A counterterrorism surveillance project targeted at two Muslim neighbourhoods in Birmingham could be halted after human rights lawyers pledged to seek a judicial review.
There were angry scenes at two public meetings in the city this week, when officials were confronted over the findings of a Guardian investigation into the scheme to gather data about vehicles entering Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath.
Under Project Champion, the suburbs will be monitored by 150 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras – three times more than in the entire city centre. The cameras form "rings of steel", meaning residents cannot enter or leave the areas without their cars being tracked. Data will be stored for two years.
Responding to the Guardian disclosures, police and council officials acknowledged public concern and promised a review.
Testing of cameras has begun, but plans to go live in early August are in jeopardy after lawyers acting for Liberty began gathering evidence for a legal challenge.
Forty ANPR cameras are "covert", and an additional 60 standard CCTV cameras have been installed as part of the £3m project, funded by the Terrorism and Allied Matters (Tam) fund, administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Its grants are for projects that "deter or prevent terrorism or help to prosecute those responsible".
Roger Godsiff, the Labour MP for Birmingham's Hall Green constituency, who plans an early day motion, described the plan as "a grave infringement of civil liberties".
John Hemming, Birmingham Yardley's Liberal Democrat MP, said he could "only see negatives" in the scheme, which would collate data about thousands of law-abiding constituents, leaving criminals to evade police surveillance by "cloning their car or taking the bus". He would be seeking the support of the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who has promised to rescind government initiatives that unfairly impede civil liberties.
Councillors claim they were misled into thinking the cameras were predominantly concerned with tackling vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour. They are making a formal request to the home secretary, Theresa May, for the dismantling of the cameras, which have appeared at 81 sites across the two suburbs.
The Safer Birmingham Partnership, the joint-venture between the West Midlands police and the local authority responsible for Project Champion, conceded there had been no formal consultation.
Despite requests over three days, the SPB declined to say whether it fulfilled what may have been a statutory obligation to conduct an "equality impact assessment" under the Race Relations Act.
The SBP claims that while the cameras may have been installed as part of a scheme to monitor Muslim extremists, their benefits would help combat antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and vehicle crime. "We know these cameras will pick up an awful lot more vehicles without insurance than terrorists," said Jackie Russell, its director.
But lawyers from Liberty said Project Champion's focus on predominantly Muslim areas may constitute a breach of rights to non-discrimination under article 14 of the Human Rights Act. "Spying on a whole community will only hamper efforts to tackle extremism," said Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty. "This misguided scheme must not go ahead."
The absence of any formal public consultation could also form grounds for a legal challenge, she added.
Ferguson, who attended one of the public meetings, encouraged residents to contact Liberty. Residents expressed their "outrage" at the scheme, which would alienate the Muslim community.
Salma Yaqoob, a Respect councillor for Sparkbrook, said she would challenge the initiative at Birmingham city council.
Steve Jolly, the organiser of a grassroots campaign against the cameras, said: "Birmingham is one of the most successfully integrated cities in the country. Coming together to oppose the scheme has united the Muslim community and what you might call the white, middle-class community. We're speaking with one voice".
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