THE head of the Commission for Racial Equality today entered the general election debate with a warning to main parties not to inflame racial tensions in the heat of the campaign.
Commission chairman Trevor Phillips said politicians needed to be "grown up" and "reduce the temperature" after recent reports from around the country of racist violence, including a spate of attacks on gypsy sites.
He said: "We want politicians to calm down, take a step back and realise what their words, and the tone of their words, may do to people on the ground.
"I'm probably the most worried person in the country at the moment. I can't give you survey evidence, but we know what's happening in schools. We know what's happening in factories and so on.
"And I am worried that some of the atmosphere is sour and it is fractious and it is brittle."
Asked if the pre-election debates had made the situation worse, he replied: "We're beginning to see the signs of it. I don't like what I'm hearing. I think it is becoming ugly."
His warning came after Tory leader Michael Howard launched his election campaign manifesto yesterday with a promise to make "controlled immigration" a key plank of his platform for government.
He also pledged to give local councils new powers to deal with illegal traveller sites.
Mr Phillips said that he did not believe that the Conservative leader was trying to whip up a "race storm" against gypsies, any more than Labour had been trying to exploit the fact that Mr Howard is Jewish in its controversial Fagin poster.
Nevertheless, he said that all parties needed to consider carefully the impact that their words and actions could have.
"Everybody is entitled to talk about immigration or gypsy camps and no subject should be off limits. But it is a question of how they go about it," he said.
"What they've all got to understand is what they intend, and what they think they are saying is not necessarily what other people are hearing."