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The BBC's Sean Curran
"At one stage an angry speaker warned the whole Tory front bench"
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Wednesday, 20 December, 2000, 17:38 GMT
Hague accused of race 'opportunism'
William Hague
William Hague's remarks on policing provoked a row
Conservative leader William Hague has been accused of being an "opportunist" over his remarks in the debate on policing and race by the prime minister.

If he thinks we are going to cut the police budget then he is off his head

William Hague on Tony Blair
Prime Minister Tony Blair made the accusation on the same day that the Commission for Racial Equality urged the main political parties to sign a pledge not to play politics with race.

During his Wednesday Commons question session Mr Blair said of the Tory leader: "I'll make it quite clear. I am not suggesting that the right honourable member is a racist, I am simply suggesting that he is an opportunist."

Mr Blair was responding to a question from Conservative MP Crispin Blunt who asked him: "Will the prime minister reflect on just who played the race card recently?"

Stop and think

Mr Blair went on to say that rather than playing up the issue of police stop and search, Mr Hague "should employ a policy of stop and think".

Earlier during prime minister's questions, Mr Hague had launched a strong attack on the government's record on law and order.

He was pressing Mr Blair on police numbers, nearly a week after he first criticised the Macpherson report of destroying police morale by creating a climate in which officers feared using stop and search powers in case they were accused of racism.

Mr Hague said police numbers had fallen by 3,000 since Labour came to power.

Under siege

He added: "On top of falling police numbers, on top of excessive paperwork - can't you see why the police force feel under siege and that the criminal is winning?"

Tony Blair: Warming up for the election
The Tory leader also took Labour to task for its early release scheme which has so far seen 27,000 prisoners let out of jail months early.

Mr Blair admitted that some serious sex offenders had been released as a result of the policy.

But he pressed Mr Hague to commit his party to the same financial investment that Labour was putting into the police force.

Mr Hague replied: "If he [Mr Blair] thinks we are going to cut the police budget then he is off his head."

Race pledge urged

Earlier on Wednesday the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Gurbux Singh, wrote to party leaders calling on them to discuss race issues in a sensitive and responsible way and to make a pledge to that effect.

Mr Singh's suggestion is similar to a commitment made at the last general election which was signed up to by both Tony Blair and the then prime minister, John Major.

The CRE's call for the pledge to be made now comes ahead of an expected spring election.

Gurbux Singh
Gurbux Singh: Letter to leaders
It also follows concerns within the organisation at recent media coverage of Mr Hague's highly controversial remarks on the Macpherson report.

The Conservative Party responded to the CRE's call by insisting it agrees with the commission's aims and will "never use race as an election issue".

Hague 'not helpful'

But Mr Singh suggested that Mr Hague's speech last week linking the Macpherson report highlighting police failings during the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was unhelpful.

Mr Singh said: "This is not the way to achieve a sensible, helpful debate. It is a sorry contrast to the way Parliament has just delivered new legislation on race equality."

His letter was sent to the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru.

Mr Hague's recent interventions on policing have seen him accused of playing the race card by the father of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was murdered in a racist attack in south London in 1993.

The Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, also entered the debate on Tuesday when he said that Mr Hague had reneged on an agreement made at a meeting earlier this year with church leaders not to seek to make political capital from the Macpherson report.

The Conservative Party, however, disputed the bishop's version of the meeting.

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See also:

18 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Hague defends Damilola comments
18 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Support for Hague's Damilola claim
17 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Police morale 'worst yet'
14 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Hague sparks race debate
15 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Fresh attack on Tory crime figures
14 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Hague rounds on 'liberal elite'
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