The Europe debate is raging in the Sunday papers ahead of Cameron’s speech on the matter. There’s mounting concern among Tory Cabinet Ministers that the speech will not go far enough and will simply inflame the situation. One told me, ‘It would be better to make no speech than to disappoint.’

But I suspect that Tory spin doctors will be concerned about a second Europe story this Sunday, Eric Pickles’ confirmation under questioning from Andrew Neil that the government has a number for how many Romanians and Bulgarians are expected to move here from December 2013 when EU transition controls come to an end:

Pickles, normally a sure-footed media performer, said ‘I don’t think anybody entirely knows the number that are going to come from Bulgaria or from Romania’. But he went on to predict, ‘influxes in the east of London’. He also said that the government has a figure but that he’s not prepared to release it yet, ‘I’ve been given a figure, I’m not confident on the figure, and until I’m confident on the figure I’m not going to quote a figure.’

The government will now come under significant pressure to release this figure. Given that the transition controls expire in December, one would have thought that the government’s planning would be at a more advanced stage than this.

Transcript of the exchange from The Sunday Politics

Andrew Neil: “Let me move on to another issue because it affects the extra demand for housing. And much of the extra demand we’ve seen in the last decade came from record immigration. Now that could intensify despite the government’s efforts to try and curb the figure, in a year’s time 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians will be free to move and live and work in the UK if they want. Hasn’t the Home Office given you any estimate of how many are actually expected to come in the next couple of years?

Eric Pickles: The truth is I don’t think anybody entirely knows the number that are going to come from Bulgaria or from Romania.

AN: So have you had a guesstimate from the Home Office?

EP: I’ve had no discussions with the Home Office with regard to the numbers.

AN: So if you have no idea of the numbers, which I think follows from what you’ve said, does that mean you’ve not been able to do any preliminary work on what their housing needs might be?

EP: Well we do know of a number of boroughs that have a higher than average number of Romanians so I would expect to see influxes in the east of London, that’s predominately where they are now.

AN: But have you done any preliminary work on the implications for our housing demand as a result of this extra immigration?

EP: I know a number of London boroughs are doing it and it’s something that we’re actively engaged in.

AN: But have you not done any?

EP: Yes, we have done some.

AN: And what’s the consequence, how many are you planning for?

EP: That’s not something that I think will be helpful in terms of to go through the numbers just yet.

AN: Why?

EP: Because I think you’d have to have a degree of confidence in terms of the numbers before I’d publicly state them and one of the reasons that I’ve asked for fresh information is to make sure that before I make a public statement with regard to these that I’m confident on the numbers.

AN: So like 2004 when the then government told us only about 15,000 would come from Poland and Latvia and so on and it turned out to be 750,000 over a couple of years, this could be another disaster in the making.

EP: Well, in fairness to Michael Howard he pretty much got the figures exactly right. I am not –

AN: So will you get them exactly right this time?

EP; That’s why I’m reluctant to give a figure now until I’m absolutely confident about the figures being offered to me.

AN: Well let’s have an idea of the ball park, cos your Tory MP colleagues, Philip Hollobone, he said, let’s make the assumption that they come at the same rate as they did from Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania, and he said if you do that we’re talking about an extra 300,000 Romanians and Bulgarians. Is that a reasonable working assumption?

EP: No, I don’t think it is a reasonable working assumption.

AN: Why not?

EP: Because I need to be sure about the figures before I make a public pronouncement. That hasn’t changed in the last two minutes.

AN: Let’s be honest here, Mr Pickles, do you have any idea how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come?

EP: I’ve been given a figure, I’m not confident on the figure, and until I’m confident on the figure I’m not going to quote a figure.

AN: Can you give us the ball park for the figure? These are matters that would put huge strain on the housing stock if it’s a big figure.

EP: Perhaps I wasn’t very clear, so let me be absolutely clear. I’ve seen figures, I wasn’t confident with those figures. I’ve asked for a further explanation and when I’ve got that explanation and when I feel confident about the figures then I’ll talk about the figures.

AN: Does the figure you’ve been given worry you?

EP: When I am confident about the figures I will express my confidence or worries.

AN: But do you accept that this could present another major increase in housing demand in a country where this already a major housing shortage?

EP: Given that we’ve got a housing shortage, any influx from Romania and Bulgaria is going to cause problems and it’s going to cause problems not just in terms of the housing market, but also on social housing markets. But one of the reasons why I’m not prepared to start a scare story going is that I think we need to be reasonably confident about the figures.”

Tags: Bulgaria, Coalition, David Cameron, Eric Pickles, EU, Europe, Immigration, Romania, Sunday Politics, UK politics