Page last updated at 00:46 GMT, Thursday, 26 November 2009

How real is the hate crime rise?

By Simon Cox
The Report

Is Britain the most hostile country in the Western world? That is the implication from new figures out this month from the OCSE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) which puts the UK top of a world league table for reported hate crimes with 46,300 logged in 2008.

Fiona Pilkington (l) and daughter Francecca Hardwick
Locals are divided over whether Fiona Pilkington was a hate crime victim

The figure is far beyond those recorded for other countries, but is the picture really that bleak?

Earlier this year the case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her 18-year-old disabled daughter Francecca after being hounded by local youths in their home at Barwell, Leicestershire, saw their plight described by disability groups as a hate crime.

Neighbour Anne Jones told The Report she had no doubt her old friend was targeted because of her disabled daughter and son.

"It was terrible... It was going on for years because she had a disabled daughter - they picked on her," she said.

But Julie and David Smith, who live a few doors along from Fiona Pilkington, said the same youths harassed and abused many residents in that locality.

Anti-social behaviour

"They didn't just pick on her, they had a go at most of the street," said Mr Smith.

Fiona Pilkington was not the only victim in the street, but was the harassment she suffered a hate crime?

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Leicestershire police say some of it was potentially because of prejudice about disability - but not all of it.

It is hard to determine when it crossed the line from anti-social behaviour to something more serious and sinister. Dr Neil Chakraborti, a criminologist at Leicester University said this is often the case.

"I think it is a fine line between anti-social behaviour and a hate crime," he said, adding that it can be difficult to judge when low level abuse and harassment become a hate crime.

So what exactly is a hate crime? It can be anything from verbal abuse, graffiti all the way through to murder, but they are different to other types of offence as Rose Simkins from Stop Hate UK explained.

"A hate crime is any crime or incident motivated by hate and perceived to be this, by an investigating officer, a witness or the victim themselves," she said.

Many in Liverpool's gay community believe trainee policeman James Parkes was targeted because of his homosexuality when he suffered multiple skull fractures after an attack in October.

Homophobic attack?

The most recent figures from Merseyside Police show a 41% increase in homophobic attacks in the city and police are treating the assault as a homophobic crime.

Some crimes are motivated by prejudice and this is a much more expansive notion.
Dr Neil Chakraborti, University of Leicester

But others we spoke to in Liverpool, claim to know a different version, alleging that Pc Parkes was beaten up after he intervened as an off-duty police officer because the gang had been causing problems with doormen.

If true, this version would turn an iconic hate crime into a still serious but altogether different kind of assault.

Of course it may also be that more hate crime is happening.

Since last year police across the country have been monitoring five different categories of hate crime - race, religion, disability, transgender and sexual orientation.

So what do the figures tell us?

Supt Paul Gianassi from the Association of Chief Police officers told The Report it is hard to determine the level of hate crime because, "some forces collected data before 1 April 2008, some didn't".

Supt Gianassi also said that the situation is made more complex because in the case of an assault the crime would also be recorded under that category.

James Parkes
Many gay people in Liverpool believe James Parkes suffered a hate attack

Much of what is labelled as hate crime is low level anti-social behaviour or neighbourly disputes that have escalated and got out of hand.

Neil Chakraborti, a criminologist from Leicester University said classing crimes ranging from abuse to assault as hate offences does have its drawbacks.

Hate can be a narrow definition he explained, adding: "Some crimes are motivated by prejudice and this is a much more expansive notion."

In fact there is no such thing in law as hate. Prosecutors have to prove hostility. The former director of public prosecutions has said this could mean antagonism, meanness or unfriendliness.

But if the victim or a witness believes the crime is motivated by some kind of hatred, it will be recorded as a hate crime.

This may well explain why some police forces are seeing big rises in their recorded crimes and why the UK tops a list of over 50 countries for hate crimes.

Does this mean Britain is more hateful than other nations?

No, and it is up to criminologists like Mr Chakraborti to make sure that politicians and those setting policy have a clear picture of what we do know about hate crime.

Hidden crimes

"There is a tendency to take these figures at face value, hate crime is a unique crime and we can't take the figures at face value.

"There is a rise in reporting these crimes and that is to be encouraged - even then we're still only scratching the surface as there are many communities who do not come forward."

There is so much about hate crime that we do not know - such as its scale, whether it is increasing and if it really affects victims more than other crimes.

This summer the government launched a massive hate action plan.

It is considering a host of ways to tackle hate crime - like establishing specialist hate crime courts, obliging all public bodies to record and report all hate crimes and incidents - getting schools to report all bullying with hate elements.

While well intentioned we may end up with a picture of the UK that is much more hateful than the reality and may not reduce the levels of this type of crime.

The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 26 November at 2000 GMT. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast or download the podcast.



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