LABOUR MP Diane Abbott yesterday defended herself against charges of racism after criticising the appointment of ``blonde, blue-eyed'' Finnish nurses at her local hospital.

The black MP suggested the nurses at Homerton Hospital, Hackney, might be unfit to work in the multicultural east London borough.

Writing in her local paper, the Hackney Gazette, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said: ``I am sure that these young women are charming. But they are basically here to improve their English and are unlikely to give the British health service a lifetime's commitment.''

Her comments were seized upon by the hospital, nursing unions, and politicians, who accused her of avoiding the real issue of staff shortages.

Ms Abbott later said: ``The issue is not one of colour - the issue is that people should not be recruited from overseas in an area of mass unemployment.''

However, nursing unions and the hospital - which has written a letter of complaint to Ms Abbott -were annoyed that she had written of her surprise that the hospital had chosen ``blonde, blue-eyed girls from Finland, instead of nurses from the Caribbean who know the language and understand British culture and institutions''.

Ms Abbott had added: ``And are Finnish girls, who may never have met a black person before, let alone touched one, best suited to nurse in multicultural Hackney?''

Senior nurse Eileen Farragher said 20 Finnish nurses were expected in the new year to bolster the 30 nurses already at the hospital. They would be joined by eight to 10 nurses from South Africa, totalling about 4% of the nursing staff, she said. ``Her comments are very disappointing because she didn't seem in any way to understand the facts of the situation.''

She added that a nursing shortage had hit London harder than other areas and forced them to look abroad for help.

Representatives of the Royal College of Nursing have written to the Gazette and called on Ms Abbott to try to reverse the nursing crisis.

Tory MP Ian Bruce accused Ms Abbot of racism: ``It shows complete ignorance. She is using racial stereotypes which are wholly inappropriate,'' he said.

Sir Patrick Cormack, Tory chairman of the all-party Finland group, said: ``Finland has the most excellent health service, and very fine nurses, and I'm sure an authority employing them won't be employing inadequate people.''

Labour's John Spellar said the key point was that a decline in nursing training in the UK was forcing hospitals to recruit from elsewhere.