Predictions of a mass influx of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania have failed to come true, according to the first proper statistical release on the subject.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says the number of migrant workers from those countries fell after transitional controls on their right to work in the UK lapsed on 1 January this year.
Critics of Ukip say the news is at odds with the party’s “scaremongering” over Bulgaria and Romania, but leader Nigel Farage says today’s figures vindicate his warnings over uncontrolled migration from the EU as a whole.
We think both sides can claim a partial victory – but the bigger point about immigration is that we still have very little data about what’s really going on.
In a conference speech last year Mr Farage warned that the influx from the EU’s newest two members (the “A2 countries” could be “many times” the estimate of 50,000 people a year put forward by Migration Watch.
But today’s figures show that there were slightly fewer Bulgarians and Romanians working in the UK in the first quarter of this year compared to the previous quarter.
The latest figure is that 140,000 people aged over 16 and in Romania or Bulgaria were working in the UK in January-March 2014, down from 144,000 in October-December 2013.
That has come as a big surprise to most commentators. Previous examples of rules for foreign workers being relaxed have tended to trigger an influx of new arrivals.
Oxford University’s Migration Observatory also point out that in five out of the last six years, there has been a surge in the number of A2 migrant workers in the first quarter.
In fact, if today’s numbers had gone up by 20,000 or so, we could have explained that away as the usual seasonal trend. Instead, the numbers went down.
Because these things are seasonal, the Migration Observatory prefers to look at year-on-year trends. If we do that here, we find a rise in Bulgarian and Romanian workers of around 28,000 compared to the first quarter of last year.
That suggests the previous restrictions weren’t really putting people off from coming here, which means the change in the rules didn’t prove to be as big a draw as we might have expected.
The Oxford academics note that the transitional controls created a massive incentive for A2 migrants to register as self-employed, rather than sign up to work in the fields or in food factories – the main low-skilled employment open to them.
About 60 per cent of Bulgarians and Romanians were self-employed in the first quarter of 2013, compared to 14 per cent of British-born workers and 15 per cent of people from the A8 countries (Czechs, Estonians, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Slovakians and Slovenians).
Self-employment had already opened up more of the labour market and given workers access to the benefits system.
“It isn’t directly Romania and Bulgaria I’m necessarily concerned about. What I’m really concerned about is the fact in the eurozone, in the Mediterranean there is no sign or prospect of any significant recovery at all.”
Nigel Farage, 28 February 2014
Mr Farage, along with a lot of other people, appears to have got this slightly wrong.
We don’t know exactly how many people from the struggling Eurozone economies of Spain, Portugal and Greece have come to the UK in search of work, because the figures don’t go into that much detail.
But migrant workers from the broader tranche of 14 EU countries those Mediterranean nations fall into have gone down, not up, in the last quarter. There’s no evidence of a recent invasion of young jobseekers from southern Europe.
Mr Farage’s basic point about EU migration in general being on the up is right, on these figures. But the recent influx is coming from an unexpected quarter: not Bulgaria and Romania or Spain but the central European countries to which many of us thought migrants were returning.
The population of non-British-born workers went up by 97,000 in the last quarter. And the lion’s share – some 74,000 of those people – were from A8 countries like Poland and Lithuania.
Again, that’s completely the opposite of what many pundits thought was going to happen.
The unanswered questions
How many Romanians and Bulgarians are here in total? We don’t know. The stats discussed so far are all from the Labour Force Survey and so cover people of working age.
We can figure out the working-age A2 population from today’s release, because the ONS tells us what percentage of working-age people it thinks have a job.
So in the latest quarter, the boffins think 140,000 people were in employment, and that was 76.2 per cent of the population old enough to work.
That suggests the total working-age population from Bulgaria and Romania was about 184,000 in the first quarter of 2014, down from just under 200,000 in the previous quarter. In Q1 2013 the population estimate was about 158,000.
Have large numbers of dependent children and elderly relatives arrived with these workers? We don’t know, and we won’t know until August 2015, when the Annual Population Survey for 2014 comes out, covering people of all ages.
In August this year we get the ONS’s provisional estimates of long-term international migration, which ought to tell us more about the flow of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants in and out of the UK.
But these figures will only takes us up to March 2014, and are based on information from a tiny sample of travellers who volunteer to answer the International Passenger Survey.
The survey is the main tool used to come up with official government estimates of migration flow, but it is a system with a notoriously wide margin of error.
How many migrants are claiming benefits? We don’t know. The Department of Work and Pensions are due to release some data based on National Insurance numbers next week, but we’ve FactChecked these numbers before and found they raise as many questions as they answer.