Nigel Farage has come under attack over his call for laws banning racial discrimination in employment to be scrapped, with David Cameron branding the comments “deeply concerning” and Ed Miliband calling them “wrong, divisive and dangerous”.
But the Ukip leader hit back, saying that the law as it stands does not protect “British workers, white or black”.
Mr Farage was forced to defend comments he made in an interview with ex-equalities watchdog chief Trevor Phillips for a Channel 4 documentary, Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True, due to be broadcast next week.
In it, he said concern over preventing racial discrimination in employment “would probably have been valid” 40 years ago and he would get rid of “much of” existing legislation.
He also described some Muslims in Britain as a “fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us”.
In a message on Twitter, Mr Cameron said: “Nigel Farage is attention seeking. The laws protect people from racial discrimination. It’s deeply concerning he doesn’t understand that.”
And Mr Miliband said: “I believe that Britain should be proud of the fact that we are a tolerant country, we’re a country of different faiths, different backgrounds.
“I believe that the laws we have on equality are an incredibly important part of meeting the very British value of treating everyone the same whatever their religion. I think Nigel Farage’s comments today are wrong, they’re divisive, and they’re dangerous.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg accused Mr Farage of “instilling fear” by conflating problems like violent extremism and Sharia law with the issue of employment legislation.
Mr Clegg told LBC radio: “It is very, very unhelpful to conflate the decision a baker in Orpington might make about a Polish or British worker with the violent extremism that you see in Iraq and Syria. That’s what is so irresponsible in the way Nigel Farage handles these issues. He instils fear by confusing a lot of these things.”
Mr Farage responded on Twitter: “David Cameron, the people the law doesn’t protect are British workers, black or white. Disturbing, though unsurprising, that you don’t care. Ed Miliband, the laws don’t represent these values, Ed. The British people do. We believe in Britain. You believe in bureaucracy.”
The Ukip leader also said it was “wholly uncontroversial” to claim that some Muslims want to change British culture and bring in Sharia law.
Asked about his comments on LBC, Mr Farage said: “We’ve never before had a migrant group come to Britain who have tried to change our culture, and unfortunately there are a small number in the Muslim community who genuinely want to bring Sharia law to Britain. So, I think that’s a wholly uncontroversial comment.
“Second thing I was saying was this: small businesses, there are only five million of them, and they are a massively important part of our economy. They feel very, very pressured by continued legislation and in many cases are actually fearful of taking on staff.
“What I said is this: that if a British employer in small business wants to employ a British person over somebody from Poland they should be able to do that without fear that they contravene discrimination laws. That’s all I have said.”
Asked about his claims that some Muslims wanted to change Britain, he replied: “I’ll give a personal example of a taxi driver that I caught a taxi home from Hertfordshire with 18 months ago.
“Very bright, well educated, terribly nice fellow, I sat in the front with him. He told me, ‘your society in Britain is rotten and it needs changing, we are going to take over and introduce Sharia law’.”
He added: “You have got to look at the British-born people, British-born passport holders, who have been going out to fight for Isis.”
“This is not a white v black thing at all. I have made no comment at all on that.”
In the documentary he said: “I think the situation that we now have, where an employer is not allowed to choose between a British-born person and somebody from Poland, is a ludicrous state of affairs. I think that we have taken our relationship with Europe to a level that, frankly, has gone against common sense, and certainly against self-interest.
“I would argue that the law does need changing, and that if an employer wishes to choose, or you can use the word ‘discriminate’ if you want to, but wishes to choose to employ a British-born person, they should be allowed to do so.
“I think you should be able to choose on the basis of nationality, yes. I do.”
He added: “I think perhaps one of the reasons the polls show an increasing level of concern is because people do see a fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us. So don’t be surprised if there isn’t a slight increase in people’s worries and concerns.
“You know, when you’ve got British, when you’ve got people, born and bred in Cardiff, with British passports, going out to fight for Isil, don’t be surprised if there isn’t an uptick in concern. There has been an uptick in concern, but does it make us a prejudiced people? No.”
The general secretary of the Unite trade union Len McCluskey said: “Nigel Farage’s wish to decriminalise discrimination by scrapping equality laws is dangerous, crude dog-whistle politics that strikes at the heart of British values of tolerance and respect.
“It also makes absolutely no sense. If he genuinely wants to protect jobs, then his party ought to abandon its position of attacking hard-won rights for workers.
“His assertion that racism is no longer a problem in the UK employment market is naive and conflicts with shocking figures from the House of Commons library showing the number of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds who have been jobless for more than a year has risen by a staggering 49% since the Tory-led Government came to power.”
Mr Farage said in a statement: “My comments to Trevor Phillips were lauding the progress of race relations and equality in this country. Britain’s media should be proud of this fact instead of trying to do it down.
“Ukip is the only party that is suggesting that Britain’s employers should be free to employ British workers, regardless of creed or colour. It wasn’t that long ago that the Labour Party called for ‘British jobs for British workers’.
“And I suggest the real racists in our society are those who hear me say ‘British’ and think ‘white’. I’m the only leader arguing for Britain’s employers to favour British workers, no matter what their colour.
“And I must say, given the unemployment rates amongst young people , I’m now the only party leader standing up for them, black, white, or otherwise.”
Downing Street said the Prime Minister “thinks it is right” to intervene in the row to defend the rules on discrimination.
“It’s absolutely right in the Britain that we live in that we stand up to protect people from racial discrimination,” a spokeswoman said.
She added: “It’s for the employer to make decisions about who they hire.”