People stopped at railway stations in spot checks by immigration officers were not targeted on the basis of their race, the Government's Immigration Minister insisted on Saturday. Mark Harper said the choice of London Underground stations for spot checks was driven by intelligence, and that individuals were picked out for questioning on the basis of their behaviour, not their skin colour.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into the immigration checks for possible discrimination, and is also probing a controversial Home Office advertising campaign, which saw vans deployed in parts of London with the message to illegal immigrants that they should "go home" or face arrest.
Labour immigration spokesman Chris Bryant has demanded the release of statistics on the number and ethnic background of people stopped, accusing the Government of whipping up a "moral panic" over immigration for electoral purposes. But Harper 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, though no figures were yet available on how many people were stopped, he said.
The minister told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "We are not carrying out random checks of people in the street and asking people to show their papers. 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. These operations have been carried out for many years, and indeed also were carried out under the last government as well."
Explaining how officers choose individuals for questioning, Mr Harper said: "There's two things that we use. The first thing is intelligence about the location and the time that we are carrying out the operation. That's not the only thing you need to stop somebody and question them. You also need, about that individual, a reasonable suspicion that they are an immigration offender.
"They are not allowed to do it based on someone's physical appearance. If... someone, when seeing an immigration officer, behaved in a very suspicious way, that might give us reasonable suspicion to question them. It's about how they behave, not what they look like. It's not about their appearance or their race or their ethnicity."
Harper said it was made clear to those stopped that they do not have to answer questions if they do not wish to.
"If we don't have sufficient grounds to arrest somebody, then we aren't able to do so," he said. "The questioning we carry out is a consensual one and the person doesn't have to be questioned at all, and that should be made clear to them when they are questioned."
Data on the numbers stopped for questioning will be released "in due course", said Harper.
Bryant has written to Home Secretary Theresa May demanding details of how many people were stopped for questioning and what proportion led to the detection of suspected offences.
He told Today: "I would like her to give us exact details of how many people have been arrested, how many people have been stopped, what ethnicity they were. 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."
The Home Office's own guidance says that an immigration officer can only stop somebody if they have intelligence to say that that person may be an illegal immigrant, said Bryant.
"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," he said.
"They need to have a better intelligence-led operation. What we have seen since 2010 is that the number of illegal immigrants removed from the country has fallen, the number of people stopped at our borders has fallen, and the number of foreign criminals deported has fallen. I think we could get that end of the equation right first."
More than 130 suspected illegal immigrants were arrested on Thursday in a crackdown on rogue employers that was highly publicised by the Home Office through the department's website and micro-blogging site Twitter.
An EHRC spokesman said on Friday: "The commission is writing to the Home Office about these reported operations, confirming that it will be examining the powers used and the justification for them, in order to assess whether unlawful discrimination took place.
"The letter will also ask questions about the extent to which the Home Office complied with its public sector equality duty when planning the recent advertising campaign targeted at illegal migration."