The Commission for Racial Equality has been asked to investigate a Tory candidate who demanded “send them back” in a provocative advertisement denouncing “asylum cheats”.
In a joint complaint to the CRE, Labour and Liberal Democrats in Castle Point, Essex, have accused Bob Spink of using language “reminiscent of the rhetoric of Enoch Powell”.
But the Conservative leader, Michael Howard has refused to disown his candidate, who has a track record of wading into controversy over abortion, capital punishment and homosexuality.
The move against Mr Spink, who is defending a majority of less than 1,000, threatens fresh embarrassment for Mr Howard, who has been accused of pandering to voters’ worst instincts with his continuing focus on immigration and asylum.
In his advertisement, the Tory candidate demanded an end to “asylum abuse”. It says: “What bit of ‘send them back’ don’t you understand Mr Blair?”
In their joint letter, Labour’s Luke Akehurst and Liberal Democrat James Sandbach asked for an investigation. They said: “Using phrases like ‘send them back’ sends out an appalling message, not only about the potential denial the right to asylum, but also to the wide community of citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds. The policy implications behind the phrase is one of forceable repatriation—it is language reminiscent of the rhetoric of Enoch Powell.” Castle Point has one of the lowest ethnic minority populations in southern England, with whites making up nearly 99 per cent of the population.
Mr Sandbach, a human rights lawyer, said people in the constituency had been “upset and offended” by the advertisement. “If Mr Spink is seeking to represent the whole constituency he should be sensitive in the way he talks about asylum seekers. Many asylum-seekers in genuine fear of their lives, and could be tortured if repatriated. They should not all be branded as illegals.”
Alan Milburn, Labour’s campaign chief, said: “Bob Spink’s unscrupulous single issue campaign speaks volumes for Mr Howard’s Tories. It is all about exploiting issues, not dealing with them. Their campaign deserves to lose.”
Michael Howard vowed to keep immigration at the forefront of the Tories’ election campaign despite growing criticism of his hardline stance. He told The Independent: “I am sure there are people who would prefer me not to talk about it. I am not going to be intimidated. I am going to continue to talk about all the issues which I believe are important to the future of the country.”
He added: “I have thought this through very carefully. I know that some people disagree with my view. They are perfectly entitled to their view. I am entitled to talk about it. All I want is an honest debate.”
Mr Howard insisted no Tory frontbencher or candidate had asked him to tone down his language on immigration. “It is completely untrue,” he said. “There have been no such calls to me or my office.”
He defended his remarks to ITV’s Ask the Leader programme on Monday in which he suggested there might be more race riots if the immigration problem is not tackled.
“You can’t specify what might happen but I believe, as I’ve made clear very many times, that if we are to continue to have good community relations in this country you have to be vigilant. If people lose confidence in the system and believe it’s out of control, I believe that breeds a sense of insecurity and that’s damaging to good community relations.”
Mr Spink said: “My constituents are focused on this issue. I must respond to that appropriately and I have done so. I believe failed asylum-seekers should be returned—that’s what I said and I stand by that.” He dismissed claims of Powellite language, adding: “Unless the main parties are prepared to grasp this issue and deal with it, then we will see the rise of the nasty fringe parties.”
The Commission for Racial Equality said it would look seriously at any complaints it received and would approach the Tory party directly if it believed there was cause for complaint.
Meanwhile senior Conservatives last night tried to halt a mid-election wobble in the Tory ranks by announcing they would scrap the revaluation of the council tax which threatens to raise the tax on millions of homeowners. The Tories claimed scrapping the revaluation due in 2007 and removing the statutory requirement for any further review would save seven million homes from soaring council tax bills.
They warned that a typical household could face a rise of £270 a year if the revaluation goes ahead. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, is also storing up a further £1bn in tax cuts to regain the momentum of the Tory campaign.
The Tory leadership is expected to target the money raising tax thresholds for key workers, such as nurses and teachers who have been dragged into the higher tax bracket of 40p in the pound by Gordon Brown.
MP with aggressive stance on asylum
The years have not mellowed Bob Spink, who admits his hostility to asylum-seekers could lead to him being “improperly branded racist”.
Thirteen years after first arriving in Westminster, he still uses the provocative and aggressive language that appals his enemies but admirers say go down well in his Essex constituency.
He came to national prominence in 1995, and embarrassed his leadership, for saying he could accept the death of an innocent person if capital punishment was brought back. He was the parliamentary aide to Ann Widdecombe, the Prisons Minister at the time, and had contradicted his ultimate boss, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, who had voted against the return of hanging.
He has railed against lax abortion laws for being used widely as “a secondary form of contraception” and vehemently opposed official recognition for homosexual couples. “I do not wish to institutionalise gay relationships,” he said. It appeared his parliamentary career was over when he he lost his Castle Point seat in 1997.
The self-made millionaire spent four years working for a company of management consultants and continued nursing his constituency, a south Essex seat with a tiny ethnic minority population.
Mr Spink was rewarded when the seat swung back into Tory hands by a tiny 985 majority four years ago.
Before that successful campaign he condemned the cost of bogus asylum claims, saying the cash should go to pensioners. He said: “I may be improperly branded for speaking out on this issue . . . I will not be silenced by politically correct Labour cronies. Someone must speak for the people.” He comfortably survived a deselection attempt.