Over recent months press speculation about how many Eastern European migrants are now living in the UK has run riot. Huge figures have been used to back up wild stories and tiny figures have been used to strike back.
But the fact of the matter is, right now, we just don’t have an accurate count of migrants from any country in the European Union; and recently published figures on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants are, ironically, an excellent example of our lack of hard numbers.
Last week it was reported that the number of Romanian and Bulgarian-born people working in the UK had dropped from 144,000 to 140,000 between December and March, defying general predictions of a flood of migrants from Eastern Europe.
These results are based on the Labour Force Survey, carried out by the Office of National Statistics. While these surveys are great for uncovering general working habits, they’re not so good for telling us about small groups of people, like Romanians and Bulgarians. That’s because the number of Romanians and Bulgarians who take part in these surveys is absolutely tiny.
Fewer than 200 Bulgarians and Romanians took part in the survey, meaning that the drop in 4,000 people working in the UK is based on the finding that four of those people had left the country. Just four people – that’s the evidence for the drop in the number of Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK.
As my Conservative colleague Mark Reckless pointed out: “This survey cannot possibly tell us how many Romanians and Bulgarians started working in the UK during the first quarter of this year.” In fact, the ONS warned us similarly, saying that their data “should not be used as a proxy for flows of foreign migrants into the UK”.
This is not to say that journalists and the media are strictly to blame. Journalists can only report on the available figures, and that’s exactly what we lack.
So what does this story tell us? Rather than reveal much about the number of migrants coming to the UK, it tells us a lot more about the sorry state of the UK’s data.
We need to calculate migratory flows more accurately (see last week’s article in The Spectator). This will involve universal entry and exit checks. Only once these are in place can we know the true number of migrants entering and leaving the country.
Both sides of the immigration debate must accept there are severe shortcomings in the way we quantify migration. The Government should find a way of collecting reliable migration data and resist any measures from the EU that prevent us from doing so. If we want answers and full, accurate picture, we need to have proper border checks.
Today MPs voted on my amendment to give people a 2014 EU referendum.
Although 15 MPs (6 per cent of those who voted) supported a 2014 referendum, it was not enough.
It was hard work but I was determined to try to give people the chance of a 2014 vote because this was the right thing to do when the most people want one. Our relationship with Europe, whether good or bad, is at the centre of almost all the big issues in politics, including immigration, human rights and, even, energy bills. It will define, and potentially decide, the next general election.
A 2014 EU referendum was the only way to guarantee that British voters had their say on Europe. When 82 per cent of the British population want a referendum, 55 per cent of the British people want one before 2015 and 57 per cent of Conservative Party members want one before 2017, it was only right that parliament got to express its view.
Sadly people will now continue to feel that the political class is out of touch with their wishes.
All Conservative MPs want an EU referendum – this is not at issue. We’re united, and we’re still the only party who want to give the British people an EU vote. We would have held one in this parliament if it wasn’t for the LibDems, who are frightened of letting the British people have a say. But by delaying the referendum until 2017, we leave uncertainty in the minds of the British people.
As our thoughts turn towards the 2014 European elections and the 2015 general election, we must accept that it will be difficult to convince our constituents that we are not kicking the ‘EU can’ down the road once again. Over the next 18 months we will need to persuade voters that we are serious about our intention to hold an EU referendum. And we will need to convince these people in large numbers if we are to stand a chance of winning.
After returning from campaigning in the South Shields by-election campaign in April, I wrote on Conservative Home:
“It seems to me that the only way forward is if we acknowledge the way people really feel about immigration and Europe and gain enough credibility that they trust us to deliver the referendum after robust negotiations. If we’re serious we must bring the legislation that enables a referendum before parliament sooner rather than later. Even if Labour and Lib Dem MPs vote against it, the British people will know we’re serious. Otherwise constituencies like South Shields will never take us seriously.”
I have not changed that view.
There is now no doubt that many people will vote UKIP in the EU elections next May, as they did in the South Shields by-election. This division of the centre-right may well continue into 2015.
James Wharton’s Bill is a good step in the right direction and continues to enjoy my support. However, it is not a panacea, and in my opinion it is unlikely to make it to the statute book or play a major role in our electoral fortunes. But it does represent the mood of Conservative MPs today and offers some hope. Despite the headwinds I will do what I can to help the EU Referendum Bill to House of Lords and beyond.
The Conservative determination to give the people a say on the EU is undiminished. The big challenge now is how to re-unite the Conservative family behind the Conservative Party at the next general election.
Last week I tabled an amendment calling for an EU referendum to take place in October 2014, before the next general election. Since then, my office has received hundreds of supportive letters and emails from people across the country. Their message is clear: fight on – you are doing what the people of this country want. I am in the process of responding to these letters, but I want to say to everyone that has written in: I am determined to continue. I will do everything I can to give parliament a chance to decide if it wants a referendum before the election. I will back the British people and stand up for what you want.
So, while I am very sensitive to the concerns of other MPs, I fully intend to continue and take this amendment to a vote on the 8 November, unless someone can come up with a better way of securing an EU referendum next year.
The British people want an early EU Referendum
A Survation poll last week found that 55 per cent of the public supported a 2014 referendum. Many more thought that Parliament should have the chance to vote for it. Hardly anyone said it should be quietly brushed under the carpet or battered into ignoble silence.
In my experience, people do not understand why there is such a vicious backlash from some quarters. The Conservative Party members and councillors who have written to me in the last few weeks are equally bewildered. So I urge people who are reading this article to write to their MP as well to voice their opinion, whether they disagree or agree with the amendment – these letters make a real difference.
We need a vote on an early referendum
People believe that their MPs – who they voted into parliament to represent them – should at least have a say on this matter either way, for or against; otherwise the British people are, quite literally, silenced.
It may well be inconvenient for some MPs but we must face the facts – and acknowledge what we already know: while all Conservatives will work hard to secure a majority at the next election, polling figures and an analysis of marginal seats shows that victory is not a foregone conclusion. Without a Conservative majority government there is next to no chance of an EU Referendum at any point in the future. It is totally wrong that party politics should wash this amendment away.
Attacking the amendment gives people the impression that our political establishment does not want to give the public a say on our relationship with Europe; does not trust them to vote; does not want to face the facts and tackle this issue once and for all. They do believe we’re going to kick the EU-can down the road and attacking my amendment only reinforces this impression.
I agree with Lord Owen, who is free to speak his mind as a crossbencher and supported an early referendum a few months ago. He says that the public are “democrats who cannot and will not be fobbed off by politicians from having their say”. Lord Owen supports the UK’s membership of the European Union; supporting an early referendum does not mean you necessarily support leaving the EU. There will be two choices on the ballot paper.
The Wharton Bill does not guarantee an EU referendum
As a backbench MP who has been elected to represent my constituents, one of my responsibilities is to critically evaluate legislation and suggest amendments where I feel an error has been made. That is one of the primary functions of an MP. And it is important that nobody is bullied out of doing so.
There is no doubt that James Wharton’s Bill is a towering accomplishment; backbenchers have worked hard to get this piece of legislation onto parliament despite heavy resistance.
But it is not, and should not be, the only option. Alternative timescales must be considered – particularly autumn 2014. So I believe that Wharton’s Bill is the second best option. Every MP accepts the danger that even if this Bill is passed it could be easily amended or repealed at some point in the future. Every MP knows that the Bill does not guarantee an EU Referendum in 2017.
I know that many of my colleagues want to support the amendment to bring forward the date of an EU referendum, but are worried that their support might threaten the Bill. I am thankful for the many productive discussions that we have all had over the last few days and hope we can all use the next three weeks to carefully consider all of the arguments.
But, above all, when MPs vote on this amendment on 8 November I hope that my colleagues will vote on the basis of what they think is the best for their constituents rather than what the Party whip has said that morning. This is not a Government Bill, it is a Private Members’ Bill, and I know the British people will be watching.
It seems to me that an EU referendum in 2014 is exactly what people want and precisely what our Party needs to win in 2015. This is why I have now tabled an amendment to the EU Referendum Bill to bring forward the vote.
It was never going to be popular to break with the conventional wisdom or our current narrative. But I truly believe it’s in our national interest to hold an early referendum, and one of the key benefits would be to bring the conservative family back together to win convincingly in 2015.
There is overwhelming support for an EU vote and a strong case for getting it done in October 2014:
We need to be realistic
Let’s just look at this once again. People want an EU vote. They don’t understand why we can’t have a vote before the next election or why the Government would need four years to renegotiate. Half of the British population wants a referendum immediately and another one in three people want it in the ‘next few years’. People are anxious to get on with it. They don’t want to wait for four years.
I entirely trust the Prime Minister to deliver a referendum in 2017 if we win the election, but we have to face the facts: voters are suspicious of all mainstream politicians. All the surveys confirm this distrust. In this climate people may well believe we’re kicking the can down the road. And we can’t stop them thinking that it might happen again in four years’ time. By holding the referendum we will have reaffirmed people’s faith in our Party – all doubt will have been removed.
This issue is painful, but we must ask ourselves the difficult question: are we so very sure that the promise of an EU referendum in 2017 will convince people to return to the Conservatives in sufficient numbers to win an outright victory? Or are we just hoping that will be the case?
Under these circumstances, it is at least a possibility that we will not get a Conservative government nor ever see a referendum.
There is little doubt that many people will vote UKIP in the EU elections next May – maybe just to lodge their protest or spur on the Conservatives to deliver a referendum.
The electoral calculus is telling. UKIP are polling at about 10 per cent. Three per cent voted for them in 2010 and if only five per cent were to support them in 2015, then Labour would win the election. A Labour-led government will not hold an EU vote.
Why 2014 rather than 2017? On top of public opinion, businesses thinking of investing here need to know where this country will be in 12 months so they can make long-term investment plans. A 2014 referendum would spare these businesses years of uncertainty and give us an economic boost – something all Conservatives are passionate about.
This would also draw a line under this issue so the Party could fight the 2015 election, united together, on the economy and the great things that we have already achieved even in Coalition. I know we can beat Labour in a straight fight on the economy. But with the EU referendum hanging over our heads we may not get the chance to persuade people they are better off voting Conservative.
Finally, an early EU vote lets us tie up another one of our difficult constitutional issues. Late October will leave a month’s breathing space after the Scottish referendum; we could put a line under both of these difficult constitutional issues without them interfering with each other.
This amendment builds on the strength of the Conservative Party’s current policy.
Alongside my Conservative colleagues, I trust David Cameron to deliver a referendum in 2017; he is absolutely a man of his word. He is also the right man to lead our negotiations with Europe, and an early referendum will strengthen his hand in these talks.
This amendment will force EU leaders to the table. If they want the UK to stay within the EU, they will quickly present the options to show to the British people. This amendment does not propose a referendum next week or next month. A year is sensible amount of time to achieve any negotiations that are possible.
James Wharton’s Bill
James Wharton’s Bill is a fantastic accomplishment for James and for the Conservative Party; an accomplishment that we have achieved in the spite of the resistance from Liberal Democrats in the Coalition. I support his Bill, let there be no doubt about that.
His Bill shows that the Conservative Party is in tune with the British people and the businesses that operate in this country. After waiting nearly 40 years people will finally get a say – if we win the next election.
Parliamentary procedure: The amendment will not endanger the Bill
Some people have said that this amendment might drag out the debate on the Bill, meaning that it might not get through the Commons. I don’t think that is quite right for three reasons.
First, in Parliament, if discussion is taking too long, MPs can collectively vote to end the debate within a matter of hours. Secondly, an amendment may be withdrawn. Thirdly, if few MPs support an amendment then it may not be called by the Speaker. These are all possibilities and there will be no need to take time if MPs don’t want to support a referendum in 2014. I am acutely conscious of that fact and will act accordingly.
If this amendment passes, I think that it would be great news. If it doesn’t look like it has support then the Bill can continue its course through Parliament without delay. As a dyed-in-the-wool democrat, I think that Parliament, representing the British people, should have its say on this matter.
Holding a referendum in 2017 is only one option of many. It is paramount that Parliament gets to consider all the available timelines. That is the strength of our parliamentary system. It is a place where we can have respectful debates about how to tackle hard problems. It makes perfect sense that Parliament should have the chance to reflect on alternative timings to make sure that our course of action is the best for this country.
The practice of amending Bills
It is standard parliamentary practice that backbench MPs put their names to amendments. There may be many more. I am putting my name to this one. It wasn’t an easy decision. But the British people and British businesses want certainty and to give them that certainty we need an EU vote sooner rather than later.
Our Party and the conservative family are completely united in the view that we should have a referendum. I suspect that, if asked in private, the majority of Conservative MPs and Conservative supporters would like to hold that referendum in 2014; but they would not wish an attempt to do so to thwart a referendum in 2017 if it failed. Nor do I.
I believe this is the right thing to do. It’s vitally important for the Party that MPs are given another option, to hold the EU referendum early; to acknowledge public opinion and respond to the British people.
It is very much my hope that other MPs will take the time to reflect on this amendment, look at the reasons carefully and take soundings from their constituents. Given what’s at stake, I believe it’s important that our Party has the chance to at least consider a 2014 referendum in Parliament.
It may be unsettling to challenge the current political wisdom, but my primary concern is that we see our colleagues in marginal seats returned to Parliament and a wholly Conservative government in 2015. I don’t want our great Party to sleepwalk into defeat by not having at least considered the alternative.