A pioneering campaign by Avon and Somerset police to increase the number of women and ethnic minority officers in its ranks has been withdrawn following advice that it may discriminate against white men.

The scheme, launched last summer, was intended to "redress under-representation" of the area's "diverse communities" but resulted in complaints to the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Applications from 186 white males were rejected before the interview stage in favour of those from women and from non-white backgrounds.

"Positive action" - helping applicants prepare for recruitment procedures or advertising in ethnic minority publications - is permitted but positive discrimination is illegal.

The chief constable, Colin Port, yesterday defended the "innovative" approach: "Last summer we tried to do something different. Through use of positive action and using the model of the Disability Discrimination Act we intended to recruit officers that more accurately reflect the diverse communities we serve.

"We considered this represented an untried and untested area. It was not and has never been our intention to discriminate against anyone who applies for a position with the Avon and Somerset constabulary ... We will think again about how we can continue to recruit from under-represented groups ... until that balance has been redressed."

The force added: "In order to redress the situation we have ... offered to reconsider all of the applicants excluded."

Around 3.9% of Avon and Somerset's population of around 1.5 million is from a non-white background.

Peter Fahy, chairman of the race and diversity committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said police forces were being damned for failing to recruit enough ethnic minority and women officers, and damned when they tried new ways of diversifying their workforce.

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