Stop and search: white people held 'to balance racial statistics'

Terror watchdog accuses police of intervening without evidence or suspicion

White members of the public are being unlawfully detained by the police in order to give "racial balance" to stop-and-search statistics, a report by the Government's watchdog on terror laws has found.

Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said he knew of cases where suspects were stopped by officers even though there was no evidence or suspicion against them.

He warned that police were wasting money by carrying out "self-evidently unmerited searches" which were an invasion of civil liberties and "almost certainly unlawful".

Lord Carlile, a QC and Liberal Democrat peer, condemned the wrongful use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, in his annual report on anti-terror laws.

He said police were carrying out the searches on people they had no basis for suspecting so they could avoid accusations of prejudice.

As the terror threat against Britain is largely from Islamist extremists, the figures show disproportionately more Muslims and therefore more Asians being searched than whites.

But the peer said police should stop trying to balance the figures, and it may be that an "ethnic imbalance" is a "proportional consequence" of policing.

Civil liberty lawyers and black and Asian groups reacted angrily. Raj Joshi, vice-chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, accused the police of playing into the hands of far-right organisations like the BNP. "The latest statistics show exactly what black and Asian communities have been saying for years: that they are being unfairly treated from stop and search through to sentence and punishment in the criminal justice system," he said.

"It is not enough to use anti-terror laws to target Asian communities when we have been told that the police rely on so-called intelligence-led policing."

Lord Carlile wrote in his report published yesterday: "I have evidence of cases where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there is not the slightest possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop. In one situation the basis of the stops was numerical only, which is almost certainly unlawful and in no way an intelligent use of the procedure."

He added: "I believe it is totally wrong for any person to be stopped in order to produce a racial balance in the Section 44 statistics. There is ample anecdotal evidence this is happening. I can well understand the concerns of the police that they should be free from allegations of prejudice, but it is not a good use of precious resources if they waste them on self-evidently unmerited searches. It is also an invasion of the civil liberties of the person who has been stopped, simply to 'balance' the statistics."

Figures released earlier this year revealed a huge increase in searches using Section 44 powers.

Officers in England and Wales used the powers to search 124,687 people in 2007-08, up from 41,924 in 2006-07. Only 1 per cent of searches led to an arrest. Nearly 90 per cent of the searches were carried out by the Metropolitan Police, which recorded a 266 per cent increase in its use of the power.

Officers in London use Section 44 to carry out stop and search between 8,000 and 10,000 times a month.

Lord Carlile questioned why Section 44 powers are thought to be needed in some areas but not in others facing similar levels of risk. He criticised the Metropolitan Police for not limiting Section 44 use to parts of London, and said the number of searches being carried out by the force was "alarming".

A Home Office spokesman defended the use of the powers. "Stop and search under the Terrorism Act 2000 is an important tool in the ongoing fight against terrorism," he said. "As part of a structured anti-terrorist strategy, the powers help to deter terrorist activity by creating a hostile environment for would-be terrorists to operate. Countering the terrorist threat and ensuring good community relations are interdependent and we are continuing to work with the police to ensure that the use of stop-and-search powers strikes the right balance."

Case study: 'I was pulled over four times'

Martin King, editor of The Independent's website:

The only surprise about Lord Carlile's report is that the findings come as a surprise to him. I was pulled over by police officers four times as I drove to the previous offices of The Independent in Marsh Wall, east London – close to the sensitive security area surrounding Canary Wharf.

Each time I was given a copy of a form explaining why I had been stopped and my car searched. It conveyed my rights in some detail.

The stops became so routine that I kept the old paperwork in my car: I could just hand the police officers the form from the previous occasion, so they could copy my details on to the new sheet. There would be about a dozen police and community support officers (PCSOs) at any one time, working together. They would pull in large groups of people, or three or four cars at a time, and their activities peaked when there were high-level security alerts in the area. One PCSO was sufficiently abashed to agree that the police had to ensure there was a reasonable mix of ethnicities among those searched. When I put this notion to him he just smiled back at me in tacit acknowledgement of the pressure he was under. Then he gave me a new piece of paperwork and we went through the procedure once more.