Sitting in his two- bedroom house just outside Bucharest, the Romanian capital, last week, Irinel Spatara, 42, was dreaming of a better life. He is one of the tens of thousands planning to travel to Britain when Romania and Bulgaria join the European Union.... However, it emerged yesterday that the ambitions of Spatara and others may be thwarted. John Reid, the home secretary, is said to be lobbying for possible restrictions on arrivals from the two countries seeking work. His rethink follows internal estimates by the government that 60,000-140,000 Romanians and Bulgarians could arrive in Britain in the first year after accession. A leaked government report warned last month of the increasing strain on schools, housing and the National Health Service.
Reid's move comes after one of the most significant changes in immigration policy since Labour came to power. After years of the government insisting that immigration was an unqualified good for the economy and there was "no obvious limit" to the numbers the country could hold, Reid suddenly announced last week that it was time for the country to discuss possible quotas. This has delighted the government's critics. They say previous attempts to encourage a "mature debate" about immigration levels have often been quashed with accusations of racism.
Bob Rowthorn, professor of economics at Cambridge University, said: "Most people coming into the country have a good reason: they're either running from somewhere or they want a job. You can't but be sympathetic and it's a natural reaction to think `let's let them all in'. The difficulty is that there is such a gigantic supply that it's not a practical policy. The government has, however, been in denial that there is any need for a debate." Michael Howard, the former Conservative leader, was left bruised in last year's election campaign election when he raised the issue. Charles Clarke, then home secretary, accused the Tories of trying to "mobilise prejudice and bigotry".
More than a year later, with constituents in some of Labour's heartlands complaining that their wages are being undercut and local services are under strain, Labour is suddenly starting to discuss immigration.
There is opposition in the government to Reid's proposal to consider denying Romanians and Bulgarians full rights to work in the EU. The Foreign Office and Geoff Hoon, the Europe minister, are said to oppose any ban. Frank Field, the Labour MP who has campaigned for stricter immigration controls, said: "We can't continue with an open-door policy. People are starting to complain they can't find jobs."
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