LONDON, Oct 30 (Reuters) The British government, under pressure over the number of foreign workers coming into the country, said today it would extend restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians until at least the end of 2008.
Britain limited migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania when they joined the European Union in January in a shift from the open-door policy it adopted towards other eastern Europeans.
The government announced its decision as it was forced to apologise for underestimating by 300,000 the number of foreign nationals who have come to work in Britain in the decade that the Labour Party has been in power. That is similar to the population of a medium-sized English city such as Coventry.
The admission shocked opposition politicians, and even some of the Labour government's own members.
Reviewing government policy, Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said in a statement that while migration had made a positive contribution to the economy, there were signs immigration was putting pressure on public services.
''The right balance points to continuing to restrict access to the labour market for those low-skilled migrants coming from Romania and Bulgaria until at least the end of 2008,'' he said.
Under the scheme, low-skilled workers from Bulgaria and Romania may work in Britain under a quota system in food processing industries and agriculture, but skilled migrants are only granted jobs if they cannot be filled by residents.
New analysis of labour market data showed that, instead of 800,000, ''there are, in total, an extra 1.1 million foreign nationals in employment in the UK since 1997,'' Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain said in a letter to legislators yesterday.
BIG MISTAKE A lack of reliable data on migrant flows has been a major headache for policymakers, complicating everything from the allocation of government resources to setting interest rates.
''I do accept it is a big mistake,'' Employment Minister Caroline Flint told BBC radio.
Immigration has become a hot political issue in Britain with some fearing that rapid migration has undercut resident workers and put severe strain on housing, education and health services.
Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron yesterdy called for annual limits on migration to Britain from countries outside the European Union.
A projection from Britain's statistics office last week showed the population is set to grow from 60.6 million last year to 71 million by 2031, with immigration a key factor.
The far-right British National Party has sought to take advantage of concerns over the influx with a hardline anti-immigration message.
Chris Grayling, the Conservatives' employment spokesman, accused the government of losing control of systems for monitoring migrant workers.
Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of a parliamentary law and order committee, described the mistake as ''pretty astonishing''.
Britain's national statistics office today announced it will change the way it collects migration data, questioning larger samples of people entering and leaving the country.
REUTERS SG RN1905