The huge influx of Polish workers, which has transformed the labour market across the country, has peaked, official statistics have disclosed.
More than 750,000 east and central European immigrants have flocked to all parts of Britain since eight former eastern bloc countries joined the EU in 2004. But the tide seems to be turning as the economies of the new EU member states strengthen.
The numbers of east European immigrants approved to work in Britain dropped from 227,875 in 2006 to 206,905 last year, a fall of nearly 10 per cent, and the trend is expected to accelerate over the next decade. Poles, who make up two-thirds of the newcomers, are understood to be returning home in greater numbers, drawn by higher salaries, job shortages and the fall in the value of the pound.
Danny Sriskandarajah, head of migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said some were choosing to work in other EU countries which were loosening employment rules. "Migration from Poland is very unlikely to continue at the levels we have seen in the first few years we have seen after enlargement," he said. "It has always been a question of when these flows started drying up, rather than whether they would."
Ministers, who were originally advised that 13,000 east Europeans would come to the UK per year, were caught by surprise at the vast numbers that travelled for Britain after the EU expanded in May 2004. A total of 125,880 moved to the UK in the rest of 2004, followed by 204,970 in 2005. The number climbed to record levels in 2006 before last year's fall. It is unknown how many remained in Britain as the numbers leaving are not recorded. The vast majority of the 765,630 incomers were 505,300 Poles, followed by 77,000 each from Lithuania and Slovakia. Much smaller numbers have come from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia and Slovenia.
Employers have taken on 296,180 east Europeans in office and administration jobs; 144,450 in hospitality and catering; and 77,245 in farm work. David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "The comparative success of the UK economy in recent years has been largely due to the influx of willing workers from eastern Europe."
Separate Home Office figures also showed 23,430 asylum-seekers claimed refuge in Britain last year, the lowest total since the early 1990s. But the numbers of failed asylum-seekers removed from Britain last year fell by 26 per cent to 13,595. Overall, the Border and Immigration Agency removed 63,140 people from the UK in the year.
*David Cameron, the Tory leader, has said introducing sharia law in Britain would create "legal apartheid". He disputed the assertion by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that adopting some element of sharia law was unavoidable and attacked the "discredited doctrine idea of state multiculturalism".
Maciek Imiolczyk, 23: 'It wasn't like I expected'
When Maciek Imiolczyk came to London at the beginning of last year he was expecting to stay for several years. "I thought I could make much more money there, and that it would be an easy life, but it wasn't like I expected," he says.
The 23-year-old from Krakow had a business degree, and hoped to find a well-paid job, but after struggling to find work, he eventually took a post as a receptionist in a hostel. "I couldn't find anything that paid more than the minimum wage, and it was really hard to live off that. I realised life in London was much tougher than I'd been led to believe."
After six months of work he became disillusioned and returned to Krakow. Now he works as a tour guide. "The work I do now is better paid, interesting, and my quality of life is infinitely better."