The intervention of Paddy Ashdown into claims of widespread abuse of the small ethnic minority community in the Somerset market town of Yeovil brought a national spotlight to a problem that had been simmering for months.
The owners of the nine restaurants and takeaways at the bottom of Middle Street - a stone's throw from the Liberal Democrat leader's constituency headquarters - had long complained about a concerted campaign against them by a group of thugs.
There has been racist abuse, broken windows, violence and intimidation. Workers in the Indian restaurants complain of being afraid to go out because of victimisation. Some restaurants claim to be virtually under siege. The fire bombing of a kebab shop showed the extent to which those involved would go. The offices of the Western Gazette newspaper were also attacked. It had run articles critical of what was happening in Middle Street.
There are claims that those involved are skilled in getting others to set fires while ensuring a cast iron alibi for themselves. Police would not comment on those claims, but privately admit that getting evidence against known gang members is proving difficult.
Mr Ashdown is on record as saying that he knows the names of a small number of recidivists, perhaps 10 to 12 in number. They are in their mid- thirties and the MP put on record his determination to stop what was happening in Yeovil.
"Late night vandalism has unfortunately become the norm in town centre across the country,'' he said. "I am concerned because it is happening here in an extreme fashion.
"My clear view, backed by all that I have learnt, is that this is not political in the sense that the BNP is behind it. And I don't want it to come to that. It's an extension of the vandalism. Those who have had a skinful of beer or cider think that in addition to breaking plate-glass windows, it would be a useful extension to do a bit of 'Paki-bashing' as well.''
Superintendent Ted Allen, head of the Yeovil sub-division, said there was an ongoing programme to clean up the Middle Street area and protect the restaurant owners and their staff. But he admitted that since an attack on Mr Ashdown in November problems with public order and damage were still occurring in the area.
"This is something I am concerned about and I want to ensure that Yeovil is a safe place where people come out at night and enjoy themselves. I view it very much as local disorder, caused by local people with no long-term aims and fuelled by drink," he said.
To combat the problem Mr Ashdown had joined with community leaders to launch Partnerships Against Racial Harassment to alert the wider community to the problems being experienced and to show the ethnic minority community that they are not on their own.
Yeovil has a population of 40,000. Ethnic groups make up half of one per cent, almost the lowest rate in the country. Anthea Fisher, a worker with the Somerset Racial Equality Network, believes this lack of a history of ethnic minorities has led to those who do arrive being treated in a prejudiced way through lack of knowledge.
"There is an element that has been causing harassment for some time and the people subjected to it are too scared to come forward,'' she said.Reuse content