Growing racism requires a much stronger government response

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Hate crimes have increased since the referendum and the biggest increases have been in areas that voted ‘leave’. Government has launched a new hate crime plan but, typically, rather than a proper strategy it’s largely a mish-mash of small schemes, many already taking place. There’s little questioning of why racism is on the increase, and no review of politicians’ own behaviour before and during the referendum. It’s as if increased hate crime is an unfortunate accident rather than the culmination of a viciously anti-immigrant campaign – preceded by the racist labelling of Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral vote and other openly provocative measures stretching back to Theresa May’s ‘go home’ vans two years ago.

In housing, we have seen the introduction of the right to rent, which could almost have been designed as the modern equivalent of those signs saying ‘No Blacks’ that used to be put in windows by landlords until the 1960s. (Coincidentally it was also the sort of discrimination practised in the US at the same time, it seems, by presidential candidate, UKIP supporter and former landlord Donald Trump). Evidence of discrimination in the right to rent pilot in the West Midlands, found by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, was dismissed and the scheme simply rolled out across England last February. It joined the government’s rogue landlords and ‘beds in sheds’ schemes as seemingly as much about immigration control as they are about improving housing conditions.

Social landlords trying to engage with Muslim communities also have the ‘Prevent’ programme breathing down their necks, with housing staff now being trained to identify ‘radicalisation’. But does this merely bring all Muslim men with beards under suspicion, as one housing worker told me, and where is the community-sensitive help for Muslim families genuinely worried about the violent propaganda their young people might be subject to?

In short, many housing professionals and tenants are highly sceptical of the effectiveness of government schemes, whether to identify ‘illegal’ migrants or ‘radicalised’ Muslims, but are all too aware of their damaging effects on community relations.

Now social landlords have a fresh concern, given that two-thirds of social tenants voted against EU membership and all have been exposed to the ‘divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric’ during the campaign, as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination put it when blaming both politicians and the media. Fortunately, so far there seem to have been few housing-related hate incidents, although a Polish family was attacked in their home in Bristol and children in a Harrogate play area taunted an East European migrant.

The UK government said in response to the UN committee that it has a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to hate crime. ‘We have in place one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to protect communities from hostility, violence and bigotry. We keep it under review to ensure it remains effective and appropriate – and recently published a comprehensive new hate crime action plan to drive forward the fight.’

If the legislative framework really ‘protects’ communities, then how come that race hate crime is increasing or that (according to official crime surveys) the real number of incidents is at least twice what is being recorded by police? How come that organisations working with EU migrants report more fear of hate incidents, and Tell MAMA, which monitors Islamophobia, recorded a 300% increase in incidents even before the referendum and some of the recent events in France? If (as the government plan says) ‘we will only be able to drive down hate crime by tackling the prejudice and intolerance that fuel it’, where is the self-analysis by politicians of their own views and actions, that the UN committee thinks is lacking?

Both the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the Race Equality Foundation have called for a more comprehensive approach to tackling hate crime related to race or religion. One possibility that was belatedly discussed at PMQs just before the vote was to revive Labour’s Migration Impact Fund. This has since been supported by a range of think tanks, albeit with calls for the initiative to be on a much bigger scale than Labour’s (which was peremptorily closed down by Eric Pickles as ‘ineffective’ within months of the 2010 election). However, the Tory manifesto proposal, to which David Cameron referred at PMQs, was for a ‘Controlling Migration Fund’ which would not only ‘help communities experiencing high and unexpected volumes of immigration’ but also ‘pay for additional immigration enforcement’, again mixing integration measures with immigration control.

If race and religion-related hate crimes are to be tackled effectively, and better community relations pursued, the government needs to begin with a close look at its own policies and public actions. Perhaps this is what Theresa May had in mind last week when she announced a review of how race equality is handled in public services. But if such a review has real importance, why did the news of it slip out on the Saturday of an August Bank Holiday weekend?

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