Nick Clegg reacted with fury yesterday to accusations that ministers were "sociologically cleansing" the poor out of parts of London with planned cuts to housing benefit payments.
A visibly angry Deputy Prime Minister told Chris Bryant, Labour's shadow minister for constitutional reform, that his comments were "outrageous" and "deeply offensive to people who have witnessed ethnic cleansing".
Last night Mr Bryant said he stood by his remarks on the Coalition's plans to cap housing benefit at around £400 a week for a house rented in the private sector. Critics say this will force up to 80,000 families out of London and other major metropolitan areas because they will no longer be able to afford their homes. "Personally I prefer to live in cities which are not ghettos," he added.
During a heated exchange at Deputy Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Bryant said an estimated 200,000 people would be forced out of London and other cities as a result of the Government's "niggardly" proposals. This, he said, would turn London into Paris "with the poor consigned to the outer ring".
He asked Mr Clegg: "Would it not be iniquitous if on top of being socially engineered and sociologically cleansed out of London, the poor were also disenfranchised by your (Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies) Bill? How do you propose to make electoral provision for these displaced people?"
Mr Clegg angrily replied: "To refer to cleansing would be deeply offensive to people who have witnessed ethnic cleansing in other parts of the world. It is an outrageous way of describing..."
Faced with loud retorts from members of the Labour front bench, he went on: "No, I'll tell you exactly what we are doing.
"What we are doing is saying that people who receive housing benefit, it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to say it won't hand out more in housing benefit than people who go out to work, pay their taxes, abide by the rules.
"We are simply suggesting there should be a cap for family homes of four bedrooms of £400 a week. That is £21,000 a year.
"Do you really think it's wrong for people who can't afford to live privately in those areas, that the state should subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000? I don't think so."
London boroughs told a meeting of MPs last week that councils have already block-booked bed and breakfasts and other private accommodation outside the capital to house those who will be priced out of the London market.
Others have predicted protests on the scale of the poll tax as families are forcibly evicted from houses deemed "too expensive" to live in.
At the weekend Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, warned ministers that three of the proposed seven changes to housing benefit set out in last week's Spending Review were the "wrong ones" and would need to be altered if Lib Dem MPs were to support them.
The include a cut of 10 per cent in housing benefit after one year for those on jobseeker's allowance, the cap on housing benefit for private rented homes, and allowing housing associations to charge rent at close to the full market rate.
Liberal Democrat backbenchers still hope they can force concessions on the Government before detailed proposals are published later this year.
"We don't think this is a red line issue for the Government," said one. "But equally people feel very strongly and if they push ahead there is likely to be a lot of dissent."
A Downing Street spokesman said a maximum of 21,000 people would be affected by the £400 benefit cap, 17,000 of whom live in London. "The numbers [Mr Bryant] has seen bear no relation to reality. We are reforming housing benefit because it needs reform."
France's divided capital
The train ride from Paris' banlieues to the centre of the city takes only 15 minutes. But when the mostly immigrant youths from the suburbs arrive at Les Halles station, the environment they find themselves in is quite different to the one they have left.
For there is decidedly less racial diversity in the centre of Paris than there is in London. That makes for a complicated social picture. Mention the police to the city's immigrant young people, and they will often become angry. Like everyone else in authority, they seem to them to be racist – a perception only heightened by the geographical divide.
Indeed, segregation is almost built-in in France's major cities. Paris' divide is deepened by a motorway separating the centre from the suburbs. What started as a financial discrepancy has created ghettos, and the so-called quartiers chauds: areas where locals, mostly first or second generation immigrants, attack policemen and burn cars.
In a country where psychogeography was invented, academics have long railed against the way French cities shut out the rabble. Even people in the streets call wistfully for Le Corbusier's perfect, interconnected town.
Molly Guinness in Paris