Hate crime is increasingly at the forefront of the minds of those responsible for community cohesion, with reports of a surge nationally post-Brexit. JAMES ILLINGWORTH reports on the challenges we face - and Preston Council’s plans for a new approach to tackling the issue.
“The number of hate crimes actually being reported is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to be saying: report it, report it, report it, because unless you do, no-one can do anything about it.”
Hate crime is a term most of us have heard - but those in charge of addressing the problem are worried offences are under-reported due to a lack of understanding about what hate crime actually means.
Preston Council is determined to improve community links to help tackle hate crime, which is defined as an incident ‘based on someone’s prejudice towards them because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or because they are transgender.’
Months of discussions with community groups, faith organisations and police representatives lie ahead before a definitive action plan will be produced.
The Crime and Disorder Committee’s message was that before any meaningful progress can be made, an understanding of what constitutes hate crime must be established.
I would be interested to unpick what motivates people to commit these offences. Is there a community trigger that makes someone think they’ve had enough?
Likewise, exposing the root causes of hate crime and encouraging victims to report even minor incidents were identified as priorities, while building on the city’s record for cohesion.
Coun David Hammond, Conservative member for Greyfriars, said: “It’s obvious to me that we’re not sure the exact definition of what hate crime is.
“If we feel that, what do the people in our wards feel? Do they know what a hate crime is?
“We’ve got to make it so they can identify what a hate crime is and make sure that the reporting is done right.
“If you don’t tell us we can’t do anything about it. But having said that, if people don’t know what a hate crime is, they can’t tell us.
“We’ve got to get that over to the people somehow.”
Equality and diversity officer Lesley Pritchard told the committee hate crime is motivated by prejudice and can take several forms.
She said: “I would be interested to unpick what motivates people to commit these offences. Is there a community trigger that makes someone think they’ve had enough? It could be something happening here or in other countries.
“I think it’s key to establish what makes communities vulnerable in this way.”
Once the scoping report is through its draft stage, a six-month study will take place while an action plan is formulated.
The committee discussed how Preston holds a proud tradition of community cohesion but warned against taking traditional community links for granted.
The murder of Sophie Lancaster - who was brutally attacked because she was dressed as a goth in 2007 in East Lancashire - was referenced as a tragic example of what they are working to tackle.
Preston Crown Court also heard the tragic details this week of the case of Chinese national Wenqing Xu, who died following a “vicious” and unprovoked attack in the Plungington area on New Year’s Day.
Nathan Richardson, 19, offered no explanation for the killing, and was jailed for a minimum of 19 years. But to highlight the city’s positive approach to community cohesion, councillors referenced the response to last year’s English Defence League demonstration.
For example, to coincide with the far-right party’s march, Preston’s Flag Market hosted a One Preston, One Community event.
Coun James Hull, Labour member for St George’s ward, said: “With regards to how one defines hate crime, it is quite difficult because there can be quite broad definitions but there are perhaps accepted definitions at the moment that are not inclusive enough for what we’re saying.
“As far as we’re concerned is how we find a remedy to nip it in the bud in our communities and that won’t be easy at all.
“But Preston, as has been said, has a very long and proud history of having integration going back to the 1950s when we had different communities working together.”
Police figures showed an increase in hate crimes in Lancashire last year in the aftermath of Brexit.
But the unreliability of hate crime statistics, given the reluctance of victims to report each incident, was raised by the committee members.
It is vital to instil confidence within the community that the legal and support system will help them, they said.
Coun Pauline Brown, Liberal Democrat for Ingol, said: “I think one of the things we’ve got to remember is to ensure we encourage people to report hate crime, whatever way we cut this we’re only skimming the surface. The number actually being reported is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to be saying: report it, report it, report it, because unless you do, no-one can do anything about it.”
And while Preston’s existing community links should be applauded, vice-chairman of the committee Coun Zafar Coupland, Labour representative for Fishwick, said the new approach was a major opportunity to take further strides and warned against complacency.
She said: “As much as we want to celebrate all the positive, there are grass-roots people from whatever community you come from facing real hate crime and we can’t cream that over.
“I think this is an opportunity for us as a local authority to really go into those communities to do that hard work. Communities need to be working with the right organisations.
‘Is it a hate crime?’ is what we here all the time. And people are fearful of reporting to agencies that they think will do nothing.
“People (saying) ‘Who do we go to?’ Those are the people who are living in fear in their homes.
“Celebration isn’t really going to get rid of what really people are facing out there. It’s fantastic that (the study) has been brought to this table but the real work is back in the community. Those people who are facing hate crimes are still facing it.”
‘Crucial for victims to report all incidents’
• Faruk Desai of Preston and West Lancashire’s Equality Council said it is crucial for victims to report all incidents for authorities to have a clear picture of the situation in the city.
He said: “People are pro-active to reporting when it comes to violence and they need to be supported through that process.
“However, this may not be the case in terms of verbal abuse experienced when walking down the street, for example. People might be reluctant to report that.
“That is the main thing with community interaction and engagement, to make sure victims are confident in reporting each thing.
“We should give them confidence to report so we have an accurate picture.”
• Kate Sobieska, who works at a Polish shop on New Hall Lane, said although reports suggested a surge of verbal abuse incidents after Brexit, there have been no outbreaks this year.
She said she feels victims would feel confident to report any incidents but language barriers may prove problematic on occasions.
“This year has been okay, we have lost some Polish customers who have gone back home after Brexit. I have friends who don’t speak English as well and they might not feel as comfortable coming forward, that may be something that could be looked at.
“As for me, things should be done the right way and reported so the police can deal with it.”
• Ali Amla, a freelance consultant on equality matters and vice chair of Preston Faith Forum, said he backed the council’s plans to help people understand what defines a hate crime. He said it is crucial the local authority now seeks help from people, like himself, who are working in the field to help community cohesion.
He said: “Part of my role is to engage with communities and work with them to understand what hate crime is and why they should report it. Reaching out to communities is key - whether that is groups, mosques/churches or schools, we need to reassure people that something will be done when something is reported and fight the apathy that some may have.”
Mr Amla works for the Tell Mama group which encourages people to report incidents of Islamophobia to them so they can pass details on to the relevant authorities on the victims’ behalf. He added: “We think this is an effective system. It’s very important (the council) works with organisations like ours.”
• A spokesman for Lancashire Police said: “Hate Incidents can feel like crimes to those who suffer them and often escalate to crimes or tension in a community. The police can only prosecute when the law is broken but we can work with partners to try and prevent any escalation in seriousness. We understand that most victims of hate crimes and incidents simply want it to stop. All hate crimes are hate incidents but not all hate incidents amount to a crime.
“It is important that if hate crime happens to you or someone you know, that you report it. Sometimes you may feel that the incident is too minor to bother the police but reporting it makes a difference.”