Tory backbenchers will raise concerns about the government's preparations for the lifting of controls on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants at a meeting with the Home Secretary in the next few weeks, I understand. Conservative MPs are becoming increasingly nervous about the situation, fearing that if handled poorly, it could have a particularly bad impact on the party's performance in the 2014 European elections, as the transitional controls end on 31 December 2013.
One of those worried backbenchers is former ministerial aide Stewart Jackson, who tells me he is considering introducing a modified version of the 10-Minute Rule Bill that he brought before the House in October. The European Union Free Movement Directive 2004 (Disapplication) Bill would have limited the right of EU citizens to move to Britain. Jackson accuses ministers of 'institutional lethargy' on the issue, adding:
'My view is that the Prime Minister needs to oversee this issue because it is a potential catastrophe in the run-up to the European elections, combining immigration and Europe. We have got to convince people who are worried. There has been institutional lethargy: no-one has really taken ownership of it, whether it's Eric Pickles, Theresa May, or Iain Duncan Smith: everyone assumes that someone else is looking after it and no-one is.'
The Home Office told Coffee House last week that work had already begun on a response to the end of the controls, with particular focus on reducing the 'pull factor' for migrants. Immigration Minister Mark Harper is leading a ministerial group on the matter.
For some ideas of what the government could do, it's also worth looking at the proposals published last week by the Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs. The proposals on immigration in the 'Manifesto for Change' would not require treaty change, which clearly makes them a little more attractive than other demands. They include:
- Challenging access to social security for European nationals, and the right to reside. The group argued that the government should build an alliance with other member states opposed to the European Commission's 'meddling in domestic social security rules', try to amend the Free Movement Directive to prevent migrants from being able to receive unemployment benefits for a prolonged period of time, and raising the threshold for automatic eligibility for permanent residence from five years to 10 years.
- Securing the right in treaties when countries join the EU to extend transitional controls for longer than initially planned. Though this would not apply to Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, it could be useful for future accessions such as Turkey.
These are ideas for a long-term discussion, but Mark Pritchard says this issue must be treated with greater urgency:
'It is clear from the last accession that numbers will be 50,000 plus. This will have a direct impact on housing, health services, the welfare bill, and community cohesion. There needs to be action to take back control of our borders before the general election - not after 2018.'
As Jackson points out, this is a particularly toxic issue for the government as it involves two highly charged issues. The Tories don't need to guess what the consequences are for a government when it appears surprised by and inadequately prepared for a change in immigration: Labour's own experience gave them sufficient warning of that.