Blunkett under fire for backing 'British norms'

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David Blunkett came under fire from MPs and community leaders yesterday after he called on ethnic minorities to help racial integration by adopting the norms of British life and learning to speak English.

Interviewed by The Independent on Sunday, the Home Secretary said: "We have norms of acceptability and those who come into our home – for that is what it is – should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere."

A White Paper on citizenship will say in the new year that ethnic minorities should learn enough English for their own well-being and that of their children and grandchildren. But Mr Blunkett denied he was echoing Norman Tebbit's so-called cricket test and insisted that immigrants would not face "an English test" before being allowed into this country.

Mr Blunkett was interviewed ahead of the publication tomorrow of two reports into the race riots that broke out this summer in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. Although the immediate cause for rioting may have been the activities of far-right groups such as the British National Party, the reports will say, the conditions for unrest had been formed over many years because ethnic minorities decided to live in virtual single-race ghettos.

The reports will warn that resentment was fuelled by government spending decisions that allocate regeneration money to rigidly defined districts, creating the false impression that neighbouring areas had been excluded for racial reasons.

Mohammed Sarwar, the Labour MP for Glasgow Govan, said there was logic to Mr Blunkett's arguments but warned him not to "patronise" Britain's ethnic minority communities. He said: "Children born and brought up here feel themselves to be British, are proud to be British and I don't think they need any lessons from anybody about their patriotism and Britishness."

Rhiad Ahmad, the deputy mayor of Oldham, warned that Mr Blunkett's comments might offer ammunition to racists. If Asian Britons found themselves in single-race ghettos, it was because of poverty and deprivation, not self-segregation, he said. "Instead of offering them hope and aspiration, all we are offering them is English tests," said Mr Ahmad.

"I can visualise the British National Party putting up election literature at the next local elections, quoting these words from the Home Secretary." Mahroof Rashid, of the Oldham Race Equality Partnership, said Mr Blunkett should clearly define what he meant by "British norms of acceptability". He said most of the Asian youths involved in the race riots were born in the UK, spoke English and had been educated in Britain. "It is absurd to say that they still need to prove themselves as British citizens," he said.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "The problem about the Home Secretary's remarks is that they can be taken, given the language he used, in a way which is not at all helpful, given the delicate race relations situation we all know we have in this country at the moment."

Downing Street backed Mr Blunkett, saying: "The Prime Minister and the Government fully recognise that there is a balance to be struck between fully recognising and celebrating the rich diversity of traditions and backgrounds we have in this country and, at the same time, recognising that as a community we have to face certain issues together. It is not a case of either/or, it is a question of both."

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said the Conservatives would back any government proposals that encouraged more integration. "It is right that we should have that diversity, but we must also all feel that first and foremost we are British," he said.