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By Philippe Legrain 4 COMMENTS

So this is what the British government calls "managed migration"? Its newly announced policy for Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants looks more like a mess.

As of
January next year, when Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union, their
citizens are supposed to have the right to travel and work freely throughout the EU. But unfortunately, the Home Secretary, John Reid, has
decided against such a simple, principled and beneficial open-door
policy. Instead, he has opted for a bureaucratic dog’s breakfast.

The long and short of it is as follows. All Bulgarians and Romanians will be free to travel to Britain without a visa – but only a minority will be able to obtain legal employment. Highly qualified workers and those with specific skills deemed to be in short supply will be allowed to work, as will students (albeit only part-time). So too will the self-employed: builders and plumbers, for instance. But low-skilled workers will only be allowed to seek employment in food processing or farming – and then only until a quota of 19,750 places has been filled. A new Migration Advisory Council will try to second-guess companies’ employment needs – sorry, advise the government on whether more low-skilled workers are needed, and
whether they could benefit other sectors. And who will administer this fiendishly
complicated new scheme? The Home Office’s Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which Reid famously branded "unfit for purpose".

It does not take a genius to see that the scheme is "unworkable, undesirable and unnecessary", as former Europe minister Keith Vaz put it. Far from stopping Bulgarians and Romanians from working in Britain, Reid’s ridiculous policy will instead encourage them to do so illegally, or by masquerading as self-employed workers. After all, if a Romanian cleaner can’t be employed in a hotel legally, what is to stop her setting up as a sole trader and contracting her cleaning services to several hotels – or more likely, just working on the black market, opening herself up to exploitation and undermining the rule of law? Fines on both employers and employees are Reid’s answer – but these would require an expensive and highly intrusive army of inspectors to enforce. Even if such a force existed, it could still not prevent workers using forged papers.

The government has been roundly ridiculed because its prediction that Britain would attract only 13,000 East European immigrants a year has proved hopelessly
incorrect. How, then, can anyone believe that the
government has any clue how many low-skilled workers the
British economy will need next year? So how, with spurious quasi-scientific precision, has it set a quota for unskilled Bulgarians and Romanians of 19,750?

With or without such a cap, fears of a flood of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants are likely to prove mistaken. They are more likely to go work in Spain or Italy,
where they currently congregate.

And even if many do come to Britain after all, so what? The economy has hardly been brought to its knees by Britain’s open-door policy for Polish plumbers and Lithuanian labourers. Far from it: the new East European workers are doing jobs that British people can’t or won’t do, allowing the economy to continue growing faster for longer without sparking inflation and with unemployment remaining low.

Contrary to the scare stories, this open door has proved to be a revolving door. Over 600,000 East Europeans may have come work in Britain since May 2004, but most have already gone home again: ONS figures show that in 2004 only 48,000 stayed longer than 12 months, with net migration reaching 74,000 in 2005. That is a paltry 0.12% of the British population.

Reid surely knows all this, but still he chooses to pander to anti-immigrant prejudice. Yet he cannot possibly think his half-baked
scheme will actually work. Rather, he is sowing the
seeds for yet more headlines about Home Office incompetence.

Perhaps he hopes to be safely ensconced in yet
another department – or even Number 10 – by the time the flaws in his new scheme become apparent. He has only himself to blame if instead he finds himself hounded from office by the Tories and the Daily Mail over yet another immigration fiasco.

Posted 24 Oct 2006 in Blog
  1. Anonymous says:

    About enforcement – the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is tasked with enforcing the recruiting/employment rules as they apply to labour providers and all labour providers who supply agriculture, horticulture, shell fish picking and associated processing & packaging industries must be licensed.
    As you know the GLA was set up after the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004 where so many Chinese Cockle pickers were drowned.
    However, the big brains at the GLA completely overlooked the fact that the UK possessed a forestry industry so this area of the agricultural ndustry has not been factored in to their plans. In order to sort out this mess they have put their enforcement unit on indefinite hold.
    A vulnerable section of the working community will continue to be exploited by greedy and unscrupulous gangmasters and employers for the foreseeable future as sod all is going to be done to enforce anything.

  2. reuben says:

    I’ve come over from Matthew Turner’s and was wondering if you could clarify something that I’m unsure of from reading your post. What is meant by “stay more than 12 months”? Is that 12 months uninterrupted presence in the UK, or something less strict? Eg, if a Pole has been resident and working in London since early 2005, but goes back to Poland every six months for a two-week visit to her family, would she not be counted in the net migration surplus (because she’s never been in the UK for 12 consecutive months)? Or would she? (I’ve also asked this at Matthew’s blog.)

  3. Philippe Legrain says:

    According to the ONS, “An international migrant is defined as a person who changes his/her country of usual residence for a period of at least a year.” I believe that someone is defined as resident in Britain if they spend more than 6 months a year here. So in your example, a Pole who goes back to Poland for two weeks every six months would be classified as usually resident in Britain.

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