Home Office minister Hazel Blears said today that she had never endorsed racial profiling by police, as she began a summer-long series of meetings with Muslim community leaders.
Speaking before talks in Oldham this morning, Ms Blears said that officers needed to explain to communities that controversial stop-and-search operations were “intelligence led”; racial profiling, she said, was something she had “never, ever” endorsed.
And Ms Blears emerged to tell Sky News that she had repeated the message that where British Muslims are angry, “that should be channelled through the democratic process”.
The Oldham meeting was the first of eight regional summits aimed at improving relations with the Muslim community following last month’s London bombings.
Despite criticisms from some sections of the Muslim community, Ms Blears insisted that she had met a “fair spread of background voices”, and confirmed that both Iraq and Palestine had been voiced as grievances.
But she said that disagreements over foreign policy could be “no justification for mass murder”, when the “ballot box and legitimate protest” offered a democratic alternative.
Oldham councillor Riaz Ahmed—who was mayor of Oldham during the 2001 race riots—said the police powers of stop and search had been mentioned at the meeting, but that “Ms Blears accepts that there is a lot more good than bad elements of the Muslim community”.
“We want to work together to get rid of this evil among us.”
Mohammed Miah, a 30-year-old community activist in Oldham, said Ms Blears had spoken about Muslims working to rid extremists from their communities.
He said: “She was saying that Muslims need to take more of a role in the mosques and that they need to take more responsibility so extremists do not get involved and are wiped out.
“She is right, because we do have a responsibility to act.”
Mr Miah added that it was not just the responsibility of the mosques, but should be addressed in schools as well.
Some Muslim leaders have complained at Muslims being unfairly targeted by police following last month’s London bomb attacks, which were carried out by Islamist extremists.
This morning Ms Blears told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think you should be ruling out anybody in terms of how you exercise stop-and-search powers. You can equally have white people who could be the subject of intelligence.”
She said that her consistent guidance to police was that “you exercise this power on the basis of the intelligence available to you and you explain that to communities. That is the way you get their trust and confidence”.
Ms Blear’s rejection of racially profiled police stop-and-search exercises comes despite her telling the Commons in March that Muslims had to accept as a “reality” that they would be stopped and searched more.
The tactics are again attracting controversy after the British Transport police chief constable, Ian Johnston, suggested in a newspaper on Sunday that his officers would not “waste time searching old white ladies”.
Ms Blears was criticised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission earlier this year after saying that Muslims would have to accept that they may be stopped and searched more.
She told the home affairs select committee at the time: “If a threat is from a particular place then our action is going to be targeted at that area . . . it means that some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community.”
Today Lord Ouseley, the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, told the Today programme he accepted that police may need to use racial profiling when conducting stop-and-search operations. But he warned that “sensitivity” should be shown to avoid causing resentment among ethnic minority communities.
Lord Ouseley welcomed the Home Office initiative to meet with community figures, saying that Muslim and African communities felt as if “all eyes are upon them” in the wake of the bombings.
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, will hold follow-up talks with Muslim leaders on September 20 when he is expected to outline “concrete proposals” to improve relations and fight extremism.
The government has already announced that a taskforce or network will be created to go into Muslim communities to take on what the prime minister, Tony Blair, has described as an “evil ideology” based on a perversion of Islam.
Meanwhile, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, today told the Financial Times that he had been talking to Muslim leaders at home and abroad about the Guy Fawkes plot, to remind them that the UK has faced a long history of religious-based terrorism.
He said it was important Muslim leaders realised religious-based extremism was not unique to Islam.