The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has warned the Home Office that it will be investigating the spot-checks of people' immigration status in London, after fears were raised of racial profiling.
Eyewitnesses to the UK Border Agency checks said officers appeared to ignore white commuters at various Tube stations in London but systematically checked the immigration status of non-white passengers.
"The commission is writing today 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," a spokesperson for the EHRC said.
"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."
Labour shadow immigration spokesman Chris Bryant raised similar concerns this morning after hearing reports of the spot-checks, which took place in Walthamstow, Kensal Green, Stratford and Cricklewood this week.
"Theresa May said last month it was unacceptable to stop someone simply on the basis of their ethnicity. That too should go for all Home Office enforcement action, not just the police," Bryant said.
"We must now have immediate reassurance from the Home Secretary that this is the case for immigration enforcement too. With enforcement operations now under the direct control of the Home Office she must establish straight away whether the rules preventing racial profiling are being enforced.
"Intelligence-led operations to remove illegal immigrants are to be welcomed. Racial profiling is not."
Bryant has written to the home secretary asking three key questions about the legality of the UKBA operation. The full text is below.
UKBA officials are forbidden from conducting speculative checks on people's immigration status, but they may have been using a joint-operation strategy to initially question people for other reasons before passing them on to immigration officers.
"We do not yet live in a society where the police or any other officers of the law are entitled to detain people without reasonable justification and demand their papers," Labour MP Barry Gardiner wrote to the home secretary yesterday.
"The actions of your department would however appear to be hastening us in that direction."
The spot checks come just a week after the end of the pilot of the so-called 'racist vans' – mobile billboards telling illegal immigrants to "go home".
The use of the phrase "go home" had strong echoes of the phrase commonly heard by many newly-arrived immigrants to Britain and was interpreted by many as dog-whistle politics designed to appeal to those on the far-right.
The adverts are subject to a legal challenge and have been reported to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) by a Labour peer.
Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council, told the Independent the vans and spot-checks were probably connected.
"It leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth," he said.
"These so-called spot checks are not only intimidating but they are also racist and divisive.
"It appears from speaking to people who witnessed what happened in Kensal Green that it was only black and Asian-looking people who were asked to prove their identity. What about the white Australians and New Zealanders who may have overstayed their visas?"
The Home Office has also been criticised for a potential contempt of court in the way it has publicised immigration raids online – particularly in the way it has conflated the terms 'suspects' and 'offenders'.
"For the @ukhomeoffice to say those arrested are already #immigrationoffenders is to prejudge their cases and possibly contempt," legal analyst David Allen Green tweeted.
Heavily pixelated images of raids in London, Durham, Manchester, Somerset and Wales have been posted by the Home Office, allegedly of people working illegally in the UK.
The tweets held the hashtag #immigrationoffenders, even though most of posts said the individuals were suspects.
One post, which said 139 people had been arrested on Thursday, linked to a page on a government website headlined: 'Immigration offenders arrested in Home Office operations'.
The individuals are repeatedly called offenders on the page, before later being referred to as 'suspected immigration offenders'.
The Home Office said in a statement: “We make no apology for enforcing our immigration laws and our officers carry out hundreds of operations every year around London. Where we find people who are in the UK illegally we will seek to remove them.
"We take any allegations of inappropriate behaviour from our officers very seriously and operate a comprehensive complaints and investigation process for where detainees or members of the public believe they have been mistreated."
Chris Bryant letter to Theresa May in full
Rt. Hon. Theresa May MP
2 Marsham Street
2nd August 2013
Dear Home Secretary,
Recent enforcement operations
It is in everyone’s interests for illegal immigration to be tackled. Being in the UK illegally is not in the interests of migrants – some of whom may have been trafficked here – UK citizens working hard and playing by the rules, nor our society which relies on fair rules being enforced.
That is why we have raised concerns with you that less than one in 10 intelligence reports to the Home Office about illegal immigration resulted in any action. It’s why we have raised concerns about the 50% drop in people being stopped at the border, about the huge delays to the e-borders programme, about fewer checks with employers and fewer fines for those employing illegal workers.
We need an intelligence-led approach to this problem, which means following up reports of illegality. Right now the Home Office isn’t doing that.
As chapter 31 of the Home Office guidance on immigration enforcement states, "enforcement visits constitute immigration work of the most sensitive kind". The guidance is in place to prevent racial profiling, to prevent communities of legal UK citizens feeling harassed or targeted unfairly.
In addition, last month you made a statement to the House of Commons regarding stop and search powers of the police. You said that in your opinion they were over used and that targeting simply based upon ethnicity was wholly unacceptable. We fully support both your review of stop and search powers and your contention that profiling was not acceptable.
In light of the Home Office guidance in place, and your statement on stop and search, I have some specific questions regarding enforcement action that has been briefed by the Home Office to the media this week.
First, did Home Office enforcement officers record the ethnicity of those they stopped?
Second, the Home Office guidance for immigration enforcement notes that “before seeking to question someone, an IO will need to have information in his possession which suggests that the person may be of immigration interest (that is there are doubts about that person’s leave status). Under these circumstances the IO may lawfully seek to stop that person with a view to asking them consensual questions about their identity and leave status away from the point of entry to the UK and after the date when that person first entered the UK. The information in the IO’s possession should be sufficient to constitute a reasonable suspicion that that particular person may be an immigration offender”.
This is, rightly, clear guidance. So can you confirm whether everyone stopped was under reasonable suspicion of being an immigration offender and on what basis?
Third, in Singh v Hammond the Court held that: ‘An examination [under paragraph 2 of Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971] … can properly be conducted by an immigration officer away from the place of entry and on a later date after the person has already entered … if the immigration officer has some information in his possession which causes him to enquire whether the person being examined is a British citizen and, if not, … whether he should be given leave and on what conditions.’
So can you confirm credible information was in the possession of the Home Office which led to each person being stopped?
Finally, the guidance concludes that the “power to examine does not include a power to compel someone to stop or to require someone to comply with that examination. Should a person seek to exercise their right not to answer questions and leave, there is no power to arrest that person purely on suspicion of committing an immigration offence”. Was this explained to the many British citizens stopped at tube stations?
You will understand that legitimate questions are being asked about these operations. Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said it too will be looking into them.
In your statement on stop and search, you said that “everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity”. That goes for everyone involved with the Home Office too.
I look forward to your prompt answers on how the guidance was followed.