The number of recruits from ethnic minorities to British police forces has almost halved in the past five years, amid concern about discrimination in the service.
Official figures obtained by the Tories have revealed that the total of black and ethnic minority (BME) entrants into the 43 forces in England and Wales fell from 795 in 2003-04 to 430 in the last financial year, despite concerted efforts to improve relations between the police and minority communities.
The revelation undermines the Government's claim last week that there had been "significant success in increasing overall minority ethnic representation". It comes amid renewed concerns over racism in the service after the suspension of PC Steve Bettley, from Merseyside, whose name was included among those of thousands of British National Party supporters leaked on an internet blog.
The Metropolitan Police saw BME recruits plunge from 500 to 193 over the period. Huge metropolitan forces including Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands were also among 31 that have reported a fall in BME recruits since 2003. The shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, said the figures were "worrying", but also condemned the Metropolitan Black Police Association's "highly irresponsible" call for a boycott of ethnic recruitment.
Police chiefs are scouring the leaked list of BNP supporters, after more than a dozen entries suggested that BNP members were serving or former police officers. Serving officers are banned from joining the BNP.
Meanwhile, the BNP confirmed last night that 12 of its members had been arrested. Police said the arrests were made in Liverpool yesterday and that the men were being held on suspicion of distributing racist material. Assistant Chief Constable Colin Matthews said: "Merseyside Police condemns racism in all its forms."
Roy Godwin of the BNP said: "There was nothing unlawful in the leaflets."
It also emerged last night that the Ministry of Defence is to launch an investigation into several soldiers suspected of being BNP activists.
But BNP leader Nick Griffin warned that public bodies could be open to legal action if they sacked anyone for being a BNP member: "The Equality Act makes it clear that discrimination against an individual on political grounds constitutes a breach of contractual employment law, and substantial compensation is on the cards."
Politicians used the dramatic disclosure of BNP support to issue renewed warnings of the threat posed by extremists, particularly in white, working-class communities hit by the credit crunch. The Labour MP Jon Cruddas will this week speak at a Holocaust Educational Trust event, highlighting concerns about the BNP exploiting the economic downturn, while the Secretary of State for Communities, Hazel Blears, yesterday warned that white working-class voters were turning to the BNP because they felt ignored by mainstream parties.
Scotland Yard's hate crime unit has been asked to investigate a separate leaflet sent out by the BNP that accuses young Muslim men of carrying out racist campaigns of sexual abuse against white girls as young as 12 or 13.