Major warns Tory MPs over immigration fears

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The Independent Online
Chief Political Correspondent

John Major warned Tory backbenchers yesterday that raising fears about immigration over the threat to Britain's border controls by the European Union was putting Britain's good race relations record at risk.

Sources close to the Prime Minister said Mr Major was concerned that fears about immigration triggered by the resignation of Charles Wardle, the former trade minister, risk creating racial tensions.

In the Commons, he dismissed a warning by Nigel Evans, a Tory backbencher, that there could be a "tidal wave" of immigration if the EU forced Britain to abandon its border controls.

"Over recent years, we have seen a very welcome improvement in race relations in this country. I don't wish to see that put at risk in any way. I think raising fears about immigration does tend to do that."

The Prime Minister hinted that Britain would defy the European Court of Justice, if legal action against the European Commission by the European Parliament, led to a challenge to Britain's right to maintain border controls on EU citizens.

However, Euro-sceptic Tory MPs who have lost the whip stepped up their campaign by tabling a Commons motion attacking any EU threat to lift Britain's border controls. It was timed to coincide with the announcement today by Jacques Santer, the European Commission president, of legislation to lift internal EU border controls.

Some Tory MPs are alarmed that the removal of internal borders in the EU will force Britain to introduce compulsory identity cards. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is preparing plans for voluntary identity cards.

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, came out against compulsory identity cards in the strongest terms so far, and committed a Labour government to maintaining border controls within the EU.

He said that if Britain went down the road of open border controls, it would end with compulsory identity cards and tensions between the police and the public over checks on the ID cards.

Mr Straw added: "We are implacably opposed to the EC taking over from the UK government and the UK parliament control of immigration..."

t Richard Page, 53, Tory MP for Hertfordshire South West and a backbench MP since 1976, was given his first ministerial appointment yesterday, replacing Mr Wardle at the Department of Trade and Industry.