THE CALL by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, for Asian families to speak English at home was made in three sentences in an essay with the daunting title, "Integration with Diversity: Globalisation and the Renewal of Democracy and Civil Society".
But it turned his treatise for the Foreign Policy Centre on the nature of Britishness into a damaging row about the state's right to interfere in people's private lives.
With his customary knack for stirring controversy, Mr Blunkett found himself once again accused of pandering to the prejudices of the right.
Leading the onslaught was the unlikely figure of Keith Vaz, who had maintained a discreet silence since resigning as a Foreign Office minister amid allegations over his business links. He was quick to challenge the claim that nearly a third of British Asian families did not use English and questioned Mr Blunkett's argument that "schizophrenia bedevils generational relationships ... where English is not spoken at home".
He said: "If this was a Conservative Home Secretary he would have been asked to apologise by now." Mr Vaz claimed Mr Blunkett was using the Asian community as a "cheap target" and accused him of making one of the silliest remarks ever made by a Home Secretary. He challenged him to test the accuracy of his remarks by spending the night with an Asian family in his Leicester constituency - a city widely celebrated for its record on race relations.
Mr Vaz said: "What David is saying has no basis in reality. No Asian family in Leicester does not speak English at home. In many cases they speak it better than Mr Blunkett himself.
"He has clearly forgotten all the excellent work he did as Education Secretary in relation to mother-tongue teaching."
In Leicester, Mr Blunkett's comments were greeted with something approaching conviviality. Arvind Patel, an Asian Ugandan who runs a Muslim community centre in Leicester, and his wife, Kamu, invited the Home Secretary to visit. Mr Patel said: "He is welcome to come to our house and see that you can speak your native tongue at home and still have an integrated life outside. My parents insisted on a dual- language upbringing and my sons will bring their children up the same way. It is a question of balancing your career and friends with an appreciation of your roots."
Mr Patel, married for 32 years, added: "My wife does not speak perfect English, but she took great trouble to learn it when she came here. We both think it is important to be confident in English."
Their sons, Hitesh, 28, and Amit, 26, no longer live at home but speak a mix of Gujurati and English with their parents. "English tends to dominate and it is only when older people are around that we speak Gujurati," he said.
Mr Blunkett's claims that language was central to prosperity were recognised by many groups although the impact on civil rights raised widespread concerns.
Beverley Bernard, acting chairwoman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), said proficiency in English …