Now 1 November 2018 | 10:23

Keep calm and remember what hate crimes actually are

01 November 2018 10:23

Social media is ablaze with familiar accusations of patriarchal insensitivity and our old friend – ‘PC gone mad’.

In this case the ‘PC’ allegation is a little confusing, since the row has been sparked by a police officer: Sara Thornton, chairwoman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who has said that officers should ‘refocus on core policing’.

She went on: ‘We are asked to provide more and more bespoke services that are all desirable – but the simple fact is there are too many desirable and deserving issues. For example, treating misogyny as a hate crime is a concern for some well-organised campaigning organisations.’

The problem, Thornton continued, is that such incidents, ‘just cannot be priorities for a service that is over-stretched’. Well, now. What is going on here? I submit that sloppiness of language has got Thornton into hot water that she could have easily avoided.

The key point is that hate crimes are all, by legal definition, criminal acts that would be prosecutable even if they did not involve bigotry against protected groups. But the legislation in question (since you ask: sections 28-32 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and sections 145 and 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003) allows prosecutors to apply for longer sentences on the grounds that the seriousness of the crime is compounded by the hate that wholly or partly inspired it.

So, by definition, all hate crimes have to be investigated by the police on the simple basis that they would be investigated anyway.

The confusion arises from the failure to draw a distinction between hate crimes and hate incidents. The latter are defined as any incidents in which the  victim or anyone else believes the act was motivated by hostility or prejudice based on disability, race, religion, transgender identity or sexual orientation. This can cover more or less any act that is perceived to be bigoted: bullying, wolf-whistling, insulting speech and so on.

Thornton’s point, clumsily made, was that the police investigate such incidents as best they can, within the limits of the resources they have.

Every police station in the land is a permanent site of social triage: where to send a squad car next? Is the woman who was abused by a misogynist in the local supermarket in physical danger – as she might well be?  What to do about the drunk outside the pub shouting homophobic insults at gay couples?

To repeat: hate crimes are not the same as hate incidents. The question Thornton raised, albeit insensitively, is a good one. If the police are to investigate more hate incidents – as society has every right to expect – they will need the resources to do so.

This isn’t about political correctness at all, really. It’s about fiscal policy, and the assumptions that underpin next year’s Spending Review. Over to you, Mr Hammond.