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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Race row blamed on 'weak' Hague
Jack Straw
Straw: The Tories are split three ways on race
Home Secretary Jack Straw has attacked William Hague for being too "weak" to contain Conservative splits on race.

His comments came as Downing Street played down the failure of some Labour MPs to sign the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE)'s anti-racism pledge by saying there had been no edict on the issue.

I do not think for a second that William Hague is a racist but he is very, very weak

Jack Straw
A fierce political row developed when the shadow chancellor Michael Portillo and several other Tory MPs refused to sign it.

And the dispute has been fuelled further by the disclosure that former home secretary Michael Howard's Conservative association has referred to "bogus asylum seekers" in a local newspaper advert.

Mr Straw said he was "very unhappy" with the position of part of the Conservative Party on race.

The Tories were split three ways on the issue, he claimed.

"The problem with William Hague is not that I think for a second he is a racist but he is very, very weak and he is unable to contain this," he told BBC News.

'No edict'

Downing Street also moved on Monday to counter claims that Labour has been using the race issue to stifle debate on its policy on asylum seekers.

The prime minister's official spokesman said asylum and immigration were important issues and raising them was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

The spokesman said Labour MPs were not under instruction to sign the CRE pledge - and no edict had gone out from the prime minister.

But some people had objected to the principles underlying the statement and nobody in the Labour party thought that, he added.

Public debate

Michael Howard, who has signed the CRE pledge, has defended an advert placed by the Tory association in his Folkestone and Hythe constituency.

The advert in the Folkestone Herald said: "What matters most to you? Bogus asylum seekers? Conservatives reduced the number before. We will do so again."

Mr Howard told the Guardian newspaper: "The government has completely failed to deal with this problem and it is an entirely legitimate matter of public debate."

Michael Howard
Howard defends 'bogus asylum seekers' advert'
Liberal Democrat President Lord Navnit Dholakia, who wants asylum claims to be decided faster, attacked the advert.

"I think Michael Howard is rattled and he ought to be rattled because to an extent he is responsible for the present crisis related to asylum seekers," he said.

He joined party leader Charles Kennedy to launch a Liberal Democrat manifesto for the ethnic minorities, which gives a pledge to campaign for equality and fight against racial discrimination

Simon Woolley, from Operation Black Vote, said both Labour and the Tories had handled the race row badly.

"In some quarters we have a lot of bigotry and a lot of ill-advised comments and on the other side we have the empty rhetoric of the kind of Robin Cook," he told BBC News on Monday.

It was Mr Cook's speech on race - defended on Monday by Mr Straw - which sparked the current row.

In it, the foreign secretary said Mr Hague had to share the blame for recent Tory outbursts on race.

Political points

The mother of the murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, has said Mr Cook's speech had "a lot to do with the election" and was "not constructive".

CRE chairman Gurbux Singh, who said all the main political parties were failing over issues of race, expressed regret that his organisation's pledge was now being used to score party political points.

The Tory leader has himself moved swiftly to scotch suggestions that his party is in any way racist.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he said the accusations levelled at his party by senior Labour figures had more to do with a desire to avoid a debate on the asylum system than racism in the Tory Party.

The BBC's Robin Chrystal
"All major parties face risks in playing politics with this highly sensitive issue"
Lord Paul, Labour peer
"I don't believe in any of these pledges"
Dr Roy Chandran former member of the CRE
claims the CRE has become a wing of the Labour Party

Race row
Should race be an election issue?

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