Brexit, Hate Crime and Restorative Justice

Published: Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

This is a blog by Tehmina Kazi. She works for Why me? as our Development Officer, working on two projects about hate crime and Restorative Justice.

Last night saw more twists and turns in the Brexit drama: MPs voted on no less than seven amendments.  A majority of MPs agreed that a “no deal” scenario should be off the table, although this amendment is not legally-binding.  Other amendments – such as Yvette Cooper’s amendment on the postponement of Brexit and Dominic Grieve’s amendment offering a range of alternatives, including a further vote – were rejected. 

As a registered charity, Why me? did not make any political statements for or against the EU Referendum vote, and this would not change if a further vote were to go ahead.  However, we were concerned by the rise in xenophobic sentiment during the referendum campaign.  Police statistics show that racist and religious abuse incidents increased by 41% in the month after Britain voted to leave the EU – and not just against EU citizens, but people of Asian, African and Caribbean heritage.  This spike comes as no surprise.  But what is less well known is that there has also been a sustained rise in hate crimes over a longer period: the number of hate crimes has almost doubled between 2013 and 2018, according to Home Office figures.  In 2012-2013, 42,255 hate crimes were recorded.  In the 2017-2018 period, this figure had risen to 94,098 (pg 7).  (Of course, the real figures could be much higher; the Crime Survey for England and Wales acknowledges that many hate crimes go unreported).

As David Lammy MP stated: “divisive, xenophobic rhetoric from politicians and leaders trickle down into abuse on our streets.”  Cases include racist graffiti daubed on the Polish and Social Cultural Association in London, and cards with the words “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin” being posted through the letter boxes of Polish families and distributed outside primary schools in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

It is clear that the debate needs to be depolarised.  There are already campaigns that bring together Remain and Leave voters in condemning xenophobia, like the campaign to protect EU nationals’ rights.  But what role could restorative justice play in tackling hate crime, or even in bringing the Leave and Remain “tribes” together?

First, restorative justice gives hate crime victims a more active role in securing justice.  A common observation is that all victims of crime and their families feel sidelined during the traditional criminal justice process: this is something that Why me?’s founder Will Riley found when he was attacked during a burglary at his home.  He was able to restore the agency he lost by taking part in a restorative justice conference with the burglar, Peter Woolf  (Woolf served his prison sentence, and has not reoffended since).  Over 16 years later, the pair are good friends.  This process is likely to be even more helpful for victims of hate crime, since hate crime cuts to the heart of their very identity, and they are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression after the incident. (pg 28)

Second, restorative justice humanises the victim to the offender, and brings home the impact of their actions.  It is much easier for an offender to rip a headscarf off a Muslim woman, or shout obscenities at a wheelchair user, than it is to sit down with them and hear that they are suffering from panic attacks – and all because of what the offender has done.

Third, restorative approaches can go beyond specific incidents, and challenge the beliefs and attitudes that underpin various forms of hate crime.  The importance of this is emphasised in the Home Office Hate Crime Action Plan of October 2018, which has committed to the use of restorative justice.  There is also a strong evidence base for restorative justice in Mark Austin Walters’ book, “Hate crime and restorative justice: exploring causes, repairing harms.”  His research found that restorative justice was able to break down cultural divides and effectively challenge behaviours that were motivated by prejudice, especially where “moral learning” programmes were included as part of reparation agreements. 

At a time of national crisis and division, this approach is exactly what is needed, to bring Britain’s diverse communities together.

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