The debate over east European immigration is degenerating into "hysteria", leading think-tanks have warned.
As Downing Street indicated that Tony Blair has yet to decide on whether to allow Romanians and Bulgarians free entry into the UK when their countries join the European Union next year, experts warned yesterday that opponents were basing their arguments on ignorance and prejudice.
It follows weeks of furious newspaper headlines and political sabre rattling denouncing the threat posed by new arrivals from the former communist bloc. Stories have claimed they will overstretch Britain's schools and hospitals, drive down wages on building sites, as well as threatening a violent crime wave and even a new HIV epidemic.
The independent Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) condemned " ill-informed comment" about the flow of workers, likening it to the "hysteria" that surrounded the accession of Poland and other countries in 2004. "The reality is somewhat different from the comments of those who have not examined the facts carefully enough before making wild statements," said Keith Best, the IAS's chief executive.
Estimates on how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come to the UK differ widely - ranging from 300,000 in the first 20 months to 56,000 in the first year. The Home Office said there was no official projection.
But the Government signalled yesterday it was preparing to take a more cautious line than the previous day's assertion by Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, that there would be no "open door" for citizens of the two countries. A Downing Street spokeswoman insisted a decision would be made "at the appropriate time" later in the year.
Mr Darling's remarks were interpreted as meaning that Romanians and Bulgarians could have to wait up to seven years before they enjoy the same entry rights as citizens of other former communist states. But the No 10 spokeswoman said Mr Darling had simply been discussing the need for a " mature debate" on the subject of immigration generally. "He was talking of the general need for managed migration. In terms of Bulgaria and Romania, decisions on that will be made at the appropriate time," she said.
Danny Sriskandarajah, the associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, warned that attitudes were hardening against the eastern European arrivals. "We have had stories about benefit-seeking asylum seekers, we have had illegal immigrant stories. This has now moved on to the latest arrivals, which just happen to be eastern European. There are sections of society and the media which always set out to scapegoat migrant groups just because they are easy targets," he said.
Leading figures in the Labour Party have insisted that there has to be a pause while the UK economy absorbs the estimated 600,000 migrant workers from the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004. Views on immigration hardened when figures out last week showed unemployment at its highest level for six years and when it emerged the Government had seriously underestimated numbers from the last group of new member states.
Some business leaders remain strong supporters of eastern European workers. Sir Digby Jones, the former director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said Poles had made a major contribution to the UK economy. " You cannot blame migrants if they are prepared to ... work for wages, which though they may seem low to us, are a lot higher than in their own country. They come here with the skills and the education that we no longer seem to be able to provide our own workforce," he said.
Stephen Ratcliffe, a spokesman for the Major Contractors Group, which represents the 14 largest UK construction companies, said that far from wages falling, the shortage of skilled craftsmen was driving them up. " We would have faced serious capacity issues if the industry had not been able to source craft trades from eastern Europe," he said.
The Tory spokesman on immigration, Damian Green, accused the Government of having tried to give the impression it was ready to take action to control migrant workers when that was not the case. "It's clear that at the heart of Government there is either confusion or dishonesty about this matter," he said.
The headlines ... and the truth
HALT THE TIDE OF EU MIGRANTS ... HIV CHILDREN BRINGING TIMEBOMB TO BRITAIN - Sunday Express, 20/8
Claim: Britain is confronted with an HIV time bomb when Romanian teenagers descend on our over-stretched health service.
Reality: There are 15,850 Romanians with HIV/Aids, according to the UN. Two thirds were infected while living in children's state institutions during the late 1980s. The infection rate is 0.7 per cent of the population - slightly less than in the UK.
* EAST EUROPE MIGRANTS HELP TAKE JOBLESS TO SIX-YEAR HIGH - Daily Mail, 17/8
Claim: Unemployment has soared to its highest level for more than six years as thousands of workers arrive from eastern Europe.
Reality: While the unemployment rate rose last month, the number of people in work grew by 42,000 over the three months to March 2006 and by 240,000 over the year, to reach 28.94 million - the highest number of people in work since records began in 1971.
* MIGRANTS GET BRITS' PAY SLASHED BY 50 PER CENT - The Sun, 18/8
Claim: Earnings of British builders and other manual workers have slumped by 50 per cent as a flood of east European migrants drives down wages.
Reality: The annual growth rate in average earnings excluding bonuses, was 3.9 per cent in June 2006, up 0.1 per cent on the previous month. Including bonuses wages grew by 4.3 per cent, up 0.2 per cent on the previous month.
* UNCHECKED IMMIGRATION IS PUTTING BRITONS OUT OF WORK - Daily Telegraph, 18/8
Claim: The unprecedented influx of newcomers has had an impact on the availability of social housing.
Reality: The shortage of homes in Britain pre-dates the arrival of east European workers. Accession state workers do not qualify for council housing.
* CHEERS, WE'RE COMING TO RIP YOU OFF - People 20/8
Claim: Mafia chiefs in Bulgaria are plotting to flood Britain with heroin, prostitutes and guns when they join the EU in January.
Reality: The Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think-tank, found the crime rate in Bulgaria was lower than the European average with crime rates falling by half between 2001 and 2004. It is now safer than Denmark and Australia.
* HOW THE NEW FAGINS ARE BRINGING CHILD SLAVERY TO BRITAIN - Sunday Telegraph 4/6
Claim: The UK is likely to surge up the league of favoured destinations for trafficked women and children once Romania and Bulgaria join the EU next year.
Reality: The US State Department recently welcomed Bulgarian efforts to crack down on trafficking, offering witnesses protection and allowing suspects to be extradited to stand trial abroad. The number of trafficking convictions in Bulgarian courts increased nearly fivefold in 2005 - up to 34.
* NHS AND SCHOOLS 'AT RISK FROM SURGE IN EU IMMIGRANTS' - The Times 31/07
Claim: A leaked government report warned that schools and hospitals will struggle to cope with an influx of people from eastern Europe.
Reality: Immigrants make up 8 per cent of the workforce but contribute 10 per cent of the UK's GDP. Ernst & Young reports they are net tax contributors - rather than a burden - to the public purse, easing the pensions bill through tax and keeping interest rates at least 0.5 per cent lower - equivalent to £500 a year on the average mortgage.
* IMMIGRANTS TO FLOOD IN - Daily Star 24/07
Claim: Britain will be swamped by up to 145,000 poverty-stricken migrants from Bulgaria and Romania who are expected to flock here once they join the EU.
Reality: Think-tank the IPPR estimates 56,000 will arrive from both countries in the first year - 41,000 of them from Romania. A Bulgarian government survey revealed only 2.9 per cent of its nationals planned to migrate.