Champion Ogier set for Monte Carlo Rally

Sebastien Ogier says he is well prepared and relaxed as he begins his title defence this weekend in Monte Carlo where Korean constructor Hyundai enter the world rally championship (WRC) fray.

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The fabled Monte Carlo Rally is the oldest in the world.

First captured by French pioneering aviator Henri Rougier in 1911, it might have lost some of its lustre over the decades, but it still holds a special place in the hearts of rally enthusiasts.

From Paddy Hopkirk’s win at the wheel of the iconic Mini Cooper S half a century ago, Monte Carlo’s fortunes dipped to such an extent it disappeared from the WRC calendar in 2009, returning in 2012 when it was won by Sebastien Loeb.

Ogier is favourite to kick off 2014 on a winning note.

“Testing and preparations have been running at full throttle since November and we are well prepared to start the new season as defending champions.

“I’m not incapable of making a mistake, but I’m more relaxed than last year because I know that I have a winning car whereas, in 2013, the Polo-R was making its competitive debut.

“I’m approaching the Monte Carlo rally with lots of respect and humility despite all the confidence generated from last season. It’s always held in very tough conditions.”

Volkswagen, Ford and Citroen have a new rival in Hyundai, with rising star Thierry Neuville and experienced Dani Sordi their drivers.

Neuville, second in last season’s championship, spelled out the team’s ambitions for Monte Carlo.

“Our aim is to finish the event and get some good experience and mileage to further develop our car.”

Hyundai team chief Michel Nando added: “We have two very good drivers who have given the whole team a big boost.

“We all know that Thierry can achieve outstanding performance levels despite his young age, while Dani has a lot of experience in the WRC and at Rallye Monte-Carlo. We have a very good mix.”

Ogier’s birthplace of Gap provides the backdrop for the first two days competition, before an overnight stop in Monaco and two runs over the legendary Col de Turini on Saturday’s third and final day.

Ogier is bracing himself for a tough championship defence: “Our main goal is obviously to defend the title. It is never easy to win a title, but successfully defending it is even more difficult.”

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Ogilvy seeks major redemption

After missing his first Masters in eight years and having to watch good friend Adam Scott break the Augusta hoodoo from his couch, 2006 US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy is determined to claw his way back to Magnolia Lane.

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Ogilvy was a poster child for bad luck around Masters invites in 2013, missing at 2012 year-end by one world ranking spot and then again falling outside the mark the week before the tournament with an untimely missed cut.

He’s not out for a repeat dose in 2014.

“Obviously I am targeting the Masters. As it stands, the only major I am in is the US Open and the goal is to get back into all of them, starting with Augusta,” Ogilvy said from Palm Springs where he will continue his quest in the Humana Challenge, his first 2014 start.

“Ever since I knew I wasn’t getting in (the Masters) last year, I have been pretty determined and hell bent on never missing it again. It definitely gets me going on the range and putting green, that’s for sure.

“It would have been really cool to be there as it was a pretty cool Masters for Australia and it was a little bit more sad to miss it given the result.”

To make it back, the 36-year-old will need some big results over the first few months of the year having fallen to 131st in the world, his lowest mark since early 2003.

A win automatically brings a Masters invite while his only other window is to be inside the world top 50 by the week before the April 10-13 tournament.

Ogilvy is confident of a move given tracks like TPC Scottsdale, Torrey Pines and Riviera coming up on the schedule. He lives near Scottsdale, used to live by Torrey and reveres the design of Riviera.

The Victorian worked his tail off to get to Augusta last year, playing 10 of 11 weeks to start the year, but will be more mindful of burnout after falling agonisingly short.

“I’m setting the schedule, both tournaments and practice, with my mind on the Masters but I went a little bit over the top last year and, with my time again, I would have taken a bit of a time off after getting inside the top 50,” he said.

“It is a week to week proposition. Win a tournament and you’re there or accumulate enough points but, to do that, I will have to play better than I have been playing.

“I’ve come back from a true break in Australia with some fresh ideas on little technique things I haven’t appreciated quite enough and I am getting excited to get going.”

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Baby Fed credits Australian coach

Tired of being known as “Baby Fed”, rising tennis star Grigor Dimitrov credits Australian coach Roger Rasheed for finally giving him a grand slam edge.

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The Bulgarian former world No.1 junior takes on Yen-Hsun Lu on Thursday hoping to reach the third round of the Australian Open for the first time.

Dimitrov’s sorry grand slam record extends beyond Melbourne, with the 22-year-old yet to venture beyond the round of 32 at any of the season’s four majors, despite 13 previous attempts.

Lumped with the “Baby Fed” nickname since his junior days because of his Federer-like playing style and obvious talents, Dimitrov is intent on making his own name.

Hence why the 22-year-old boyfriend of Maria Sharapova hired Rasheed – former coach of Lleyton Hewitt and Gael Monfils – last September.

“He’s always been very picky with his players, which shows he means business,” Dimitrov said.

“So it’s a good sign that he’s someone who is going to push me around and we’ll have that mutual respect.

“But at the same time, he’s going to be tough but fair, which I think is important.

“We’ve been together for four months now so we’re a work in progress. There are a lot of things to come and we both believe in it.

“It’s exciting times ahead.”

Dimitrov said the partnership had already yielded dividends, with the world No.22 saying his tough four-set first-round win over American Bradley Klahn was a result of a a gruelling off-season with Rasheed.

“I ran around for around three or four hours and felt alright physically, which helps you lot mentally out there as well,” he said.

“I’m starting to find my way around a bit better in terms of preparing before a grand slam and finding the right to formula to get out there and play a good match.

“It’s our first grand slam together so we talk every day together about little pieces that we can focus on to be better.

“So hopefully with time and of course playing more matches and the experience of being together – and that experience that he had with past players – he can bring something extra and that’s what I’m looking for.”

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Aussie Jones has share of Phoenix lead

Australia’s Matt Jones fired his second straight six-under 65 on Friday to seize a share of the second-round lead of the Phoenix Open, with countryman Greg Chalmers lurking just two shots behind.

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Jones reached the halfway mark of the tournament at the top of the leaderboard alongside former Masters champion Bubba Watson.

Watson, tied for the lead after a first-round 64, carded a 66 on the par-71 Scottsdale course to maintain a share of the lead on 12-under-par 130.

The leading duo were two strokes in front of Chalmers and Harris English, who both posted second-round 67s.

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama also shot 67 to join the group sharing fifth place on nine-under 133. He was tied with Americans Pat Perez (68) and Kevin Stadler (68).

Watson, seeking his first victory since his 2012 Masters triumph, had seven birdies but he bogeyed two of his last three holes — the seventh and ninth.

Jones, who has a home nearby and is a local favourite, birdied three of the first four holes and after his only bogey of the day at the ninth added another three birdies at 13, 14 and 15 before capping his round with his seventh birdie of the day at the par-four 18th.

Ten players returned Friday morning to complete their opening rounds, and four players failed to complete the second round before it was suspended by darkness.

Along the way players coped with some gusty winds, and Jones was glad to have his second round completed relatively early before the desert temperatures dropped.

“We definitely got the good side of the draw going early,” he said. “It’s going to be cold and the ball isn’t going as far.”

Watson was pleased with his round, despite his two late bogeys.

“Everything is clicking right now,” he said. “I played really well last week, just didn’t make the putts. This time I’m playing well and some of the putts are dropping.”

South Korea’s Y.E. Yang, who shared the first-round lead with Watson, stumbled to a 73 and fell into a tie for 15th on five-under.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson, who fired a first-round 60 en route to a wire-to-wire triumph here last year, carded a 67 that left him tied for 27th eight shots off the lead.

Mickelson’s title defence was in doubt until Wednesday, after he withdrew from Torrey Pines with a bad back last week.

He said his first-round 71 was due to rust rather than any back trouble, and he felt sharper on Friday.

“I didn’t make too many sloppy swings,” said Mickelson, whose 10 fairways hit in regulation were twice as many as he managed in the first round. “My distance control was back on.

“I don’t know if I’m too far back or not, but on this golf course you can really make some fireworks happen.”

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Missing Ukrainian activist tortured

A leading Ukrainian opposition activist who vanished for eight days has emerged bloodied and badly beaten, saying his captors cut off an ear and drove nails through his hands before dumping him in a forest.

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Dmytro Bulatov, a 35-year-old member of the opposition movement involved in street protests against President Viktor Yanukovych, appeared with his face swollen and caked in blood on Ukrainian television after going missing from Kiev on January 22.

Speaking slowly and visibly shaken by his experience, Bulatov said his unknown captors blindfolded and abused him before dumping him in a forest outside the Ukrainian capital, from where he was able to make his way to a nearby village.

“My hands … they crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face,” Bulatov told Ukraine’s Channel 5 television, still wearing his blood-soaked clothes and pointing to holes on his palms. “Thank God I am alive.”

“I can’t see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time,” he said, adding that he was unable to see his captors.

Bulatov’s account drew immediate international condemnation, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who warned Ukrainian authorities not to target key activists that “must immediately be stopped”.

“I’m appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture and cruel treatment” of Bulatov, she said in a statement, calling it another incident in “continuous deliberate targeting of organisers and participants in peaceful protests”.

Amnesty International said the “barbaric act” must be investigated, adding that it is only one of several cases of similar disappearances.

The United Nations’ human rights office on Friday also called on Ukraine to launch an independent probe into deaths, kidnappings and torture amid the raging political unrest.

The US Embassy in Kiev posted a picture of Bulatov with a blackened gash on his cheek and said that “the government of Ukraine must take full responsibility for the timely investigation, capture, and prosecution of those responsible for this heinous crime”.

It further voiced concern over reports of 27 more missing activists, in a statement posted on official Facebook page.

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PM launches campaign for Bill Glasson contesting Rudd’s former seat of Griffith

The former Australian Medical Association President, Bill Glasson, is contesting the byelection for the seat of Griffith, prompted by the retirement of Kevin Rudd.

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Prime Minister Abbott praised Bill Glasson’s dedication.

“He’s not going into the parliament to promote his career or build his ego. He’s going into the parliament to serve our country.

“I have never met a man with better or purer motives for going into parliament in this country.”

Mr Glasson’s told Sky News the byelection is all about local issues.

“The message to the people of Griffith is that this is not a general election. This is a byelection. This is not about Mr Abbott, it’s not about Mr Shorten (federal opposition leader), it’s about Bill Glasson and his Labor opponent.

“And so the day after the byelection next week, you’ll still have Tony Abbott as the Prime Minister, you’ll still have an LNP government but hopefully you’ll have an LNP member for the seat of Griffith.”

Meanwhile, Labor candidate Terri Butler says Bill Glasson might have close ties to the Prime Minister but that won’t help the people of Griffith.

“I know that my LNP opponent is very close friends with Tony Abbott. They’re so close that Tony Abbott’s out talking him up today despite not having been here since the byelection was called on the sixth of January.

“But even though they’re close, he hasn’t been able to change Tony Abbott’s mind, he hasn’t been able to speak out against LNP policies, he hasn’t spoken out against Campbell Newman’s (Queensland Premier) policies, in fact he defended Campbell Newman’s health care cuts.”

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FBI called over Super Bowl ‘hoax’ powder

A suspicious white powder that caused the FBI to scramble to hotels near the scene of Sunday’s Super Bowl appears to have been a hoax threat, police said on Friday.

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FBI agents and police were called to at least five hotels close to the Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, where 80,000 people are expected to watch the Seattle Seahawks battle the Denver Broncos.

The FBI mobilised its joint terrorism task force and hazard materials units in response to the suspicious letters.

The incident raised fears with US law enforcement officials already on a massive security deployment to protect the event, jittery after bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon last year.

But within hours of police receiving the first phone call from panicked hotel staff, who opened the mail to find the powder, local police in Carlstadt said it appeared to have been a hoax.

Although there would be an analysis for final confirmation, investigators tend “to believe at this time that it was a cornstarch-based substance,” said police detective John Cleary.

Police had secured and left the area, although the FBI will be continuing with the investigation, he told AFP.

“It’s looking like it’s just a hoax,” Cleary said.

Officials were tipped off to at least five letters mailed to five hotels close to the sports stadium in East Rutherford.

Use of powder sent through the mail recalls the 2001 anthrax mailings in Washington, which killed five people and injured 17, days after the September 11 terror attacks.

Massive security preparations have been underway for years to protect Sunday’s Super Bowl from any possible threat.

New York Police Department commissioner William Bratton had said work had been aimed at forestalling “lone wolf” threats, such as the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon in April 2013.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, the Big Apple strengthened its police and security apparatus.

“There is a lot of counter-terrorism experience here,” US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told reporters on Wednesday. “I take a lot of comfort from that.”

The NFL has hired more than 4,000 private personnel to work with a massive security contingent representing 100 agencies that have been preparing for three years for Sunday’s game.

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UN issues NZ 155 human rights tasks

The international community has issued New Zealand more than 150 recommendations to improve its human rights record.

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The recommendations, which come out of a United Nations meeting in Geneva, involve signing international conventions, reducing child poverty, minimising disparity between Maori and other New Zealanders and improving woman’s rights.

However, many of the 193 member nations congratulated New Zealand on its human rights record and progress already made.

Earlier this week, Justice Minister Judith Collins presented the country’s report for the Universal Periodic Review on human rights.

All UN member countries are required to report on their human rights performance every four-and-a-half years.

The government described New Zealand as having a “proud tradition of promoting and protecting human rights at home and overseas”.

The New Zealand delegation was required to answer a number of questions from member nations who considered New Zealand’s progress before posing recommendations.

The 155 recommendations by individual member nations, listed in a draft report released on Saturday, have been presented back to New Zealand.

Ms Collins said the reception New Zealand received in Geneva was “fantastic”.

“The rate of family violence in New Zealand is unacceptable but I’m pleased the Human Rights Council recognises the investment this government is already making to better support and protect victims of domestic violence,” she said.

But the Green Party says the recommendations are “embarrassing” and show New Zealand has lost ground on protecting woman and children.

On Tuesday, the Law Society criticised Ms Collins’ national report for omitting “significant human rights issues in the New Zealand context”.

The society says the parliament’s use of urgency to push through laws and enactment of Bill of Rights-inconsistent legislation are key human rights issues.

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson hit back at the Law Society, saying the use of urgency is not a human rights issue and the comments show a “wilful ignorance of the facts”.

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JK Rowling sues Daily Mail for libel

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has filed a libel lawsuit against bosses at British newspaper the Daily Mail over a 2013 report published about her past as a struggling single mother.

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The writer claims editors attributed a single incident involving one woman, who had visited her local church in Edinburgh, to formulate a story about how her fellow church members treated her in a “bigoted, unchristian manner”, because she was raising a child on her own.

Rowling insists the article, which said “How JK Rowling’s sob story about her past as a single mother has left the churchgoers who cared for her upset and bewildered”, damaged her reputation and caused her distress and embarrassment, according to The Guardian.

She is suing executives at the publication over the “misleading and unfair” story, which was published in September.

The court documents state: “(They wrote) a knowingly false account of her time as a single mother in Edinburgh… falsely and inexcusably accusing her fellow churchgoers of behaving in a bigoted, unchristian manner towards her, of stigmatising her and cruelly taunting her for being a single mother.”

A journalist reportedly contacted Rowling’s lawyer before the article was published but did not give the author an opportunity to comment.

Rowling is seeking unspecified damages from publishers at parent company Associated Newspapers.

The article has since been removed from the Daily Mail website. A spokesperson for the publication has declined to comment on the case.

It’s the latest legal drama for the author – she was awarded damages in July after a British lawyer who outed Rowling as the secret writer of The Cuckoo’s Calling was fined over the leak.

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Next Iran nuclear talks set for February 1

World powers will hold their next talks on Tehran’s contested nuclear program on February 18.

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In an earlier accord in November, Iran agreed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – plus Germany that it would open up its nuclear program to allay fears it would build atomic weapons.

In return, the world powers agreed to a progressive lifting of tough sanctions that have caused immense damage to the Iranian economy.

Top Iranian and European Union (EU) diplomats agreed the latest stage during talks on Friday.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who has led the international nuclear talks with Iran, said she had a “really interesting” meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Speaking about the upcoming talks to be held in Vienna in just over two weeks, Ashton added: “I very much look forward to working together with you then.”

The US State Department also confirmed the date and place of the next talks, after having earlier this week said that they would take place in New York.

“A European city made more sense because of travel schedules,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Earlier this month, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, certified that Tehran had stuck to its side of the initial deal, giving access to key nuclear installations and cutting back its enriched uranium stockpile.

Accordingly, the EU and the US began lifting sanctions on January 20, laying the groundwork for the next, six-months of the process.

During this period, the EU and US have promised to impose no new sanctions.

Iran has insisted repeatedly that its nuclear program is peaceful. But in an atmosphere of complete distrust, the West applied ever tighter sanctions, with serious impacts on the Iranian economy.

Despite the initial progress, the core of these sanctions remains in place.

The accord provides for ultimately removing the sanctions if Iran lives up to all its commitments.

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Aid enters besieged Syria Yarmuk camp

The United Nations has distributed food in the Syrian capital’s besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp for a second day in a bid to help tens of thousands of trapped civilians.

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The aid distribution comes after months of siege by the army that has caused shortages of food and medicines, leading to the deaths of 86 people, according to a monitoring group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that more than 100 people deemed “humanitarian cases” were evacuated from the camp on Friday by the Red Crescent and taken to local hospitals.

UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) spokesman Chris Gunness said an aid convoy entered the camp in south Damascus in the morning.

“UNRWA staff carried out another full day of food aid distributions in Yarmuk … handing out 980 food parcels,” he said.

“This follows the distribution of 1026 food parcels yesterday. Since we were able to enter the camp on 18th January, we have distributed a total of 2144 food parcels.”

Yarmuk is largely in the hands of rebel forces, and has been under army siege since June, making it nearly impossible for food and medicines to enter or for residents to leave.

Residents have spoken of eating grass, cats, and dogs in a bid to stay alive.

The camp began as a home for Palestinian refugees, but long ago evolved into a bustling district housing some 150,000 Palestinians, as well as many Syrians.

But now just an estimated 18,000 Palestinians remain in the camp, much of which has been destroyed by fighting.

Gunness said UNRWA appreciated the efforts of the Syrian government and others in facilitating the aid delivery.

“These distributions demonstrate that the extraordinary suffering in Yarmuk and other closed areas of Syria can be addressed if all parties to the conflict fulfil their obligations to protect civilians,” he said.

He said UNRWA stood ready to provide food for all the estimated 18,000 Palestinian civilians still in the camp.

The food parcels contain enough provisions to feed a family for 10 days, and Gunness said it was “imperative that continuous access to Yarmuk is authorised and supported.”

Gunness said “chaotic scenes” accompanied Thursday’s aid distribution – the first since January 21 – as thousands of residents tried to get food.

Yarmuk is one of a number of rebel-held areas where army blockades have left trapped civilians in desperate straits.

The United Nations has also been trying to negotiate access for humanitarian aid to the besieged Old City of Homs in central Syria.

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30 killed in CAR capital in three days

An unprecedented level of violence in the Central African Republic capital has left 30 dead in three days, the Red Cross says.

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The violence occurred as French troops converged on a rebel-held northern town.

French military aircraft hovered over the strategic town of Sibut, 180 kilometres north of the capital Bangui, which was seized by ex-Seleka rebels on Thursday, prompting African troops and hundreds of frightened residents to flee.

“A military operation is happening in Sibut,” a French communication officer told AFP on Friday, while a defence official in Paris confirmed the presence of the aircraft since Friday afternoon.

Newly installed interim president Catherine Samba Panza slammed the rebel efforts, saying they aimed to destabilise her mandate.

“At the time when the government is calling for togetherness, tolerance and national reconciliation, some of our countrymen are taking upon themselves the heavy responsibility of dividing the country,” she said.

No Central African citizen “worthy of the name” would allow such “anti-patriotic, irresponsible and dangerous” actions, she added, vowing not to cede “an inch of our ground.”

The installation of a new government in the strife-torn nation has failed to stem inter-religious violence between the mostly Muslim Seleka and Christian militia groups.

Tensions remain high in Bangui, where Red Cross officials said they had collected 30 bodies in the past three days after fighting which also left 60 people wounded.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation Georgios Georgantas said he was very concerned by an unprecedented level of violence.

The poor, landlocked country descended into chaos 10 months ago after Seleka overthrew the government and installed one of its leaders, Michel Djotodia, as the country’s first Muslim president.

His Seleka fighters began targeting people from the Christian majority, prompting the emergence of self-defence groups who launched revenge attacks on Muslims amid reports of murder, mutilation, rape and looting by both sides.

By the time Djotodia was effectively ousted by regional leaders on January 10 for his failure to end the spiralling bloodshed, about a million people were displaced out of a population of 4.6 million.

Georgantas urged the authorities and some 7000 French and African troops based near Bangui Airport to “take up their responsibilities” and keep the peace in a city abandoned by hundreds of thousands of residents.

The foreign soldiers were patrolling districts of the capital, where French troops this week warned looters that they would open fire if they failed to disperse.

In contrast the interior of the country is a lawless zone ruled by warlords, with few or no foreign troops present.

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‘Romanian invasion’ in UK fails to eventuate

A quarantine period that kept Bulgarians and Romanians out of the jobs market in the UK and eight other EU states ended on January 1, seven years after the two countries achieved full EU membership.

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The temporary restrictions meant Bulgarians and Romanians could only apply for jobs in the agricultural and food processing sectors under a quota system.

Tricia McCarron from Worldwide Fruit Limited says in the last month she has seen no sign of a mass migration of Romanians or Bulgarians in Britain.

“We haven’t seen any here and I’ve also checked with our agency GM recruitment and they’ve had no applications either,” Ms McCarron said.

“We’ve always got jobs and if they were able to do the jobs, if they shared our values and had the right skills we would employ them.”

In Peterborough, Britain’s fastest growing city, predictions of mass migration have not materialised either.

“I never thought it was likely and because we didn’t think it was likely I didn’t think it was going to be any bigger challenge then the one we already have,” said Councillor Marco Cereste from Peterborough City Council.

“Our evidence shows us that we’ve got one Romanian family that’s arrived in Peterborough recently.”

Nurse Liliana Demeter moved from Romania a decade ago and says she finds the language of the immigration debate offensive.

“They’re not on benefits. I don’t know even one Romanian to even be on benefits,” she said.

“Are we in the European Union or not? It would better not to let us come [if we’re going to] just be put through all this humiliation.”

The government will publish the first official arrival figures in five months time.

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