Eric Pickles says he's waiting for figures on how many Romanians and Bulgarians are expected to come to the UK when transitional controls on their freedom of movement expire on 31 December 2013. The problem is that the Home Office isn't producing those figures, arguing that such an estimate would be impossible. I've spoken to a Home Office source, who told me:
'There are no Home Office figures in terms of a projection of the numbers because there's not really very much point in guess work about this because it really is just guess work. Instead, our view is that we should be focusing on the factors that are bringing Europeans here to Britain and cutting out abuses of freedom of movement such as sham marriages, and looking at access to benefits and public services.'
If you look carefully at the transcript of the interview that Pickles did with Andrew Neil yesterday, the Communities Secretary does initially say that the preparatory work is being done by boroughs, rather than by the Home Office.
As David Cameron said this morning, it's important that any figures that are released are correct. The government is mindful of the predicament that Labour found itself in, having failed to predict quite how many people would come to Britain from an earlier wave of Eastern European countries. Ed Miliband and John Denham found themselves apologising for this last summer, with Denham saying 'it became clear that the estimates that we’d relied on of the number of people coming into the country were vastly wrong... you can see the impact: there is an impact on wages and an impact on public services that people were concerned about'.
The lesson that ministers have taken from Labour's experience is that not only do voters grow very grumpy when a government gets the figures wrong, they also become rather unhappy when a government isn't prepared for a change in freedom of movement. Avoiding estimates will certainly remove the former as a risk, but the problem is that it could give the impression ministers won't be ready for the impact on public services that Denham mentioned in his apology. The Home Office is still working on those measures to cope with the change at the end of 2013: expect to hear much more about these than you do about estimates.