EU migrants: why Cameron was driven to take action

Romanian 'surge' may be a phantom problem but electorate and MPs demanded a solution

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:08 ON Wed 18 Dec 2013

DAVID CAMERON'S decision to rush through new restrictions to stop new migrants from Bulgaria and Romania exploiting ‘benefit tourism’ were denounced on Radio 4's Today programme by the economist Jonathan Portes as "phantom measures to deal with a phantom problem".

The reaction from two BBC journalists neatly encapsulates the national argument: presenter Evan Davis, himself an economist, appeared to agree with Portes, but political editor Nick Robinson quickly explained the political reality – that the British electorate perceives a problem and Cameron needs to be seen to do something about it.

The measures, which have to pass through Parliament before MPs break for Christmas tomorrow night, will stop Bulgarians and Romanians, entitled to come to Britain to work from 1 January, immediately claiming benefits by forcing them to wait for three months before obtaining welfare handouts.

The measures have been attacked by Labour as too little too late, and have been criticised by Tory MPs as not strong enough to stop immigration rising.

David Ruffley, Tory MP for Bury St Edmunds, said: "It's not enough to choke off any abuse of benefits because many want to come here to work.

"The minimum wage in Romania is £1 and, for perfectly rational economic reasons, they want to come here to work for £6 an hour. We were told 13,000 Poles were coming under the Labour government and it turned out to be 500,000, putting pressure on public services."

Portes, who heads the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said: "I am rather sceptical – it seems a re-announcement of policies that were already in place or should have been in place. EU nationals normally should not be able to claim benefits within the first three months.

"A number of people have described these as phantom measures to combat a phantom problem – that seems to me to be about right.”

Nick Robinson explained that the Prime Minister wanted to send a message to the electorate and his own MPs that he was doing something about the risk of a new surge in immigration. 

“What Jonathan Portes has helped us do is define the difference between an economist and a politician," said Robinson. "A fine economist he might be, but I suggest he would not have a chance of getting elected in a single constituency in the country. It is a widespread view that there is exploitation of the benefits system by migrants.

“That is reflected in Parliamentary opinion where dozens of MPs want to change the law even now to stop Bulgarians and Romanians from coming here and working from 1 January.”

Cameron is fighting on two fronts: he needs to persuade anti-immigration Conservatives to stick with the Tories and not vote Ukip in the May 2014 European elections but he also has one eye on the longer term and his promise of a referendum on continued EU membership if the Conservatives win the 2015 general election. 

Cameron personally remains convinced that Britain's future belongs in Europe. As Robinson pointed out this morning, a new poll in The Sun shows people would vote to leave the EU if the immigration rules stayed as they are, but would vote to stay in the EU if the rules were changed.

Why Cameron has left the introduction of these new measures until now is a moot point. Ben Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, writes this morning:  "Nervous Tory backbenchers will be pleased. But the question still has to be asked: why has action on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration so late in the day? The Government has known about the lifting of restriction controls since it took office."

Jonathan Portes isn't the only economist who argues that Britain needs more immigrants – but he does have form as one of the more ardent advocates.

David Goodhart, author of a book on immigration, The British Dream, described Portes (after Portes criticised his book) as being “well known in the New Labour era as the Whitehall economist most in favour of as much immigration as possible.”   · 

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I thin the "British" royals need to kook long and hard at themselves now.