Police Scotland accused of racial profiling over counter-terror stops

Nearly half the stops at Scottish ports and airports were people from minoritised ethnic backgrounds

Reports Mirren Gidda, investigative journalist at Liberty Investigates, and Marc Horne, reporter at The Times. Edited by Eleanor Rose


Police Scotland has been accused of racial profiling after it emerged that people from minority ethnic backgrounds were up to 20 times more likely to be stopped under counterterrorism powers.

Some 1,371 passengers were intercepted by police using counterterrorism powers at Scottish ports and airports during peak travel months from 2016 to 2021, with almost half recorded as being of minority ethnic descent.

Ethnic minorities made up 4 per cent of Scotland’s population in the 2011 census, the last reliable measure of Scottish demographics.

Details of the figures, released after an intervention by the Scottish Information Commissioner after a joint investigation by The Times Scotland and Liberty Investigates, an independent investigative journalism unit, showed that 46 per cent of those stopped under Schedule 7 powers of the Terrorism Act 2000 were black, Asian or from another minority ethnic group.

At least 28 per cent of those who gave their ethnicity were Asian, while Asian people made up 2.7 per cent of Scotland’s population, according to the 2011 census.

Under Schedule 7 powers, officers can detain a person for six hours, keep property for a week, search electronic devices and take fingerprints, photographs and DNA.

Police Scotland insisted its decisions to stop passengers were based on the “threat posed by terrorist groups active in and outside the UK” and that it followed a code of practice. Determining whether to examine a person was “not arbitrary or in relation to ethnicity or perceived religion”, the force said.

Of 264,634 people stopped across Great Britain under Schedule 7 from 2012 to 2022, only 65 were charged with an offence. A Home Office report has said that 45 per cent of those arrested on suspicion of terror offences in the 12 months to September 2022 were white, 37 per cent Asian and 7 per cent black.

Jonathan Hall KC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said the data raised a “stubborn question” about why police figures for stopping black and Asian people were so high.

“Whilst this may be a result of targeted stops based on intelligence, there is also a need to guard against a situation in which high-discretion or intuitive stops could be carried out on the basis of ethnicity,” said Hall.

Anas Mustapha, head of public advocacy at Cage UK, which works to empower communities affected by the war on terror, said forces should also release data on the religions of those stopped. “Schedule 7 continues to disproportionately impact ethnic minority groups [and] Muslims in particular,” he said.

Cage supported Abdulrahman Ezz, an Egyptian Muslim refugee who lives in Scotland. Ezz has been stopped three times under the counterterrorism powers. He claimed that the first time he did not understand what was happening or what the information would be used for. “I told them, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m not a terrorist, I’m a journalist, I’m here as a political refugee’,” he said. “I felt threatened, and I feared for my freedom and my family.”

For nearly three years, Liberty Investigates has submitted freedom of information requests to UK police forces to obtain regional data on the ethnicity and religion of those stopped under Schedule 7. The only force to release information is Police Scotland, after the order by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

In September the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which co-ordinates UK police forces, said release of data for other forces could jeopardise security. The council also said it did not have a central record of data about religion.

The lack of data has led to fresh concern among campaigning organisations. The new Nationality and Borders Act has expanded Schedule 7 powers to allow officers to stop small boat arrivals, prompting fears that stops will increase.

“Schedule 7 powers have long been fundamentally discriminatory, encouraging judgments of suspicion based on people’s ethnicity,” said Lucie Audibert, legal officer at Privacy International, a charity. “This extension essentially construes all asylum seekers as potential terrorist threats whose rights to privacy and dignity can be denied.”

Assistant Chief Constable Andy Freeburn said: “Millions of passengers travel through our border points every year. Keeping them safe and secure from the threat of terrorism is a priority for Police Scotland.

“The number of people stopped under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 makes up a tiny fraction of the people transiting through our borders.

“Only specially trained and accredited officers stop individuals at border entry points for examination. Schedule 7 provides these accredited officers with powers to examine people and is a vital tool to help keep communities safe. The decision to stop someone is based on the threat posed by terrorist groups active in and outside the UK.”

This article was also published by The Times. It was amended on 12 December 2022 to reflect the fact that Abdulrahman Ezz told police he was a journalist when he was first stopped.