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12 January 2017

Amber Rudd speech: Should you really report politicians to the police for hate?

The West Midlands police treated a complaint about Amber Rudd's conference speech as a hate incident.

By Julia Rampen

At the Conservative party conference, the Home secretary, Amber Rudd, made a controversial speech, in which she said employers should be subjected to tougher tests before recruiting workers from abroad. During conference, she also suggested companies should have to disclose what proportion of their workforce was non-British. 

There was an immediate backlash. But one Oxford University professor went further than most – he complained to the police.

The West Midlands Police have now confirmed that they treated his complaint seriously and assessed Rudd’s speech as a “hate incident” – although the force concluded no crime had been committed.  

The Home Office said it was not a hate crime, and added: “She’s made countering hate one of her key priorities.”

The complainant himself admitted he hadn’t actually listened to Rudd’s speech. 

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But was there ever any question of Rudd’s speech falling into the hate crime category? And if you did hear a politician spreading hate, can you report it?

What counts as hate?

The UK does have laws designed to prevent hate speech, but there is a fairly narrow definition of what hate crime is.

Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 prohibits us from acting in a way that is likely to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress. The act has been amended several times to include stirring up hatred against someone based on their religion, gender or race.

But the definition has deliberately been kept narrow, to prevent an attack on freedom of speech. Whether or not someone is prosecuted depends not only on the abusive nature of their words, but whether they intended to stir up hatred against another. 

It is hard to see the grounds on which Rudd could be accused of a hate crime, however much you dislike her policy ideas. She did not mention a specific race or religion. She also said she believed “immigration has brought many benefits to the nation”.

And consider this – if Rudd couldn’t talk about monitoring companies recruiting foreign workers, lefty Londoners couldn’t complain about monitoring non-British buy-to-let landlords. Which Labour mayor Sadiq Khan is doing right now. And perhaps former Labour leader Ed Miliband would have thought twice about floating his own idea about listing companies with a high proportion of foreign workers.

Will politicians even be charged?

There is no doubt, however, that hate crime exists and should be taken seriously. In the wake of Brexit, there were reports of a surge in hate crime, with specific groups such as Poles and Muslims being targeted. But is it ever worth reporting politicians for hate?

While it was shocking to hear such a negative portrayal of immigration from a government minister, Rudd is small fry in the inflammatory rhetoric stakes.  In September, the Crown Prosecution Service said it was examining claims that Ukip’s Nigel Farage incited racial and religious hatred during the EU referendum campaign. Farage, you may remember, unveiled a poster showing refugees with the caption “Breaking Point”. 

The politically-charged atmosphere of the referendum had consequences. That same day, a far-right nationalist murdered the MP Jo Cox, while shouting “Make Britain independent”.

But when it comes to politicians, courts have tended to side with the right to free speech. Nick Griffin, the former leader of the British National Party (remember him) was secretly filmed saying it was important to stand up to Muslims or “will do for someone in your family”. He was charged with inciting racial hatred – and acquitted. In 2016, police confiscated the English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson’s passport, after he photographed himself with a “F*ck Isis” flag. He won the court case, and got his passport back.

In other words, if your game plan for defeating far-right politicians is to land them all in jail, you’ll be waiting a long time. Unlike many everyday haters, extremist politicians know the law. They are generally careful about what they say in public. Reporting politicians can also be counterproductive – the Rudd incident has provided ammunition for those who oppose the idea of criminalising hate speech altogether.

This isn’t to say that nobody is found guilty of hate crime – they are, and thousands plead guilty every year. If you do come across hate crime, you can report it here.