The Failings of the UK’s hate crime laws

The hate crime laws in the UK were created to enable discriminatory incentives behind certain offences to be prosecutable. Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and increasing hate crimes committed against people of colour, the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act introduced racially and religiously aggravated laws. Recently, these offenses have sparked controversy as they have been charged against black and minority ethnic people – seemingly contradicting the intention behind the legislation and leading to doubts over the validity of the charges.

The offenses

The most prominent “hate crime” offenses in the UK are not found within a single legislation but are encompassed by the several laws, including –

  • Racially or religiously aggravated forms of “basic” criminal offenses from the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
  • Section 66 of the Sentencing Act 2020.

The 1998 Act created higher maximum penalty for offences considered to be racially or religiously motivated. The “basic” offenses include assault, criminal damage, public order, harassment and stalking. The subsequent 2020 Act provides for a sentencing “uplift” meaning those charged with a public order offense which was subsequently flagged by the police as racially or religiously motivated, would face a harsher sentence than if they were convicted of the public order offense alone.

How are hate crimes recorded

The Home Office requires police forces to use a ‘marker’ or ‘flag’ to indicate that a reported incident or crime is racially or religiously aggravated. The use of these flags led to concern from the HMIFCs; in their 2018 report, they found that flags were not being used when they should have been, incorrect flags were often used; and flags were also used without any apparent justification. The unreliability of this technique was noted by the Home Office in 2016, when they stopped requiring the police to report their data on these crimes as there were concerns over the consistency of the data supplied.

This process relies mainly on the perception of the police officer, ignoring wider social contexts and community dynamics. Further, it places an overemphasis on slurs as the sole indicator of racial or religious motivation. The HMIFRCs expressed further concern in the report that police forces and the Government, “don’t have enough information to understand fully how different groups are victimised.” While it can be appreciated that categorizing crimes motivated by racial or religious hate is not simple, the current process seems oversimplified at the least.

Conversely, the Institute of Race Relations approaches statistics on hate crimes by looking into the larger context of the offenses and determining whether the perpetrator would have acted the same way if the victim was a different race. This approach entails a more nuanced understanding of racism and can appreciate how racism presents itself beyond the use of slurs.

Contemporary application

Recently a women of colour made headlines for holding up a sign depicting the Prime Minister and Suella Braverman as “coconuts” in a Palestine march. The term “coconut” has widely been understood within BAME communities as an insult towards a person of colour who is “white on the inside”. She was arrested for a racially aggravated offense, lost her job, has been subjected to harassment from police officers and has now been formally charged. The term's usage ignited considerable debate, with some pointing out that it has historically been employed to hold people of colour accountable when they adopt white supremacist ideologies, while others perceive it as blatantly racist. While the term is controversial, the history of the term as an intra-communal insult, as well as the context of a protest against ethnic genocide sits uncomfortably with a racially aggravated criminal charge.

Another recent example was a black man who was charged with racially aggravated malicious communications and brought before Wood Green Crown Court after sending an emoji of a racoon to MP Obese-Jecty, who is of mixed-race heritage. The use of the emoji signified a racist term used against black people. The emoji was sent to the MP, after he called protestors against the murder of Chris Kaba “hysterical”; Kaba was a 24 year old unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2022. While the term is racist in itself, understanding the wider context of the exchange and the difference in power dynamics of the emoji being sent by a black man it is hard to reconcile the charge being categorised as a racist hate crime.

Contrastingly, Frank Hester who said MP Diane Abbott made him "want to hate all black women" and that she "should be shot" is currently being investigated by West Yorkshire police but has yet to be formally charged. The Prime Minister commented that Hester’s “remorse should be accepted”, and that he “is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse governments in this country’s history”. The irony of asking people to appreciate the context of these racist remarks is unsurprising, given Hester is a supporter of Sunak and the biggest donor of the Conservative party. It does, however, cast further doubt into what is flagged as a hate crime offense by the Police and what is not.

Whether by failings of the system, or the system working exactly as intended – it is not difficult to see how the UK’s hate crime laws are failing to protect people of colour and ignore the history and nuance of racism in the UK.  The contemporary application of hate crime legislation feeds into wider conversations around the fundamental misunderstanding of how racism operates within the UK, as well as the shortcomings of legislating on an issue as complex and sensitive as racism.



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