Labour and the Conservatives were accused of "playing the race card" yesterday as the Liberal Democrats called in the Commission for Racial Equality to investigate their approach to asylum-seekers.
The Tories' attempts to deny the charge were undermined when Gary Streeter, the Opposition spokesman on international development, issued a veiled criticism of his party's move to exploit public concern over the rising number of people claiming asylum. "I feel uncomfortable about some of the language," Mr Streeter said. "I think the duty of all responsible politicians from all sides is to say, 'Come on, these are human beings, let's welcome here those who are fleeing for their lives, but let's have a system in place which sends everyone else back quickly."
As the Government confirmed plans to build more high-security detention centres for people refused asylum, the Liberal Democrats reported both the Tories and Labour to the commission over their remarks on asylum-seekers.
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "There is growing concern that the struggle by the Conservative and Labour parties to be seen to be tough on asylum and immigration issues is motivated by short-term party political advantage, rather than any objective of longer term racial and national tolerance. We pander to hostility to immigrants at our peril."
But Trevor Phillips, running mate to Frank Dobson as Labour's candidate for mayor of London, said the Liberal Democrats were on "very dangerous territory" because at local level they campaigned for "local jobs for local people", which was code for "keep the blacks and others out".
Barbara Roche, the Immigration minister, told GTMV's Sunday programme the Tories should "watch their language" over asylum-seekers, and they were making race an issue in next month's local authority elections. She said there were problems with people making unfounded claims for asylum, and more "detention space" was needed to hold them while their claims were processed.
John Bercow, a Tory frontbench spokesman on education, said, on the same programme, that there "isn't a racist bone in the body" of Mr Hague or Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, who wants most asylum-seekers held in detention centres.
But Shaun Woodward, the former Tory MP for Witney who has defected to Labour, told GMTV: "For goodness sake, let's not use words like 'bogus' and 'flooding', which is about stirring up racial hatred."
The Tory local election manifesto, with the phrase "flooding our country with bogus asylum-seekers", has been criticised by the United Nations as an apparent breach of an all-party agreement last year that free speech should not be used "for political advantage by inciting or exploiting prejudice on the grounds of race, nationality or religion". A spokesman said the party was concerned only with "bogus" asylum-seekers.
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