MPs’ concerns about how many Bulgarian and Romanian migrants might come to this country when transitional controls are lifted aren’t going away any time soon, by the looks of things. There were six questions on the order paper from Conservative MPs about the matter at Home Office questions yesterday, for starters. But I’ve also spoken to a minister who is uneasy about the impact that the end of the controls will have on his own sector. Planning Minister Nick Boles told me:
‘Put it this way, we should have been more worried than we were about the pressure on housing and other public services from the last set of entrant countries and [Labour] went into that with, you know, deep complacency as a government… and ended up in a very, very difficult situation… the ripples from which are going to literally affect an entire generation, the fact that 1.7 million people moved into England alone in one decade and need housing, and you know, they are British now, they are certainly British residents and many of them will be British citizens now. I absolutely believe that they have as much of a right to a home as your or I.
‘But the fact is that places a lot of pressure on the system which was already not delivering and we have an ageing population… so I would be nervous about it… and I would strongly encourage all of the noises coming from Mark Harper and Theresa May about having very strict application of the rules so anybody who wants to come here from Bulgaria and Romania has to have an income, and shouldn’t be claiming benefits, needs to evidence that they have got a prospect of work or whatever it is, I think we have got to be because I think we owe it to people who, you know, work bloody hard and at the moment have a bloody tough time.’
Back in Home Office Questions, Mark Harper, while refusing to give any estimate (which is what Tory MPs want, but what the Home Office does not want to do at all, partly because of the lessons it learned from Labour on making predictions on new migrants), used robust language when answering his backbench colleagues. He told Andrew Bridgen:
‘We want to make sure that when people look at the access to our benefits and our public services, nobody thinks we are a soft touch in this country, and the government are taking action to ensure that people will not think that.’
He also told Philip Hollobone that he would consider whether EU nationals should apply for a residency card if they wanted to live in the UK for more than three months.
So Boles, backbenchers and Home Office ministers are all nervous about what might happen when the controls end on 31 December 2013. They wouldn’t stop being nervous even if the government did issue an official estimate, as Labour’s own estimates were so woefully wrong that it means any figure would be disputed over and over again in the next few months. But it will be interesting to see how they react to the proposals that Harper’s working group on how to reduce that pull factor comes up with: will they be enough to calm Tory nerves?