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Front runner in Austrian election proposes cuts to migrant benefits

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said on Monday benefits for migrants should be cut and capped, tapping into concerns about immigrants among voters ahead of an Oct. 15 general election he is favorite to win.

FILE PHOTO: Austria's Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz addresses the media in Vienna, Austria June 26, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

The plan would cut payments to refugees to 560 euros a month per person, or around half of the poverty threshold according to a consensus of 40 social groups, while payments per household would be capped at 1,500 euros.

Tens of thousands of people from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa have arrived in Austria in the past two years, raising public spending on social benefits and fuelling support for policy makers who advocate cutting migration.

Kurz’s conservative People’s Party has led opinion polls since he took over as its chief in May at around 33 percent. The far right Freedom Party and Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats have 25 percent each.

“We must secure our welfare state and our systems ... in the long term. To achieve this, we must protect our social system from further immigration,” Kurz, 31, said in a statement.

“Many receive basic social benefit payments ... without having paid into the social system yet. Those who work and pay taxes must not be disadvantaged,” he said, echoing policies of the Freedom Party.

Three provinces in highly federalized Austria have introduced rules similar to Kurz’s proposals since the influx began. The Freedom Party, which has gained support because of opposition to immigration, accuses Kurz of copying its ideas.

The benefit cuts in the provinces are being scrutinized by the constitutional court, which is unlikely to rule until early next year. The U.N. refugee agency says the cuts breach EU and international law.

The benefit threshold for a household of two adults and two children should be around 2,500 euros, according to the consensus of the Armutskonferenz, or poverty conference, that makes recommendations on social affairs.

It was not clear how much refugees would get if they have children under the proposal. Kurz’s campaign did not immediately reply to a request for clarification.

In the province of Vienna, where more than 60 percent of payments for basic social benefits are made, one person, regardless of their nationality, is currently entitled to around 840 euros a month.

Immigration is a key concern for voters. Kurz also wants to reduce the tax burden on companies to make any profit a company reinvests tax free. Corporate tax would only be applied to profit paid to shareholders. The corporate tax rate is 25 percent.

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg