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A2 migration to Britain after transitional restrictions: The first piece of evidence

12 May 2014

There has been much speculation in British media and political circles about the number of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania (the A2 countries) that will come to the UK after the end of the labour market restrictions in January 2014. The Migration Observatory has emphasised the need to wait for the evidence in order to make judgements about the impact of lifting the restrictions (Jumping the gun: Wait for the facts before estimating Romanian and Bulgarian migration). On Wednesday (14 May) the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will release data on employment by country of birth and nationality from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) for the first quarter of 2014. These data will provide the first evidence about the number of A2 workers in the UK after the lifting of the restrictions.

What data will be released?

The data will show the number of people from the A2 countries (based on country of birth and nationality) who are in employment – including self-employment – in the UK. A second data series on the employment rate, also to be released by the ONS, will provide related information, showing the share of the A2-born working age population who are employed.

What will the new data tell us?

The new data will show changes in the Bulgarian- and Romanian-born population working in the UK. The numbers of A2 migrants employed in the UK can change because of an increase in the number of A2 migrants in the UK and/or because a higher share of A2 migrants in the UK are working. So changes in this figure cannot be attributed solely to migration during this period.

However, in combination with the new ONS data on the employment rate, it is possible to calculate an estimate of the change to the Bulgarian- and Romanian-born (working-age) population in Britain. Estimates of the entire A2-born population, regardless of age, that is resident in Britain can be calculated from the full LFS data set, but not from the ONS’ published tables. (Note that the Annual Population Survey provides more reliable population estimates, but the ONS will not provide any 2014 estimates about A2 migrants until August 2015.)

The new data, when it is published on Wednesday, should be compared to data for the same period last year (first quarter of 2013), as there are seasonal factors relating to employment and migration trends that affect these data. In that sense, the new data will only provide limited evidence on the impact of the end of the restrictions on the number of A2 workers in the UK. Comparing the new data to the first quarter of 2013 will give an idea of changes over a 12 month period (April 2013-March 2014), of which 9 months (April-December 2013) were spent under transitional restrictions.

What to expect?

Before the new data are released on Wednesday, it is impossible to predict the number of new A2 workers in the UK since the first quarter of 2013. However, a look at the current number and previous increases of A2 migrants in the UK provides some insights on what to expect when we are able to compare the first quarter of 2014 with the first quarter of 2013.

Table 1 below shows the number of people born in the A2 countries who are working in the UK during any given quarter for the 2011–2013 period. In the fourth quarter of 2013 there were an estimated 144,000 people born in the A2 countries employed in the UK. This is an increase of 42,000 since the fourth quarter of 2012. Unless the end of transitional restrictions has led to a reduction in the number of A2 workers in the UK, the estimate for the first quarter of 2014 should be 144,000 or higher. That is, at least 32,000 more in comparison with the first quarter of 2013, regardless of any new migration in 2014. While we cannot know this with any certainty, the end of transitional controls was not expected to bring a decrease in the number of A2 workers in Britain.

Table 1 – Number of people born in the A2 countries working in the UK, 2011-2013

Period A2 working in the UK (thousands)Change compared to same period previous year (thousands)Employment rate (%)
2011 Q11104879.7
2011 Q2961980.1
2011 Q396-175.9
2011 Q489173.1
2012 Q197-1372.2
2012 Q2104872.9
2012 Q31121678
2012 Q41021374.2
2013 Q11121571.1
2013 Q21413775.7
2013 Q31352376.9
2013 Q41444272.6

Remaining uncertainties

There are still many uncertainties related to these estimates. For one, the numbers come from a survey with a substantial margin of error, so reported changes from one quarter to the next might stem in part from random error of this sort.

The estimates above also depend on the number of A2-born people in the UK who find work. As explained above, a change in the number of A2 migrants in the UK need not be accompanied by the same change in the number of those who are in employment.

Finally, while the expectation is that the lifting of the restrictions will result in more A2 workers in the UK, this is not a certainty. As shown in Table 1, over the previous three years the number of A2 workers in the UK has occasionally decreased. This possibility is always present and it will have to wait until Wednesday to know for sure.

Media reports

The publicly available data set out in the table above were provided by the Migration Observatory in response to inquiries from the Sunday Telegraph, and served as the basis of a story on 11 May 2014. While this story treated the data accurately, some key points are worth clarifying, as there seems to have been some misinterpretation of this story in some subsequent reports.

Firstly, the reported increases in A2 workers in Britain did not involve predicting how many A2 migrants would enter the UK following the end of transitional controls. The increases in A2 workers employed in the UK, shown in Table 1, have already occurred, and appear in data as of the end of 2013. The Migration Observatory simply noted that these increases will remain present in the data in the first quarter of 2014, barring an unexpected decline in the first quarter of 2014 – which is not impossible but which most would consider unlikely given past trends and the expiration of transitional restrictions.

The Sunday Telegraph was essentially accurate on this point, but an ambiguous sub-heading left the door open to misinterpretation about this, which appears to have occurred in a Daily Telegraph story on 12 May 2014 and in similar stories in the Sun and the Times. Other stories that followed up the Sunday Telegraph report, such as this report in the Daily Mail, did not misinterpret the data in the same way.

Second, most of these media reports cited a figure of 200,000 A2-born residents living in the UK. This figure stems from simple arithmetic, calculating the working-age resident A2-born population from the 2013 Q4 LFS data on A2 migrants and the concurrent employment rate among the A2 born.

What is most important here, though, is that, as of Wednesday, a discussion which has been based on guesses and speculation will begin to be informed by evidence. This evidence will still be imperfect and limited, but will provide, for the first time, some information on A2 migration to Britain after the expiration of transitional controls. It is therefore critical to understand what these data will show and what they will not show. The most appropriate comparison for the new estimate will be with the comparable figure from a year ago. This comparison will show estimated changes in the number of A2-born people employed in Britain over the course of a twelve month period, including nine months under transitional restrictions and three months after their expiration.

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