Changing the immigration narrative is the only way to tackle hate crime

Any sustainable solution to this problem must involve a deliberate and purposeful effort to change the narrative around immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities in the UK.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. The misconception central to this timeworn childhood rhyme – that words are not capable of doing real harm – seems to underlie the irresponsible approach of many politicians when it comes to narratives. In politics and in policy, there is an assumption that something concrete, measureable and immediately visible is more worthy of our attention than just words; but language and rhetoric have played an unquestionable role in causing the post-Brexit increase in hate crime. Any sustainable solution to this problem must involve a deliberate and purposeful effort to change the narrative around immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities in the UK.

In the week following the EU referendum, the number of hate crimes reported to the police increased by 46% compared with the same period in 2015, with 1827 crimes recorded. Data released yesterday revealed that, in July 2016, there were 5,468 hate crimes – 41% higher than July 2015. Data from the National Police Chief’s Council show that this deeply concerning trend persisted in August (data is not yet available for September 2016).

We must explicitly draw the link between anti-immigration rhetoric and the rise in hate crime in the UK. This causality, and the need for politicians to be more responsible with their language, has been stressed by three respected international entities: the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and Human Rights Watch. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, for example, expressed “deep concern that the referendum campaign was marked by divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric, and that many politicians and prominent political figures not only failed to condemn it, but also created and entrenched prejudices, thereby emboldening individuals to carry out acts of intimidation and hate towards ethnic or ethno-religious minority communities and people who are visibly different”. Only by explicitly making this connection between rhetoric and hate crime can we recognise the importance of cleaning up our speech.

How can words lead to an increase in hate crime?

The more extreme examples of dangerous rhetoric (such as UKIP’s controversial Breaking Point poster, or the Home Office’s “Operation Vaken” and “GO HOME” ad vans) are easy to identify. Post Ref Racism’s own analysis of post-brexit hate incidents found that “Go Home” and “Leave” were the most common abusive phrases, appearing in a quarter of incidents – it’s easy to see the how the “Go Home” ad vans would make yelling “Go Home” seem more acceptable to the perpetrator of a hate crime.

Migrants and refugees have been referred to by certain Conservative / UKIP politicians as arriving in a “swarm”, “flood” or “invasion” during the run up to the referendum; and in her 2015 speech as Home Secretary Theresa May warned of “mass migration”. Such visualizations misrepresent arrival of immigrants/refugees as completely uncontrollable and inherently negative, inciting false panic and creating a climate of fear and hostility towards those coming in. As there is no way to distinguish between an immigrant/refugee or a British-born ethnic minority, anyone who appears to fit a stereotyped physical description of an immigrant or refugee can be seen as a threat and is treated with the same hostility. Such language, and indeed talk of “vast numbers”, also dehumanizes refugees and migrants. When a feeling of hostility/threat is combined with not viewing another person as human, this creates the psychological conditions that allow a person to commit violence against another and feel legitimate in doing so.

The slogan “take back control” was central to the Leave campaign and has been used repeatedly by Prime Minister Theresa May. For example, in her recent speech at the conservative party conference May said, “Now is the moment to […] take back control and shape our future..”, also stressing the importance of “control over immigration”. This language of reclaiming control implies that we do not have control at present, playing into the “invasion of migrants” rhetoric and scaremongering with respect to immigration. Post Ref Racism’s analysis of post-Brexit hate incidents found that over half of incidents referred specifically to the referendum, with perpetrators using phrases like: “go home”, “leave”, and “pack your bags we voted you out”. This highlights how intimately post-Brexit abuse is related to the referendum and the language of the leave campaign; the “take back control” rhetoric has been interpreted as the right of white British people to dispel whomever they like from their country. Whether this meaning is intended by politicians who use this language is irrelevant – in the context of post-Brexit Britain using this language instills a sense of entitlement to take back one’s country and take control into one’s own hands, legitimizing hostility towards those perceived to be immigrants and thereby normalizing abuse against them.

These examples are by no means exhaustive, but rather illustrate how ill-chosen words can cultivate racist/xenophobic attitudes that underlie hate crime. Mainstream politicians need to acknowledge the real impact their words have on the realities of non-white communities and take responsibility for their rhetoric. The Home Office’s action plan to tackle hate crime recognizes the need to “challenge beliefs and attitudes that underlie hate crime” but regrettably fails to make the connection to the government’s own rhetoric, instead focusing on changing attitudes in schools and among young people. The efforts to challenge beliefs and attitudes desperately need to be broadened.

Looking forward: Changing the Narrative

Changing the narrative about immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities is the only way to tackle hate crime at its root and start to change the attitudes and beliefs of would-be perpetrators.

We need to establish a coherent and compelling counter-narrative to xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric. We need to start talking about the positive things immigration can do and has done for our society. Critical discussion of immigration needs to become more nuanced and less sensational; we need to stop the knee-jerk branding of immigrants as an economic, cultural and security threat. Conservatives committed to racial equality must challenge the dangerous narratives of their party’s leadership. And most importantly, we need a constructive, cross-party discussion on the best ways to change the narrative, also engaging actors from civil society and media.

Unlike sticks and stones, words have a unique power to change minds and shape attitudes. It’s time to start using that power to eliminate hate crime in Britain.

Karissa Singh is the Founder of Post Ref Racism campaign






Is ‘stop and search’ effective?

It’s five years since London was struck by the worst rioting in a decade. The riots resulted in five deaths and over 200 injuries. In the aftermath of the riots, 1,292 rioters were handed custodial sentences totalling 1,800 years.

A number of inquiries were held to identify the underlying causes of the riot. Once possible cause cited was the use of stop and search powers, which have been disproportionately used against people from ethnic minority backgrounds. It was argued that this created distrust and ultimately anger in the police in ethnic minority communities.

After the riots, the then Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, ordered the police to reduce their use of stop and search powers. However, some proponents of stop and searches have argued that they were effective, and the recent reduction has led to an increase in crime.

A troubled history

Under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, police officers were allowed to search civilians when they were deemed to be behaving suspiciously. This law became known as the ‘Sus’ law; short for ‘suspicious’ person.

This law caused significant controversy in the 1980s when it was employed abundantly by the Metropolitan Police. In early April 1981, Operation Swamp - an attempt to cut street crime in Brixton - used the Sus law to stop more than 1,000 people in six days.

Soon after, rioting broke out in Brixton. The riots resulted in over 300 injuries but no deaths. In his official report into the riots, Lord Scarman identified Sus law as a causal factor of the rioting. In response, the Government repealed the Sus law in August of 1981.

However, in 1984 the Government introduced the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) which permitted police officers to search civilians without arrest where there was “reasonable” suspicion.  PACE is the law currently used by police officers in order to carry out the vast majority of searches of a person without arrest.

PACE provoked significant controversy following the 2011 riots when its disproportionate use against ethnic minority individuals was identified as one cause of the riots by a number of inquiries. Following the then Home Secretary’s, order for the police to significantly reduce their use of the powers, stop and searches fell from a peak of 1.2 million in 2010-11 to 539,000 in 2014-15.

Detecting crime

However, some such as the Metropolitan Police have been critical of the reduced usage of stop and search. They argue that the reduction in stop and searchers has coincided with a significant increase in crime, particularly knife crime.

Proponents of stop and search laws argue that it allows police officers to detect crime. They claim that police officers can frequently have reasonable suspicion that a person is committing a crime, but not enough evidence to arrest the suspect. In such circumstances, it can be impractical for police officers to seek a warrant to search a suspect.

The most useful evidence surrounding detection is the proportion of individuals arrested following a stop and search. Since the Macpherson Inquiry, which examined the practises of the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, police officers have been compelled to keep a record of stop and searches and subsequent arrests.

The graph below shows the proportion of stop and searches, under PACE, which resulted in arrests. This arrest rate dropped from a high of 13% in 2003-04 to lows of 9% between 2009 and 2012. The arrest rate currently stands at 12%. The overall arrest rate suggests that stop and searches are not a particularly effective form of detecting crime.


Proportion of searches using PACE leading to arrest (2003-2014)

Source: Home Office (2016)

The arrest rate does, however, vary significantly depending on the reason that a person was searched. Twenty per cent of people who were searched because a police officer suspected that they held an offensive weapon were subsequently arrested. In contrast, only 9% of people who were searched on suspicion of possessing drugs were arrested.   

Deterring crime

A low arrest rate in itself does not necessarily mean that stop and search does not work. Proponents of stop and search also argue that its use can deter and prevent crime. They argue that the powers can effectively disrupt crime, particularly in relation to terrorism.

Estimating the number of crimes prevented by stop and search powers is inherently difficult. The most recent Home Office study into this used the British Crime Survey to estimate the number of crimes which were susceptible to disruption by searches. These offenses include burglary, vehicle thefts, bicycle theft, robbery and wounding. The study estimated that stop and searches reduced these crimes by 0.2%. It should be noted that the Home Office study did not include crimes under the Misuse of Drugs Act. However, this research does suggest that stop and searches have only a very small effect in preventing crime.

Earlier this year, the Home Office released research under a Freedom of Information request into Operation Blunt 2. Operation Blunt 2, which began in the spring of 2008, was an attempt to reduce knife crime in London. It involved a significant increase in stop and searches in some London boroughs. The official evaluation looked at ten London boroughs which saw 300% increase in weapon searches by the police, up from 34,154 in the year before to 123,335 in the first year of the Operation.

It compared the crime rates in these boroughs to 16 other London boroughs, which saw a much smaller increase in weapon searches over the same period. The researchers examined nine different measures of crime including assaults involving a knife, robbery, and weapons and drug possession offences. Their analysis found that “no statistically significant crime-reducing effect from the large increase in weapon searches during the course of Operation Blunt 2. This suggests that the greater use of weapons searches was not effective at the borough level for reducing crime.”


Since 2011, there has been a significant reduction in the use of stop and search powers. A number of inquiries have suggest that stop and search created distrust in the police in ethnic minority communities. However, it is possible that this distrust might be an acceptable price if stop and searches were particularly effective at reducing crimes. The evidence does not suggest this is the case. The use of stop and search does not seem to detect crime nor deter it.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

Does the death penalty deter crime?

Fifty one years ago the United Kingdom became the fourteenth country to officially abolish the death penalty. By 1977, 16 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Today, the number has risen to 140.

However, while the number of countries practising the death penalty has continued to decline, the number of people executed has increased in recent years. According to Amnesty International, more people were executed worldwide in 2015 than in any year since 1989. Three countries were responsible for almost 90% of the executions in 2015; Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

One of the key justifications for the use of the death penalty is that it deters crime. For example, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, who has presided over the execution of over 1,200 people since his election in 2014, has argued that abolishing the death penalty would lead to a rise in crime in the country. This article explores the evidence behind those claims.

Evidence from America

The United States has provided an excellent venue for researchers examining the question of whether the death penalty deters crime. The US provides such a good environment for two reasons. First, the use of the death penalty varies between individual states. This allows researchers to compare crime rates between states that retain capital punishment and states that do not. Second, in 1972, the US Supreme Court effectively abolished the death penalty for four years. This created an ideal natural experiment for which researchers could compare crime rates during the ‘moratorium’ and before or after it.

Comparing US states

A number of studies have shown that states with the death penalty generally experience higher homicide rates than states without it. For example, Amnesty International found that the murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty. The New York Times have reported similar findings. They found that the 83% of US states without the death penalty had homicide rates below the national average.

The ‘moratorium’

A number of studies have purported to show that the US Supreme Court’s decision to effectively abolish capital punishment in 1972 led to an increase in homicide rates. For example, one study compared the homicide rate during the moratorium (1972 - 1976) with the homicide rate after the moratorium (1977 - 1997). The authors find a substantial deterrent effect. They conclude that the "data indicates that murder rates increased immediately after the moratorium was imposed and decreased directly after the moratorium was lifted, providing support for the deterrence hypothesis.”

Ostensibly, the increase in homicide rates during the moratorium and subsequent decrease after provide a compelling case for the the deterrent effect of capital punishment. However, more recently these studies have faced significant criticism. The aforementioned study only compared states that were affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. That is, they only examined states that had the death penalty in 1971 and had reinstated it by 1977. A later study also included states that were not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision because they had abolished the death penalty prior to 1972. Using these states as a control group, the authors were able to show that the moratorium did not cause a rise in homicide rates.

American exceptionalism?

While the evidence from the United States suggest that the death penalty does not have a detrimental effect on crime rates, it is possible these results may not be applicable to the rest of the world.

Comparing the crime rates of countries which retain the death penalty and countries which have abolished it is problematic. This is because the vast cultural differences between countries can obscure trends and relationships. Because of this, researchers have tended to examine crime rates in countries that have abolished the death penalty, before and after.

For example, one study examined the abolition of the death penalty in Canada. The study found that the homicide rate per 100,000 of the population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the death penalty for murder was abolished, to 2.41 in 1980. The homicide rate in Canada has remained significantly lower than before abolition ever since. A further study examined the murder rates in Hong Kong for a 35-year period beginning in 1973 and found that the abolition of capital punishment had little impact on crime levels.


The number of countries abolishing the death penalty continues to rise but, at the same time, the number of people being executed has experienced a recent rise. This is an extremely worrying trend. One of the leading justifications for the use of the death penalty is that it deters crime. This claim has been repeatedly tested by researchers. The majority of research from both the US and worldwide has found no evidence of a deterrence effect.

James Dobson is a researcher for Bright Blue