Tory warning over Eastern Europeans
A top Tory has warned of rising costs for council taxpayers as a result of incoming Romanian and Bulgarian migrants unless the Government offers financial help.
Philippa Roe, Conservative leader of Westminster City Council, said that despite efforts to plan for tomorrow's lifting of restrictions, the authority had "no idea" how many people would come.
She said: "We have been trying hard to make sure we are prepared but one of the issues we face is we just have no idea how many people are going to come to London and draw on our resources and we are not going to be given any extra money to cope with it."
And she warned that a minority of the immigrants from the two European Union accession countries could escalate existing high-profile problems, including pickpocketing and defecating on people's doorsteps.
"I know the vast majority of Romanians and Bulgarians planning to come to the UK are planning to work and contribute to society here," Ms Roe told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme.
"I think the fear that everybody faces, which is reflected in the media, is those that come to Britain and either fail to find jobs and therefore fall back on our welfare system, or those who deliberately come here to pickpocket and aggressively beg.
"We have seen in the past 18 months, particularly the Roma in central London, causing a massive amount of disruption and low-level crime which has made a very negative impact on our communities. It's this minority one is really concerned about but it is this minority that has this really big impact.
"You've only got to wander around Marble Arch at 7.30 in the morning to see the camps. We have people walking out of their front door to find people sleeping on their front doorsteps, people defecating on their front doorstep - it's extremely unpleasant and it goes with the very aggressive begging and pickpocketing and other sorts of crime in the area which affects both residents and tourists."
Ms Roe criticised the Government's changes, rushed through Parliament before Christmas, to impose new three-month limits on benefit claims for immigrants.
She said: "I think three months is not really long enough - you could easily come to Britain and survive for three months and find yourself eligible for benefits.
"I would much rather it had been a year, if not two years."
Ahead of the lifting of restrictions at midnight, Migration Watch UK claimed Britain remained the most lucrative destination in the European Union for Romanians and Bulgarians.
It said despite the new rules, a "generous" welfare system provided a major incentive for migrants. T he reforms do not affect welfare payments for claimants with jobs, meaning migrants will still have more in-salary and in-work benefits than in any other major European country.
But business leaders have said lifting the restrictions will help "cement our economic recovery" as well as fill the gap in the number of skilled workers companies need.
In its report, Migration Watch said a worker with a spouse and two children on half the average wage in Romania or Bulgaria would be three times better off in Spain or Italy but six times better off in the UK.
The think-tank found that Germany remains the "most attractive destination" with its low unemployment rate and large number of vacancies, but reiterated its previous analysis predicting that 250,000 Romanians and Bulgarians will move to the UK over the next five years.
Migration Watch UK chairman Sir Andrew Green said: "This study shows how Britain's generous benefits system acts as a pull factor for migrants from across Europe.
"There must now be a renegotiation of the benefit system in the EU which was designed before 100 million people in much poorer countries joined the EU. British taxpayers must no longer subsidise immigration from poorer parts of the EU."
The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that 55% of its members believe immigration has had a positive impact on the capital's economy and more than half employ migrant workers.
Chief executive Colin Stanbridge said: " Political rhetoric on migrant workers has stepped up in recent days as the deadline for removal of restrictions approaches. However, the debate often fails to take into account the positive benefits that migration brings to the London economy.
"The Government has allowed the debate about Bulgarian and Romanian migration to become highly politicised when, in fact, giving London businesses access to a larger labour pool will help cement our economic recovery."
Romanian foreign ministry spokeswoman Brandusa Predescu warned against the debate becoming even more polarised.
She told the BBC: "There isn't going to be an invasion of Romanians... Not all Romanians, young and old, are going to get on a plane.
"We don't have estimates, you don't have estimates. The UK will (not be) and is not the preferred destination of Romanians."
The UK imposed seven-year restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria after they joined the EU in 2007 - only allowing citizens a visa if they were self-employed, had a job offer, or were given a specialist role.
An amendment to the Immigration Bill going through Parliament by backbench Tory MP Nigel Mills would have extended the transitional arrangements by a further four years to 2018 but it has not yet been debated by MPs on the eve of freedom of movement coming into force.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith insists the reforms that have been pushed through will "not allow people to come to our country and take advantage".
After six months on jobseeker's allowance (JSA) of up to £71, only those who can provide compelling evidence that they have a genuine chance of finding work will be allowed to continue claiming the benefit.
Claimants, including Britons returning from overseas, will also face a tougher ''habitual residence'' test to prove where they live, including face-to-face interviews, before they receive any JSA payments.
Mr Duncan Smith said: " New rules are now in place to ensure we have a fair system: one which provides support for genuine workers and jobseekers, but does not allow people to come to our country and take advantage.
There does not seem to be a surge of trips into Britain from eastern Europe over the New Year period, according to travel firms.
Blue Air, a low-cost Romanian airline which flies from Bacau and Bucharest to London and Dublin, as well as other parts of Europe, said it still had seats available after New Year's Day.
A spokeswoman said: "We have loads of seats for the next days of January."
Luton Airport said no additional flights have been put on to its regular schedule, while noting that this would be decided by individual airlines.
National Express and Eurolines, which does not run direct services from Romania or Bulgaria, said it was not planning any new services.
In general terms, across the Eurolines UK network sales have been more or less static year-on-year and there have been no big surges, a spokesman said.
An easyJet spokesman said: "EasyJet currently only flies to two destinations in Bulgaria and Romania and other airlines provide far more frequent services.
"We haven't seen any evidence of an increase to our passenger numbers from January 2014 on these routes."
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "We need a calm, considered debate and practical policies to address the lifting of transitional controls for Bulgaria and Romania this week. Sadly, from the Government, we've had little of either.
"David Cameron and the Conservatives have been rushing around with a frenzy of last-minute briefings and announcements, and ramping up the rhetoric.
"But they still aren't addressing the practical problems around those who exploit migrant workers to undercut local businesses and staff. And the last-minute confusion and heightened rhetoric is alarming rather than reassuring, and risks fuelling hostility, too.
"However, the Liberal Democrats' position - suggesting there is no problem - won't reassure people either.
"In a global economy, trade, travel and migration is really important for Britain. But people do have concerns about the impact of European migration particularly on low paid work and there are sensible policies we should pursue to make the immigration system fairer for all.
"The Government needs to take a calm and sensible approach and bring in the practical reforms we need around EU migration to make the system fairer for all.
"We need action to stop immigration being abused and exploited as a source of cheap labour to undercut wages and jobs.
"That means stronger enforcement of the minimum wage, and against gang- masters or employers who put migrant workers in overcrowded accommodation then exploit them on poverty pay - undercutting local workers and responsible businesses too."