The Home Office has denied that officials broke the law by carrying out “racist” spot checks on suspected illegal immigrants on the basis of their skin colour.
The denial by immigration minister Mark Harper came after the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into the immigration checks for possible discrimination, and anti-racism campaigner Doreen Lawrence also questioned the apparent focus on non-white people in operations being carried out in and around train stations.
Harper said the choice of London tube stations for spot checks was driven by intelligence, and that individuals were targeted on the basis of their behaviour rather than their physical appearance.
The UK Borders Agency’s enforcement instructions and guidance reveal that immigration officers have broad discretion to carry out spot checks, with behaviour deemed to be suspicious including: hanging back from a station barrier, avoiding eye contact, a sudden change in walking direction or pace, and seeking to avoid confrontation with someone perceived to be a threat.
The minister revealed that no details of the ethnicity of those questioned were recorded, with officers noting only the nationality, name and date of birth of those they spoke to. Some 17 people were arrested on suspicion of immigration offences at two tube stations where operations were carried out. Data on the numbers stopped for questioning will be released in due course, he added.
“We are not carrying out random checks of people in the street and asking people to show their papers,” he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme. “That’s absolutely not what we are doing. We wouldn’t have the lawful authority to do that.
“The operations carried out at two tube stations were based on specific intelligence about concerns that we had about those particular locations and about the times when we conducted the operations. We weren’t stopping people based on their race or their ethnicity. We were only stopping people and questioning them where we had a reasonable suspicion that they were an immigration offender.”
Harper said the operations were targetting people who “behaved in a very suspicious way”. This appears to be a reference to section 31.19.5: basis to stop individuals, which states a person could be justifiably targeted if they seek to avoid immigration officers at a train or tube station as this could be classied as “having an adverse reaction to an immigration presence”.
Labour’s shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, told the Today programme that the recent immigration crackdown had led to a climate of moral panic. He has written to the home secretary, Theresa May, demanding details of the number and ethnic background of people stopped for questioning.
“If it feels as if what is basically happening is that they are going to some parts of the country and stopping every person with a black face, then that is totally unacceptable,” he said.
“What we really need from Theresa May – and I think this is a matter of urgency now, because we have had a sort of moral panic that’s been created by all of this over the last 10 days and I have a hateful fear that this is what the general election is going to be like – is precise numbers of where these stops and searches were being done, what the percentage was of people who were arrested.”