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UK diplomats warn East Europeans: don't come to Britain

British diplomats in Eastern Europe have been ordered to spread the message that the UK is not extending a welcome to people who want to come here to claim benefits.

The instructions have turned the British ambassador in Bratislava, Ric Todd, into an unlikely star of Slovak television. Mr Todd was the top news item on the Markiza TV station after a Slovak woman named Helena was detained at a British port before being put on the bus back home. She claimed she was coming for a holiday, but immigration officers suspected she intended to stay illegally and claim benefits.

Helena's case is hardly unusual - dozens of East Europeans are turned away at British ports every month. But the fact that it was given such prominence, on orders from the director-general of Markiza television, is a small success for British diplomacy.

But the Home Office has denied that David Blunkett was on the point of imposing quotas on the number of economic migrants from former communist states who will be permitted to work in Britain after they become EU citizens on 1 May.

Officials say the case against restricting work permits had been strengthened by the tragedy that overtook Chinese cockle gatherers in Morecambe Bay. They believe that the British economy is vibrant enough to absorb up to 12,000 migrants a year, but is already accommodating an unknown number of East Europeans working here in the black economy.

There are hopes that after 1 May, they will come out of hiding, start paying tax and be covered by minimum wage legislation.

"What we do want is people to come here to work, or come here to study if they can support themselves. What we don't want is people coming here to claim benefits," said a Home Office spokeswoman.

"We are actively looking at ways to tighten up the benefit regime, but we have said we will allow access for those who want to work, and that is a decision that we are standing by."