Speaking following the recent police operations in Forest Gate, London CRE Chair Trevor Phillips will say:
It is clear that something went wrong on this occasion. But it’s not the first time. We’ve seen thousands of British Muslims arrested under anti-terror legislation. Virtually all of them released without charge.
But whatever turns out to be true about the intelligence and the conduct of the operation we still have to answer two major questions. First, is everything being done to avoid these errors being repeated and second, are our security services and police fit for purpose?
It is remarkable that in spite of the number of arrests of British Asians under these new laws these communities remain so calm and so determined to work with the police. It is a clear demonstration that British Muslim communities are as alive to the threat of terrorism in our midst as anyone else, and as committed to tackling it.
Lack of understanding and unrepresentative security forces will lead to a continued catalogue of errors, Trevor Phillips will argue:
We cannot take it for granted that British Muslims will put up with being searched, investigated and dragged out of their homes for ever. So we need to ask if we have the capacity within our current security and police forces to respond to the threat of terrorism without further inflaming community relations by unnecessary tactical blunders?
We know that the police and the security services have to do their job with the information they have, and on the basis of the best assessment they can make. But they themselves say that they feel handicapped by the lack of diversity in their ranks. They can consult community leaders but that isn’t the same as having your own, highly trained professional officers from a range of backgrounds involved from the outset. To take a simple example, I would guess that any Muslim officer discovering 38,000 would be unlikely to read this as the proceeds of some nefarious activity. Their first thought would be the innocent – and far more likely – explanation that this is a family that hasn’t yet found a bank account that would comply with Muslim practice.
From the security services’ point of view, to put it crudely, if you don’t have Muslim officers to put into surveillance cars, you can give up any hope of doing covert operations in some areas. And that means that you are flying blind in operations – endangering officers and the public. That’s where things go wrong. And every time an operation like this goes wrong it further alienates communities who want to help in the fight against terrorism.
Trevor Phillips will stress that race relations legislation is hindering the process of diversifying police and security forces:
In the end, this is not just a matter of fairness – it is now an issue of national security. To get it right you have to have the right people in the room before you plan an operation – and if everyone in the room is white, you’ve got it wrong.
Security and police managers know this already. There has been a great deal of effort to solve this problem. Both police and security services have put money and thought into speeding up the recruitment of staff from all backgrounds. And they’ve focused within that on recruiting more ethnic minority staff. They tell us that good capable people are coming forward and things are changing. They are making security services and police more integrated every year.
But here’s the problem. The change isn’t keeping up with the growing need. Given that they can only recruit a limited number of staff each year, in order to accelerate that process of integration, they would have to recruit ethnic minority operatives in greater proportions than whites – and they then run the risk of falling foul of the Race Relations Acts. It is more important now than ever if the security services and police are to be fit for purpose. Terrorism is an equal opportunity service; the bomb in a tube or a restaurant makes no distinctions of faith or religion. It would be a dreadful irony if our race relations laws became an obstacle to dealing with terrorism more effectively.
I don’t think it can be right that we have drifted into a situation where the CRE has to stand in the way of moderate measures to increase diversity in the police force – something which Scarman recommended twenty-five years ago, Macpherson more recently, and the Chief Police Officers are desperate to do so they can do their job better.
We’ve seen this problem before. In Northern Ireland, in order to integrate the new Police Service there the law had to be changed to allow the Police Service of Northern Ireland to recruit half of all its new recruits from the Catholic community. As a result, the Catholic contribution to the PSNI has increased significantly and this has changed both how that service treats Catholics and how it is treated by Catholics. I can’t say for certain whether I think we should go down this road; and if we do how exactly we’d do it. But I do know that we have to debate such measures if we are going to avoid the spectre of a mainly white security and justice apparatus policing increasingly aggrieved and hostile black and Asian communities.