Lib Dems in new dispute over 'racism'

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TOWER HAMLETS council, run by Liberal Democrats already under fire for producing allegedly racist election leaflets and replacing Asian council candidates with whites, will start next week dismissing 150 specialist teachers who help Bengali and black children.

The threat of redundancies has intensified the atmosphere of racial tension in London's East End, where last autumn the neo-fascist British National Party won a council seat on the Isle of Dogs. Opponents of the Liberal Democrats are questioning the council's commitment to equal opportunities.

'Our children are going to fall back, and the advances we have seen in their education will be lost,'said Abdul Wadud, a Tower Hamlets primary school teacher whose job is likely to go. 'The Liberal Democrats are not interested in ethnic-minority children. They just don't want to listen.'

Many in the East End fear the BNP will make further advances in the 5 May local elections. Yesterday Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, whose internal inquiry into Tower Hamlets council last year censured activists for 'pandering to racism' in election leaflets, warned about the growth of 'fascism' in Britain.

'It is now the duty of each of the mainstream parties to do whatever must be done to destroy this menace where it has taken root in the deprived Isle of Dogs and to prevent it spreading,' he told the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Pitlochry. 'Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere are not prepared to play party politics with race.'

The latest controversy in Tower Hamlets flows from a Home Office decision to cut its 'Section 11' scheme, which helps children from the New Commonwealth to learn English. For almost 20 years, central government has paid 75 per cent of the cost of providing extra staff in classrooms. The specialists concentrated on improving the English of ethnic-minority children while the form teacher got on with instructing the rest of the class.

From 1 April, the Government's contribution will fall to 57 per cent, leaving Tower Hamlets, where 60 per cent of primary school children are from ethnic minorities, with a pounds 2.5m shortfall.

Although responsibility for the cuts lies with the Home Office, teachers and the local Labour Party blame the council for not trying to make good the loss. Teaching unions have held a one-day strike.

Other local teachers said that if children did not have the confidence to speak English, they could not hold their own when confronted with racial insults. 'They are left feeling very isolated and very vulnerable,' said one. 'There are BNP slogans on the walls round here and children get abuse and worse.'

John Biggs, the opposition Labour group leader, said: 'If they wanted to find the money they could - everyone in local government knows that there are a thousand ways to skin a cat. But the Liberal Democrats have decided to spend millions on new pavements and bollards, because they think it will help them win the May election, rather than education.'

Stewart Rayment, the Liberal Democrat education chairman, said he hoped some of the redundant teachers would be redeployed as ordinary classroom teachers. He dismissed accusations of racism as a predictable allegation from a 'lefty' union.