THE former Home Secretary Jack Straw has said the last Labour Government made a “spectacular mistake” by dropping immigration restrictions on eastern European migrants a decade ago.
The veteran MP said handing immediate working rights to Poles and other nationalities who joined the EU in 2004 was a “well-intentioned policy we messed up”.
Writing in his local newspaper, the Lancashire Telegraph, Mr Straw said: “However careful you are, as a Minister, in your analysis, many decisions are based upon predictions about the future, where, ultimately, your fate is in the lap of the gods.
“One spectacular mistake in which I participated (not alone) was in lifting the transitional restrictions on the eastern European states like Poland and Hungary which joined the EU in mid-2004.
“Other existing EU members, notably France and Germany, decided to stick to the general rule which prevented migrants from these new states from working until 2011. But we thought that it would be good for Britain if these folk could come and work here from 2004.
“Thorough research by the Home Office suggested that the impact of this benevolence would in any event be ‘relatively small, at between 5,000 and 13,000 immigrants per year up to 2010’.
“Events proved these forecasts worthless. Net migration reached close to a quarter of a million at its peak in 2010. [There were] lots of red faces – mine included.”
Blackburn MP Mr Straw did, however, highlight recent research indicating immigrants from that period are less likely to claim benefits than UK natives.
“I have never under-estimated the social dislocation that can occur when large numbers of people from abroad settle in a particular area – as has happened in east Lancashire,” he added.
“But this latest research makes me feel a little better about this well-intentioned policy we messed up.”
That study, published last week by academics at University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM), found that immigrants from the so-called A8 countries of eastern Europe are less likely to claim benefits than native British people, and have had a positive effect on the economy overall since they began arriving in 2004.
Its analysis showed that A8 immigrants who arrived after EU enlargement, and who have at least one year of residence in Britain – and are therefore legally eligible to claim benefits – are about 60 per cent less likely than British natives to receive state benefits or tax credits, or to live in social housing.
The study also compared the net fiscal contribution of A8 immigrants with that of individuals born in the UK, and concluded that in every single year since the EU’s enlargement in 2004, A8 immigrants made a positive contribution to public finance.
In 2008/09, the report found, A8 immigrants paid 37 per cent more in direct or indirect taxes than was spent on public goods and services which they received – thus apparently shattering the myth that eastern European immigrants have been in some way a drain on Britain’s public services.
Prof Christian Dustmann, director of CReAM and co-author of the study, admitted he was “surprised” by the results.
“Our research contributes important facts to the debate on the costs and benefits of A8 immigration,” he said. “It shows that A8 immigrants are far less likely to live in social housing or to claim benefits.
“We were surprised about the large net fiscal contribution made by these immigrants, given their relatively low wage position in the UK labour market.”
Prof Dustmann also painted an even more positive picture for the coming years, suggesting the well-educated backgrounds of many eastern Europeans will further increase their contribution to the economy as time passes.
“A8 immigrants are on average more educated than natives, and figures show they experience rapid wage growth during their stay in the UK,” he said.
“We should therefore expect their tax payments to increase considerably over the next few years.”
However, Mr Straw’s successor at the Home Office, South Yorkshire MP David Blunkett, said he feared that an influx of Roma migrants into Britain could cause riots.
Mr Blunkett, the MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, said that Roma groups from Slovakia who had settled in a district of Sheffield were behaving like they were living in a “downtrodden village or woodland”.
“We’ve got to be tough and robust in saying to people you are not in a downtrodden village or woodland, because many of them don’t even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities,” he said.
“You are not there any more, you are here – and you’ve got to adhere to our standards, and to our way of behaving, and if you do then you’ll get a welcome and people will support you.”
He added: “We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that.”