estimate of the numbers - while the logic for the refusal is understandable given the previous government's disastrous error a decade ago, it's hardly reassuring. Migration Watch estimate between 30,000 and 70,000 people will come each year for the next five years - a total therefore of up 350,000. Can our employment market and public services cope with this?
There have been some positive announcements from the government in recent weeks including the accelerated introduction of restrictions on when new migrants can claim out-of-work benefits and for how long. These are sensible and much-needed measures to tackle the reputation that the UK is seen as more generous to new migrants than other countries - we give benefits based on entitlement not past contributions as in many other countries. Our free healthcare is also extremely attractive - a recent report estimated that the cost to the NHS of treating EU nationals was already up to £1.5billion.
While it is absolutely right that we act to ensure that our systems are not acting as a greater pull for economic migrants to the UK than to other countries, these measures do not tackle the issue of the impact on our employment market. In fact, the justification for keeping the transitional restrictions in place to date had to be that there was a serious disturbance in the labour market. Two years ago, the government assessed that this was indeed the case in the UK and so kept the restrictions in place for the final two years permitted. The very same criteria used to justify that decision would apply to the UK's situation now.
It seems very clear to me, that, if the Accession Treaties allowed the restrictions to remain in place beyond 1 January then we would be keeping them - and I suspect so would most of Western Europe. My view, is that given the major change in our national circumstances since we signed those Treaties in 2005, we should be given an opportunity to review our position. We suffered a calamitous recession that we are still struggling to recover from today. Unemployment and, especially youth unemployment, are still far higher than before the crash. The claimant count is still higher and the number of vacancies lower.
I don't believe that if, in 2005, we had known the extent of migration from the previous Accession countries and the scale of the recession that would hit us, we would have agreed to the restrictions being lifted now. We should be entitled as a sovereign Parliament to say that we made a mistake, we've changed our mind and these restrictions need to stay in place, at least until our economy has sufficiently recovered.
We've heard noises about proposals to tackle this issue, including restriction access to new Accession countries to Freedom of Movement until their national income per capita has reached a certain percentage of the EU average - incidentally both Romania and Bulgaria are still less than half of the UK's - or a cap on EU migration. These are interesting and welcome proposals but they would need the agreement of other EU nations. We know Germany are willing to look at reforms to Freedom of Movement so it may be possible to make progress. But that will not solve the problem that we fear will arise in the New Year.
The only way to deal with that is to keep the restrictions until our economy has recovered or until a longer term solution is found. And so, even at this very late stage, I urge the government to keep the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migration for a further five years - I can see no other solution.