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Labour Vows Curbs on U.K. Welfare Payments to Migrants

The opposition Labour Party called for greater limits on benefit payments to European migrants to Britain to make the system “fairer,” as it sought to capitalize on anti-immigration sentiment among voters.

The party’s home affairs spokeswoman, Yvette Cooper, said voters fear the impact of Bulgarian and Romanian migration when restrictions on nationals from both countries working in the U.K. are lifted next year. Changes to ease potential problems could be made before January, she said.

“Ministers should take sensible action around the benefit system and services,” Cooper said in a speech in London today. “The system needs to be seen to be fair. Giving people the right to work in other countries is not about people traveling and getting support from other countries if they don’t plan to contribute.”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government has been attacked by Labour for failing to release estimates of how many Bulgarians and Romanians will enter the U.K. to work. Far more people from the eight eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004 arrived in Britain that the then Labour government forecast.

Cooper, who has not ruled herself out as a future leader of the Labour Party, called for a “presence test” that would prevent migrants from immediately making claims for state-funded welfare payments. Labour leader Ed Miliband admitted in a party political broadcast shown last night that the party got it wrong on immigration when they were in power before 2010.

‘Arms Race’

Cooper said in future Labour will focus on “practical” measures to cut immigration, rather than getting involved in an “arms race” of rhetoric, acknowledging it’s lost touch with voters on the subject. During the 2010 election campaign, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was recorded calling a voter who expressed concern about immigration a “bigoted woman.”

Cooper said the presence test would help “clarify” that “people will be expected to be in the country for some time or to contribute before they get something back.” She also called for EU-wide change to a rule that family benefits must be paid even if parents and children live in different countries.

“If someone moves from Newcastle to London for work and leaves their children behind, they cannot claim child tax credit,” she said. “But if someone moves to London, leaving their children in Paris or Prague instead, they can claim child tax credit and send it home. That’s not fair.”

Cooper also demanded tighter enforcement of labor market rules, saying companies that recruit low-skilled workers from abroad should do more to train local staff.

Home Secretary Theresa May was meeting German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich today to discuss issues related to the lifting of EU labor restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians. Friedrich said before the meeting that more EU regulation is needed to prevent migrants settling in countries like Germany and the U.K. to claim benefits that are more generous than at home.

“There is no problem when people are coming to Germany for work,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “That’s what we want. But we don’t want to have people coming only to get social security.”

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