Race becoming local election issue, warns minister

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Both the Government and the Liberal Democrats today accused the Tories of playing the race card in the run-up to the local elections.

Home Office Minister Barbara Roche said the Conservatives should "watch their language" over asylum-seekers and said she had reluctantly concluded they were using race as an electoral issue.

She rejected charges that the Government had helped create the problem by talking tough on asylum-seekers, and called on all parties to "take the heat" out of the situation.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Simon Hughes said both the Opposition and the Government were playing a dangerous game over race, and he was writing to the Commission for Racial Equality to ask it to investigate.

Conservative education spokesman John Bercow rejected the claims, saying there "isn't a racist bone in the body" of party leader William Hague or Ann Widdecombe, shadow home secretary.

But, questioned on GMTV's The Sunday Programme With Alistair Stewart about the inability of an Asian Tory candidate to find a local party which would select him to run for Parliament, Mr Bercow acknowledged that something was wrong.

"There is a problem," he said.

Ms Roche, the minister responsible for immigration matters, said Britain had a record it could be proud of when it came to giving a home to genuine refugees.

But she added: "There is a difficulty with very many people making unfounded claims for asylum, and of course that brings the situation into real question."

Those people had to be "removed" and the Government believed more "detention space" was needed to hold them in while their claims were processed.

The Conservatives' "appalling" language was a very different story, Ms Roche said, adding that the emphasis their local election manifesto placed on asylum was deliberate.

"They are - quite clearly in my view - attempting to play the race card," she said.

She called for a "bi-partisan approach" to asylum, with the other parties backing the Government as it tried to deal with the rising number of applications.

"To play politics with this is a very dangerous thing to do. People do have to be very careful in the language that they use."

Mr Hughes - a former human rights lawyer - said there were already tensions in places like London and Kent which politicians must not inflame.

"Not a single thing should be said or done that makes the problem worse," he stressed.

"I have indicated that I'm going to ask, in a letter they will get tomorrow, the CRE to look at things said by the Conservative Party - not just in their local election manifesto - but also by spokespeople."

But he also wanted the commission to look at "comments made by Government ministers", Mr Hughes told the programme.

Politicians in the other parties were giving out a "false" impression that raised tensions, he said.

"I have to say, in many cases, it is simply seeking to pander to people's baser instincts."

Sean Woodward, the Labour MP who recently crossed the floor from the Conservatives, called on Mr Hague to tell his party members not to play the race card.

It was in his constituency, Whitney in Oxfordshire, that 17-year-old Christopher Barton was set alight by a white gang on Friday in a racist attack, he said.

The latest comments follow veiled criticism of the Tories' local manifesto by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Representatives of UNHCR said that phrases in the document seemingly broke the spirit of an all-party agreement on the language used on the issue.

In the agreement, published last year, Conservative leader William Hague and the other major party leaders agreed that free speech must not be used for political advantage by inciting or exploiting prejudice on the grounds of race, nationality or religion."

However, the UNHCR said that the Conservative manifesto - which includes the phrase "flooding our country with bogus asylum-seekers" - apparently breached the code.