With recorded crime across England and Wales at a 20-year high, signs are emerging that the U.K. government might be coming to its senses.
Under new plans announced by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the police will be instructed to record non-crime hate incidents (NCHI) only when necessary, not simply when someone feels offended, and officers reporting them will have to give precedence to freedom of speech and expression over restrictions on offensive or insulting language.
Until this change, an NCHI was defined as anything that a victim (or any other person) perceived to be motivated by prejudice or hostility toward one or more protected characteristics. These include (but aren’t limited to) race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation.
This policy shift comes too late for the 120,000 individuals with NCHIs added to their records between 2014 and 2019. Though classified as non-criminal behavior, NCHIs remain on file and show up on criminal background checks for up to six years; they cannot be appealed. Tens of thousands of people with such marks face a potentially difficult and distressing time finding employment.
The case of Harry Miller was the catalyst for change. A former policeman, Miller had an NCHI recorded against him after he retweeted a post deemed offensive to transgender people. Miller challenged the decision in court, arguing that police guidance on NCHIs was unlawful. In December 2021, the Court of Appeal ruled in his favor. The decision required the College of Policing to review its NCHI guidance and prioritize free speech. Yet more than a year later, NCHIs are still being recorded for the most trivial reasons. This is why Braverman’s intervention is necessary.
Speaking to the press, Braverman said, “The new code will ensure the police are prioritising their efforts where it’s really needed and focusing on tackling serious crimes such as burglary, violent offences, rape and other sexual offences.”
An analysis of the data confirms Braverman’s assessment of what’s “really needed.” Between 2019 and 2020, the rate of convictions for rape in England and Wales fell to the lowest level on record—only 1.3 percent of rapes reported to police resulted in a charge, despite police recording the second-highest number of rapes since 2002.
More alarming are the police’s institutional problems. According to data from the National Police Chief’s Council and published in the Independent, between October 2021 and April 2022, more than 1,500 police officers and staff were accused of numerous sexual offences against women, including rape and harassment. Of those, just 13, or less than 1 percent, were dismissed. And two recent scandals involving former serving police officers—Wayne Couzens and David Carrick—have damaged the reputation of British law enforcement. Couzens is now a convicted murderer, Carrick a convicted serial rapist.
If the home secretary is serious about focusing on important issues, she could work to roll back the Equality Act 2010 and reduce the U.K.’s ever-expanding list of protected groups. That would require pushing back on the the Law Commission—an independent body that reviews and recommends changes to the law—which has suggested extending protected-characteristic status to groups such as alternative subcultures, sex workers, and the elderly.
Meantime, while Great Britain has abolished blasphemy laws, one religion, Islam, remains protected from criticism. Four boys were recently suspended from Kettlethorpe High School for bringing a copy of the Quran into school and accidentally dropping it on the floor. Rumors spread that the holy book had been set ablaze, though the book was only lightly scuffed. It turns out that the 14-year-old boy who brought it into the West Yorkshire school did so on a dare. Still, the police were called, and the incident was recorded as an NCHI. The mother of the boy (who is reportedly autistic) received death threats.
Braverman has made a good start, but she needs to go further. Rather than merely deemphasizing NCHIs, Britain should remove them entirely from police guidance. Whether such incidents are regarded as trivial or non-trivial, reporting them is a threat to freedom of speech. Instead of criminalizing words, the police should focus on preventing serious crime and apprehending the perpetrators of it. All NCHIs accomplish is the policing of thought.
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