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By Philippe Legrain 2 COMMENTS

When John Reid became Home Secretary, he promised to get a grip on
Britain’s shambolic immigration system. But less than six months later,
he is already making an even bigger mess of it.

Until now, at least Britain had a simple, principled and
beneficial stance towards migrants from the new EU member states: they
could come and work freely, but not claim welfare benefits. It was a
policy in keeping with our country’s liberal traditions and our
longstanding support for East Europeans in their struggle to break free
from communism and then to join the EU. It was a policy that boosted
Britain’s economy without causing social dislocation.

would have made eminent sense, then, to extend this successful
open-door policy to Bulgaria and Romania once they join the EU in
January. But unfortunately, the Home Secretary has decided otherwise.
He has opted instead for a policy that will satisfy nobody: a
bureaucratic dog’s breakfast that panders to anti-immigrant prejudice
but is all growl and no bite.

From next year all Bulgarians and Romanians will be allowed to
travel to Britain without a visa, but only some will be free to work
legally. Doctors and other highly skilled workers will be entitled to
work, as will those with specific skills that are proclaimed to be in
short supply and students (but only part-time). So too will the self-
employed, such as builders and plumbers. However, low-skilled workers
will be permitted to seek jobs only in farming or food processing. Even
then, there will be a quota of 19,750 places.

A panel of wise men, the new Migration Advisory Council, will
try to divine the future employment needs of the entire British economy
— I mean, advise the Government on whether more low-skilled workers are
required, and whether other sectors might benefit from the sweat of
Romanians and Bulgarians. And who does Mr Reid think should manage this
devilishly complex new scheme? Of course, the Home Office’s Immigration
and Nationality Directorate, the body described as “unfit for purpose”
by one J. Reid.

This harebrained scheme is unworkable, undesirable and
unnecessary. It will not prevent Bulgarians and Romanians working in
Britain; it will encourage them to do so illegally, or by becoming
self-employed. After all, if a Bulgarian kitchen porter can’t be
employed in a hotel legally, what is to stop him setting up as a sole
trader and contracting his services to several hotels — or more likely,
just working on the black market, opening himself up to exploitation?

Mr Reid’s answer is on-the-spot fines of up to £1,000 for
immigrants working illegally, and unlimited ones (anything from £5,000
upwards) for employers. It sounds tough, but enforcing them would
require an expensive, highly intrusive and so far non- existent army of
inspectors. Only 24 employers have been prosecuted for hiring illegal
workers since 2001. And even if the Government did recruit a beefed-up
body of inspectors, what could they do if a Bulgarian caught red-handed
working on the black did not have £1,000 to pay the fine? Very little:
once Bulgaria and Romania are EU members, the Home Office cannot simply
deport their citizens.

The onus, then, would have to be on employers to enforce the
rules. But how? What is to stop immigrants using forged papers? As the
US experience shows, businesses do not have the manpower or skills to
police immigration law effectively, but requiring them to do so poses a
huge financial and administrative burden.

The Government assured the public that Britain would attract a
mere 13,000 immigrants a year from the new East European members of the
EU that joined in 2004. Well, the official prediction proved wide of
the mark. So how, then, are we supposed to believe that the Government
has any idea how many low-skilled workers the economy will need next
year? And by what scientific formula did it come to the quota figure of

With or without such an arbitrary limit, a surge of Bulgarian
and Romanian migrants is unlikely. Most of those who want to work
abroad have already emigrated, mostly to Spain and Italy. And since
birds of a feather tend to stick together, most new migrants are likely
to head to those two countries too.

But even if many do end up coming to Britain, what’s wrong
with that? Opening the door to Polish plumbers and Lithuanian labourers
has hardly devastated the country. Quite the reverse: the East
Europeans are doing jobs that British people can’t or won’t do. Their
labour has enabled the economy to continue growing faster for longer
without sparking inflation or lengthening the dole queues.

Contrary to the alarmism, this open door has proved to be a
revolving one. About 600,000 East Europeans may have come to work in
Britain since May 2004, but most have already gone home again: ONS
figures show that in the year to June 2005 net migration — the extra
number of East Europeans staying longer than 12 months — was only
74,000. In short, they boosted Britain’s population by a mere 0.12 per

Mr Reid is an intelligent man. He must be aware of all this.
But still he opts to play to the anti-immigration gallery. Such are the
depths to which new Labour has plummeted. The one certainty is that the
result of his absurd scheme will be another salvo of media stories of
Home Office incompetence.

Posted 26 Oct 2006 in Published articles
  1. Biopolitical says:

    I agree with you that anti-immigrant policies are silly.
    I understand that working on the black market is inconvenient in terms of contract enforcement, and that this harms workers, employers and consumers. But why is it “exploitative”?

  2. Philippe Legrain says:

    Thanks for your comment. Working on the black market is not necessarily exploitative, but it does leave immigrants open to exploitation, because they have no legal rights and some unscrupulous employers will take advantage of this.

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