After Eric Pickles showed that he doesn’t understand housebuilding statistics, it was hardly surprising that he was wary about quantifying the extra housing demand that might result from Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. He was challenged as strongly on this on the BBC’s Sunday Politics as he was about housebuilding performance, and his defence was that he couldn’t comment on the likely result of these countries’ citizens gaining ‘free movement’ in 2014 until he was more confident about the projections. Unfortunately, in trying to avoid another statistical trap set by the persistent Andrew Neil, he ended up looking even more like a beached whale. Let’s see if we can help him to refloat.
First of all, his best line of defence was that many people have already been able to come here from Bulgaria and Romania since they joined the EU in 2007. Admittedly, they have had to qualify under various categories, notably the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. Some categories of migrant already have housing rights. So the position of Bulgarians and Romanians in 2014 will not be directly comparable with that of Polish and other ‘A8’ nationals who were able to seek work in the UK for the first time (in many cases) in 2004.
Second, he could have said that many potential migrants have already gone to places like Germany, where admittedly there have also been strains on public services. He might have argued that Germany has been a much more popular destination than the UK, given that less than 100,000 Romanians and less than 50,000 Bulgarians have chosen to move to the UK so far.
The problem with helping Eric with any further arguments is that they open up uncomfortable issues that the government prefers not to face. While it was fair game to point out that Labour miscalculated (by a long way) how many Poles and other A8 nationals would come here after 2004, he’d need to admit that it is extremely difficult to guess how many people might use their freedom of movement in a year’s time, when perhaps most of those people haven’t even thought about it yet. While Labour’s 2004 estimate was badly wrong, no one at the time knew quite what the effects of EU enlargement might be. Furthermore, Labour did learn from its 2004 experience, putting tighter restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration after 2007 with the aim of taking some of the pressure out of the system before those countries gained full freedom of movement.
Pickles could also help himself by getting properly briefed on dealing with the media on these issues. He seemed blissfully unaware of the build up of media pressure prior to the 2004 EU enlargement. In his book Immigration under New Labour, Will Somerville says that in February of that year the Sun ran 45 articles on immigration, over half of them about EU expansion. The Daily Express joined the feeding frenzy, claiming on its front page that ‘1.6 million Gypsies’ were ready to ‘flood in’. It’s hardly surprising if Pickles’ obfuscation on Sunday provoked press reaction. If he continues in the same vain, he can expect much, much worse.
Given that the interview was mainly about housing, he might have thrown Neil off course if he’d said (correctly) that while nationals from the new EU countries are entitled to housing assistance few of them use it initially, getting private lodgings (often provided by employers). Instead he set himself another trap, by seeming to agree that his department had some preliminary figures and had started looking at the effects on housing – but then he wouldn’t say what they might be. He also suggested that he would issue an estimate once he could confidently do so. By this stage he was clearly flailing, digging himself deeper into the sand.
The reality is that ministers are collectively trapped by an immigration policy which they’ve trumpeted on every possible occasion and which is going to backfire. While they’ve succeeded in reducing net migration, mainly by cutting student numbers, it only needs a small extra influx from Bulgaria and Romania to turn that round and start pushing the figures up again. There’s nothing surprising about this: at least Labour could claim in 2004 that everyone was taken by surprise by the extent to which Poles, in particular, used their new rights. That argument won’t hold in 2014.
It would also help, of course, if Pickles’ department was still estimating housing needs and had robust plans to tackle the severe housing shortage which he had to admit exists. Instead we have ministers who seem to think that almost insignificant measures like New Buy will solve the problem, and anyway can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.
On one thing Eric was right: when he said he needs to be ‘reasonably confident about the figures’ he could have been starting to write his ‘to do’ list for his next interview. He must be hoping it’s with someone who is not as conversant with the facts about housing and migration as Andrew Neil proved to be.