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The equalities watchdog has branded Boris Johnson’s comments on the burqa “inflammatory and divisive”, but said it has no powers to launch an investigation.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) watchdog said it had received a complaint from a member of the public about Johnson’s controversial article in the Daily Telegraph, but its remit extended to breaches of equality law, such as the denial of a service on the grounds of race or religion.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, the commission’s chief executive, said: “Boris Johnson’s use of language in this instance, which risks dehumanising and vilifying Muslim women, is inflammatory and divisive. Political figures should lead by example, conducting debates in a responsible manner, and language such as this can inhibit legitimate dialogue.”

Her remarks came at the end of a day in which supporters of Johnson sought to defend his comments – in which he compared fully veiled women to letterboxes and bank robbers – as a legitimate example of free speech, while critics said they contributed to hatred and abuse.

The former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the party’s disciplinary system should not be used to “shut down” Johnson.

He voiced unhappiness that Johnson had been referred to the party’s internal disciplinary process on Thursday, and argued that the former foreign secretary had a right to free speech, even if people took offence at his remarks.

“You may not agree with the tone or the jokes, but we have a thing called freedom of speech in this country,” Duncan Smith told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “And I don’t believe that just because somebody takes offence that means that therefore there has to be an inquiry which means that the individual can be shut down in terms of their ability to say what they believe.”

He added: “Lots of people of different religions have had abusive things said in jokes by comedians. But we don’t immediately shut those people down if we take offence.”

Duncan Smith is the latest rightwing Conservative to come out in defence of Johnson since it emerged that complaints about his comments had been referred to an investigator.

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