Cllr Paul Mercer is a member of Charnwood Borough Council. He is a member of its cabinet with responsibility for Strategic and Private Sector Housing.
One of the less stimulating tasks of a lead member on a council is to cast an eye over policy documents before they are presented to the cabinet for approval. Having recently assumed responsibility for all of Charnwood’s housing – with two chief officers reporting to me – I regularly receive these documents and, I suspect, it had always been assumed that lead members would give them a cursory read rather than subject them to a forensic examination.
My previous experience in approving these reports is that mistakes sometimes slip through: typographical errors, getting the names of legislation wrong and an excessive use of local government speak. Recently, Charnwood was required to formulate a new ‘Corporate Anti-Social Behaviour and Hate Incident Policy’ for 2018-21 and it explained that the council had adopted the Home Office’s definition of a “hate crime”. This consists of five categories: race or ethnicity; religion or beliefs; sexual orientation; disability; and transgender identity. However, to this list the officers had added “age” and “transgender” had been downgraded to “gender”.
Further research revealed that the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service and Office of National Statistics, explicitly exclude age from the definition of hate crimes because it is already covered by existing legislation. I therefore made a correction to the document so that, I believed, Charnwood’s definition was now consistent with that of the Home Office.
The policy document was then presented to the council’s Policy Scrutiny Group and I attended the meeting alongside the respective chief officer and our Community Safety Manager. It was only at the meeting that I noticed that not only had “age” been re-inserted and another category had been added which simply stated “other”.
One of the councillors on the committee asked what ‘other’ meant and it was explained that this covered the fact that a hate crime “could be any incident where someone has been targeted because they are seen as being different”. It was emphasised that it was the victim’s perception rather than any objective assessment that mattered.
After the meeting, and after consulting the Leader of the Council, it was agreed that I would inform the officers that we would only be using the Home Office definition – nothing more and nothing less. In response, I was then told by another senior officer that all councils in Leicestershire and Rutland had agreed to adopt a common definition because it would apparently enable them to work more closely together on this matter and therefore we had little choice but to go along with this definition.
It took me a while to find all the respective policies but what was clear is that there was absolutely no consistency between the different councils. Rutland, for instance, had explicitly excluded transgenders, and specified that a ‘hate crime’ had to “constitute a criminal offence”. Leicestershire Police, alongside Leicestershire County Council, had extended the definition even further to include “alternative subcultures” which meant goths, hippies, punks and other groups. Melton Borough Council meanwhile stated that a “victim does not have to be a member of the group at which the hostility is targeted. In fact, anyone could be a victim of a hate crime”.
When it became clear to the officers that there was going to be resistance from members, we were told we had no choice and that Charnwood had “as an organisation signed up to the countywide definition” at a meeting apparently attended by the Leader. However, this turned out to be incorrect and when it was challenged the officer’s response was to say that they would be seeking “clarity” from the County.
This incident raises two important issues.
The first is the extent to which councillors formulate policy. It has become clear that, on this occasion, officers had decided that it was their responsibility and seemed to resent our interference. They also assumed that we would not take the trouble of questioning what they said, or indeed carry out any research to ascertain whether it was true and accurate.
The second troubling issue is the extent to which the police appear to be arbitrarily broadening the “hate crime” definition to include alternative subcultures. Greater Manchester Police was the first to expand its categories following a campaign by the mother of murdered “goth” Sophie Lancaster and some other police forces, including Leicestershire, followed their lead. If the definition of hate crime is to be extended to include age, alternative subcultures, and indeed anything else, then it should be decided at a national level, by the Government, and not on a piecemeal basis which has resulted in total inconsistency across a county and I suspect the rest of the UK.
Hate crime is a serious issue that needs to be addressed at a national level but by forever expanding the definition to include anyone who perceives that they have been insulted for any reason ultimately undermines the ability of the police and local authorities to address the most serious cases.