The rise in hate crime in 2017-18: A genuine increase or just poor data?

by Matthew Williams

In 2017 I was approached to take part in a BBC One Panorama documentary on the rise of hate crime following the Brexit vote.  The BBC wanted an expert on the topic to provide the ‘hard science’ on hate crime figures.  Ahead of the crew travelling to Cardiff for filming, I spent two weeks delving into the most recent police and Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) figures (PDF). What I found was a complex picture that wasn’t going to be easy to explain in a sound-bite.

In 2016 the government linked the Brexit vote to the largest spike in police-recorded hate crime since records began. Hate crime increased further in 2017-18 by 17% to 94,098 offences in England and Wales. This continues the upward trend in recent years, with the number of hate crimes recorded by the police having more than doubled since 2012-13. This was a compelling narrative that the producers of the documentary wanted to emphasise. However, like any criminologist, I explained the inherent limitations of basing an argument solely on police figures.

As a comparison I turned to the CSEW, which shows a consistent decrease in hate crimes over the past decade – from 307,000 a year averaged over 2007 to 2009 to 184,000 a year averaged over 2015 to 2018, the lowest number on record. I told them these statistics were being used rather unscrupulously by right-wing think tanks as the basis of reports on the ‘myth’ of the rising tide of hate in the UK. Their argument was that the rise in hate crime recorded by the police in 2016 and 2017 around the Brexit vote and terror attacks could be accounted for by the increased willingness of victims to report and the better recording practices by the police, leading to the conclusion that there was no increase in actual perpetration.

The producers were flummoxed. How could two large data sources on hate crime show consistent and contradictory trends? I explained that the hate crime decline in the CSEW is in line with the decrease in general crime (aside from some other violent crimes and cybercrime). However, by aggregating three years of hate crime data to generate an annual average, the CSEW fails to capture short-lived ‘peaks’ in incidents connected to specific events, such as the Brexit vote and terror attacks – effectively smoothing out these increases over the longer period required to produce robust estimates. Further, the right-wing think tanks who were trying to harmlessly explain away the police figures, tended to lump all hate crimes together, instead of focusing on specific groups more likely to be targeted following ‘trigger’ events.

police recorded crime

Racially or religiously aggravated offences recorded by the police (April 2013 to March 2018)  (taken from HateLab)

Following the transmission of the documentary I asked the Office for National Statistics which administers the CSEW to restrict estimations to just race and religious hate crimes from April 2015 to March 2017, providing a more accurate reflection of the genuine rise in hate crime around the Brexit vote. The results showed race and religious hate crimes increased from a 112,000 annual average (April 2013-March 2015) to a 117,000 annual average (April 2015-March 2017). This increase does not take into account the rise in hate crimes around the 2017 terror attacks in London and Manchester.  The ONS does not deem the increase statistically significant – but neither was the decrease from 222,000 to 184,000 reported in October 2017. So the message here is that the CSEW is not fit for providing robust estimates on the rise and fall of hate crimes at the granular level required by policy makers in these divisive times.

Due to the limitations in existing datasets, I developed an ESRC project proposal working with Rand Europe and the National Police Chiefs’ Council. We were awarded the grant under the Governance After Brexit Programme. Starting in February 2019, the Hate Crime After Brexit project will examine the relationship between the referendum vote and the associated Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns and the rise of race and religious hate crime in the UK at national, regional and local levels. We will also study the production of hate speech on social media platforms, allowing us to identify patterns of perpetration that do not rely on reports from victims.  Combining both online and offline data sources, the project will provide the most complete picture of hate crime to date.


matt williams 150Professor Matthew Williams is Director of HateLab and Professor of Criminology in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. He has a long-standing interest in hate crime and the migration of all forms of hate to the Internet. HateLab is a £1 million ESRC investment over several grants that acts as a global hub for data and insight into online and offline hate crime. His research into hate crime underpinned an episode of Panorama on BBC One in October 2017.

Throughout 2019 we will be using the #ESRCBetterLives hashtag to showcase outstanding social science research and demonstrate how social science is relevant to everyone. Our Better Lives theme for January is ‘crime and justice’. What social science research has inspired you?

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