Phillips' challenge to ethnic minorities sparks row

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Mr Phillips recently warned that Britain was "sleepwalking to segregation", as different ethnic groups became more insulated within their own communities. This week he questioned whether race relations were being undermined by politically correct practices such as avoiding the term "coloured", excusing Muslim pupils from wearing school uniforms and printing documents in several languages.

The comments were interpreted by some as an attack on the race relations "dogmas" of the past 20 years. But groups working with ethnic minorities warned that raising such ideas threatened to backfire by making them feel less secure. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "No one disagrees with the importance of a shared society. But it's all too easy to bang on about shared language and rather harder to stand up for non-negotiable values such as ... freedom from arbitrary arrest."

Mr Phillips' provocative comments came in a fringe meeting at the Tory conference in Blackpool where he floated ideas designed to improve race relations.

He queried the instructions sent to courts on the use of language to describe defendants. He asked: "Is it really offensive to call someone 'coloured'?"

He also queried whether all religious festivals for minority faiths should be observed: "Should we put off that important meeting because it is Yom Kippur, even though only one of the people attending is Jewish?"

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "The questions are going to raise fears among communities that there's going to be some sort of a clampdown on them. People don't want special favours; they just want respect for their own religions and communities."