As anxious MPs consider bad-mouthing Britain to put off low-skilled Romanian and Bulgarian workers from moving to the UK, FactCheck examines the truth behind the scaremongering.

Keith Vaz, the chairman of the House of Commons home affairs committee, said it was “farcical” that the government was thinking about running adverts depicting life in the UK as one of rain-ridden misery. But is the government overreacting – or should we really expect a flood of migrants?

Why the sudden panic?

The problem is that no one seems to know quite how many Romanian and Bulgarian workers will come to the UK when the two newest EU member states are granted access to our labour market (see FactCheck: Eric Pickles and the mystery number).

Wild estimates are being flung around, ranging from 50,000 to 70,000 a year – with the home secretary, communities secretary and the prime minister himself all dodging the job of making an official forecast.

This is perhaps because, as the PM pointed out, the estimated arrival of around 14,000 Poles in 2004 turned out to be “ridiculously low”.

What happened with the ‘Polish influx’?

The Labour government vastly underestimated the high level of migration from Poland in 2004 and beyond.

According to Oxford University Research, the main problem was the lack of historical data for the migration of A8 countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovak Republic and Slovenia). Plus, there were “no significant migration movements” prompted by the previous EU accessions of Spain and Portugal.

In short, the UK was taken by surprise. Before 2004, the inflows of EU migrants between 1991 and 2003 were pretty flat, averaging close to 61,000 a year.

That figure however jumped to an average of 170,000 per annum between 2004 and 2010. Two-thirds of all A8 citizens since 2004 have been Polish citizens – with the peak of Polish migration hitting 96,000 migrants in a single year during 2007.

After a tenfold increase in the number of Poles migrating since 2004, there are more Polish nationals living in the UK than from any other nation. Some 687,000 Poles currently live in the UK, almost double the number of the next largest national group – the Republic of Ireland – which has 351,000 nationals living in the UK.

Romania is further down the list at number 13, with 93,000 citizens living in the UK at the last count in September, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Meanwhile, Bulgaria is way back at number 29 with 42,000 citizens living in Britain.

Why does it matter?

An official spokesman for the prime minister said today: “The issue here is around dealing with potential damage to the UK labour market and potential scope for curbing immigration to that end.”

Looking at the Labour market however, it is not clear that opening the doors to A8 workers has done much “damage”.  According to Dr Scott Blinder, senior researcher at Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, there is no clear evidence that immigration hits average earnings.

There are two studies that find modest effects, with one estimating that each 1 per cent increase in the share of migrants in the UK workforce leads to a 0.6 per cent drop in the wages of the 5 per cent lowest paid workers. That would mean a pay cut of around 3p an hour for someone earning just over the minimum wage.

Non-UK nationals in employment account for 9 per cent of the UK labour market, according to the ONS. The number of non-UK workers increased by 75,000 to 2.62m in the year to September 2012.

Yet, that’s an overall rate rise of just 0.3 per cent for foreign workers – against a rise of 1.1 per cent for UK nationals.

What’s more, the rate of employment for A8 workers actually dropped back by 2.7 per cent, to a total number of 658,000. By comparison, the employment rate for the EU 14 (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) climbed 3.2 per cent – up by 68,000 to 612,000 on the previous year.

The rate that we are employing migrants from Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa has dropped across the board, while meanwhile the employment rate for those from the US has jumped by 7 per cent.

But what about those claiming benefits?

A year ago, the government put together the first study of foreign workers claiming benefits. It hasn’t updated the statistics since, but it showed that just 8 per cent of foreign workers registering for benefits in February 2011 were from the A8 countries.

EU workers overall made up 25 per cent of benefits claimants but by far the largest chunk of claimants came from Asia and the Middle East, at 34 per cent, and Africa at 27 per cent.

The Department for Work and Pensions said the claims varied significantly. For example, Africans form nearly half of all non-UK nationals lone parents claimants, EU nationals form 31 per cent of non-UK jobseeker claimants and Asia and the Middle East form 56 per cent of all carer’s claimants.

The top 3 ‘claimants’ by nationalities are Pakistan, Somalia and India. Poland does appear at number seven; however it is the only A8 country to appear in the top 20.

Will there be a Bulgarian and Romanian ‘influx’?

The scaremongering is overdone. For a start newspaper headlines, followed up with claims from the likes of MEP Nick Griffin, that Britain is opening its doors to 29 million migrants are misleading.

The 29m figure comes from adding the population of Romania, 21.4m, to the 7.5m Bulgarians – coming in at just under 29m. There is no way the entire population of the two countries will migrate to Britain.

Plus, that’s less than half the total population of the A8 countries – which is around 70m – meaning there is far less supply.

And as for demand, the UK is not the only option on the table for Romanians and Bulgarians. In 2004, it was just the UK, Sweden and Ireland that let in A8 workers without restrictions. The new lift on the ban will see the whole of the EU open its labour markets to the two countries, so they may prefer to go elsewhere.

Certainly, as Dr Blinder points out, the majority of Romanian-born emigrants in Europe are concentrated in Spain and Italy.

By Emma Thelwell

Related posts: FactCheck – Eric Pickles and the Mystery number