Tory candidates in marginal seats stir up storm by playing race card

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Conservative candidatesin marginal seats across Britain are raising fears about the impact of immigration and asylum on council tax, schools and hospitals to swing the populist vote behind the Tories.

A survey by The Independent reveals Tory candidates from the south coast to the Scottish Highlands are playing the immigration card to win over undecided voters dissatisfied with Labour.

One Tory leaflet from Andrew Pelling, standing in Croydon Central, where Lunar House, the Home Office immigration assessment office, is based, depicts a world map under the headline "Unlimited Immigration". It has an arrow pointing to Croydon.

A Labour campaigner said: "The message is pretty clear ­ the world's immigrants are heading to Croydon."

A leading Tory in the area confirmed the policy was attracting support. "Immigration is still running very strongly here. I went campaigning in a Labour area last night and we couldn't get rid of our leaflets fast enough. This issue has been talked about for months at Westminster, but the public are just waking up to it," he said.

In other Conservative election literature, Nick de Bois, candidate in Enfield North, warns of "the strain put on local schools by bogus asylum-seekers". Anne Main, standing in St Albans, says five "illegal immigrants" were arrested and freed in the area although "nobody knows if these people were criminals, carrying diseases". Alan Milburn, Labour's campaign co-ordinator, said: "This confirms the Tory strategy is to exploit these issues, not to deal with them."

Tauhid Pasha, legal policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "It's plain and simple scaremongering. Foreign nationals don't pose a threat to resources and public services." Some senior Tory figures are appalled at the tone of the campaign and an advertisement by Bob Spink, a Tory candidate in Castle Point, south Essex, targeting failed asylum-seekers, which calls on Tony Blair to "send them back".

One former minister who is standing as a Tory candidate in the South said: "Spink is a complete idiot. It is redolent of John Townend [a former Tory MP] at the last election but I don't think Michael will lift a finger ... I think Michael Howard could do himself a power of good by sounding as if he is the prime minister in waiting but he hasn't done that."

Mr Blair will answer the Tories in a speech today, where he will pledge strict controls on immigration and the speedier removal of failed asylum-seekers. But he will reject the Tory demand for an annual limit on the number of immigrants.

Immigration is one of the few issues on which the Tories have a substantial lead over Labour, and the Conservative campaign director, Lynton Crosby, has a reputation for hard-hitting attacks in his native Australia. The Tory campaign leadership has authorised leaflets and advertisements, which stay within the law but link local asylum costs to the soaring cost of the council tax. Others claim that the "bogus asylum-seekers" could bring diseases into this country, or put extra pressure on schools.

Tories paid for a newspaper advertisement covering the councils of Reading and Wokingham that linked the £17m spent on supporting asylum to the rise in council tax since 1997. Tory campaigners in Beaconsfield handed out leaflets saying immigration has tripled under Labour, "equivalent to a town the size of Peterborough arriving in the UK every year".

Douglas Taylor, who is contesting Perth, not an area of high immigration density, warns: "Voters face a clear choice at this election ­ unlimited immigration under Labour or fair and controlled immigration with the Conservatives."

Oxford East Tories, where Virginia Morris is the Tory candidate, issued a leaflet saying only the Tories had the courage "to tell the truth about immigration and the courage to act". Highlighting the plight of immigrants exploited by people traffickers, it featured a mock job advertisement saying: "Girl trafficking ­ raped 18 hours a day, no home leave, work for £1 per day, shame on your family."

Writing today in The Independent, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Howard should have sacked Mr Spink. Mr Kennedy accuses him of harping back to the kind of language used by Enoch Powell who once warned of rivers of blood in Britain. "I would disown him [Mr Spink]," said Mr Kennedy.

"Britain was "overwhelmingly a fair-minded, tolerant country but the use of language in the immigration debate was inflammatory," he added.

Where the parties stand

LABOUR

Points system for economic migrants, but no cap on numbers. Permanent residency for skilled workers with fluent English; "Britishness test". Will cut number of asylum applicationsthrough tougher controls. Asylum-seekers lose right to remain.

CONSERVATIVES

Annual quotas for refugees and economic migrants. Australian-style points system for economic migrants. Offshore asylum processing centres. New border police and 24-hour monitoring of some ports. Renegotiate UN convention on refugees.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Annual quotas for economic migrants from outside the EU, based on economy's needs.

Common EU system to share refugees, but no annual limits. Asylum-seekers would be allowed to work; failed asylum-seekers could keep benefits.

UKIP

Zero net immigration. Points system for economic migrants, including from EU; border checks to enter or leave UK. 24-hour surveillance of all ports. "Welcome" for genuine refugees but faster removal of others. Citizenship to require a "Britishness" test.

BNP

Withdraw from refugee treaties; stop asylum-seekers entering United Kingdom. End immigration from "Third World" and EU unless Britons cannot fill jobs. Withdraw from EU.Stringent border controls. White foreigners such as Australians could still settle.

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