Veteran MP Barry Sheerman has strongly refuted a national newspaper’s claim that he made a “racist jibe” during a TV debate on Europe.

The Huddersfield Labour MP condemned the comments in the Daily Mail and has demanded an apology. He has also referred the matter to his lawyers.

An article by Andrew Pierce, which also appeared online, claimed Mr Sheerman made an “overtly racist comment” in an aside on ITV’s Last Orders political show.

The newspaper claimed Richmond Tory MP Rishi Sunak made a point in favour of leaving the European Union and Mr Sheerman “leant towards him and was clearly heard saying: ‘Asians have taken over.’”

Mr Sheerman, 75, said his words had been taken wildly out of context and came in response to Mr Sunak’s comments about the world’s leading universities.

Barry Sheerman appears on ITV The Last Orders - Barry Sheerman leans back after making the comment

On the show Mr Sheerman stressed how important being in Europe was to British universities but Mr Sunak retorted that four of the top 20 universities in the world were British and they would have no trouble fighting their corner.

The other 16 universities were all in the United States, he said.

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With the camera away from him Mr Sheerman then appears to say: “Asians have taken over.”

There is what seems to be a nervous laugh from presenter Paul Brand before the debate moves on.

Conservative MP for Richmond, Rishi Sunak who was speaking moments before Sheerman made his comment.

Mr Sheerman told the Examiner that he was referring to the growth of Chinese universities and a study he had read a couple of days before which said that “a brace of Chinese universities had zipped to the top.”

Asked if he had perhaps used “careless language” Mr Sheerman said: “Absolutely not. It was absolutely clear that I said Asian universities.

“I was suggesting that the Richmond MP was out of date on the world of universities. China was going to dominate the university world.”

Mr Sheerman described the TV debate as “robust” and said his only comment to Mr Sunak was over his surprise at how the Richmond MP’s views could be so opposed to those of the pro-European former Foreign Secretary William Hague whose North Yorkshire seat he took at the last election.

Mr Sheerman said he had complained to the newspaper and had referred the matter to London law firm Mishcon de Reya “where my daughter works.”