Britain will be able to absorb Romanian and Bulgarian workers after January 1st, if the government adopts some small contingency measures to deal with any pressures that may arise in particular local areas, according to a new report by the think tank IPPR.

Instead of announcing last minute, symbolic gestures such as tightening up benefit restrictions or increasing the ‘border presence’, which will have little effect on legitimate flows of people who will overwhelmingly be coming to work or study, the government should have done more preparation work so that local authorities in areas that do experience pressure on primary school places and housing can be helped quickly if they do experience sudden inflows.

The report says there is no way to be sure how many Romanian and Bulgarian workers may come to the UK after restrictions are lifted but that the recent history of EU migration is a useful guide. It says the situation now is different than in 2004, when citizens from eight countries were granted free movement rights and full access to the UK’s labour market at the same time:

  • Average incomes in Romania and Bulgaria are far below the EU average and there are high levels of youth unemployment in both countries, although they are considerably lower than rates seen in Poland in 2004.
  • The financial crisis has increased the ‘stickiness’ in the UK labour market and there has been less circularity than expected over the past ten years (more eastern Europeans have come – and stayed – than anticipated) but this has also reduced employment opportunities in certain sectors in the UK, which has driven many recent EU migrants to move on to other countries.
  • The fact that other EU countries are lifting restrictions at the same time (including Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands) – and that a number of other states have already done so – also means that the UK will not be the first choice of destination for all who want to migrate. By comparison, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden gave the A8 states immediate and unrestricted access to their labour markets in 2004, which meant that these countries saw larger inflows.
  • Many Romanians and Bulgarians who wish to come to the UK may already be here, since citizens of both countries have been able to live and work here since 2007.

The report shows that migrants from Romania and Bulgaria already in the UK are generally young, skilled workers and are concentrated in London and the South East. The majority of migrants from Romania are of working age: 82 per cent are aged between 20 and 65 and 69 per cent are aged between 20 and 39.

The report criticises the government for abolishing the Migration Impacts Fund (MIF) that helped local authorities deal with unexpected pressure on housing, schools and hospitals created by migration. The fund was paid for by a £50 levy on visa fees, so did not represent a cost to the taxpayer, but was scrapped in 2010. Funding could be sought by councils, police and the NHS and voluntary bodies that demonstrated that they were managing pressures on public services to the benefit of the settled community. These included the provision of English as a Second Language (ESOL) services, local authority enforcement activities in relation to private rented sector landlords, campaigns to increase GP registration amongst migrants to avoid unnecessary use of emergency services, and the provision of support teachers.

IPPR recommends a new fund be established and a Cabinet sub-committee be assigned to support local authorities that suffer particular pressures.

Alex Glennie, IPPR Senior Research Fellow, said: “It is entirely legitimate for politicians to be concerned about the pace and scale of European migration flows, not least because this is an issue about which there is so much public anxiety. But the political response has been more symbolic than substantive.

“Failure to properly prepare for the rapid inflow of citizens from the previous group of eight states in 2004 and the effects that this had on communities was short-sighted, and led to a number of avoidable problems. It also polarised the broader migration debate in the UK.

“Since then, the UK has had ten years of experience managing the impact of migration from these countries. The past decade has shown that the UK’s economy and society are flexible enough to adapt to and benefit from European migration flows, as long as the pressure points they create are quickly identified and addressed. There is little to suggest that these lessons have been learned and applied in the run up to January 1st, but even now it is not too late to take some practical steps to alleviate any issues that might arise.”