The claim
“I have been given a figure. I’m not confident of that figure.”

Eric Pickles, secretary for communities and local government, 13 January 2013

The background

This December, Bulgarians and Romanians will be given unrestricted rights to live and work in the UK.

The government hasn’t yet said how many of the two countries’ 29 million citizens it expects toactually do so, but others have predicted a large wave of immigrants.

Labour has warned that any influx could put pressure on jobs and wages. Now, a number of politicians have begun raising concerns that amid a housing shortage, it will all be too much for Britain’s infrastructure to cope with.

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Asked about the matter on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, Eric Pickles said that he had been shown a figure for how many were expected to come in, but that he wasn’t confident of it.

Pressed about it, he then declined to divulge any further details, simply repeating that he wasn’t confident and that he had asked for fresh information.

That only raised further questions for FactCheck, so we set out to find out.

The analysis

It’s understandable that the government doesn’t want to fan any flames when it comes to immigration.

It’s an issue that’s caused problems before. In 2004, the then Labour government made estimates based on this report that only about 13,000 people a year would come to the country when the EU enlarged to include countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

But the report turned out to be wildly out. At the peak of Polish migration to the UK in 2007, there were 96,000 citizens migrating here; that had declined to 39,000 in 2009.

So this time, given the amount of planning the government would need to do, we had a number of questions: when could we know the revised figure? How was it arrived at? What did Mr Pickles not trust about the original figures? Who was preparing them? What kind of contingency plans were being prepared, and how, given that they didn’t know how many people they were supposed to be preparing for?

But the more questions we asked, the more we were batted about between the home office, the department for communities and local government and then the cabinet office.

Which was strange, given that Mr Pickles had specifically said in the interview that he wasn’t given the figures by the home office. He said: “I’ve had no discussions with the home office with regard to the numbers.”

We gave them a call with our questions anyway, and indeed, a spokeswoman was unable to shed any light on the matter, simply replying with a pre-prepared statement saying that they were working “closely with other government departments to look at the pull factors that may encourage … those from Bulgaria and Romania.”

We tried the cabinet office, and they confirmed that they hadn’t provided Mr Pickles with the figure, and so certainly couldn’t say when we might expect a revised figure, or say what was wrong with it in the first place.

Which left us with Mr Pickles’ own department. FactCheck put it to them that we weren’t asking to know what the figure was, but simply where it came from.

“I don’t know,” came the reply.

So it wasn’t anything the department for communities and local government had been working on?

“No,” FactCheck was told.

Now this was getting really confusing – the communities minister had referred to a figure of how many Bulgarians and Romanians were expected to arrive in the UK, yet neither his department, nor two others, knew anything about it.

We even went back to all the departments again with our questions, and in the end, one Whitehall source blurted out: “This is all speculation about nebulous numbers that don’t even exist yet. It might take weeks or even months before we get any answers.”

The verdict

FactCheck understands that this magic number is more elusive than it might appear.

One source told us that Mr Pickles’ admission of having seen the figure came as “a surprise. It’s part of a background briefing that he’s seen, and it’s at a very early stage. As far as I’m aware, there is no definitive number as yet.”

We put this scenario before the department for communities and local government. Were they prepared to tell us where Mr Pickles had seen the figure?

“We can’t tell you that,” a spokeswoman said. “We’re not working on it. But I can tell you, it does exist.”

By Emma Thelwell