This week Greater Manchester Police (GMP) declared that people who are attacked because of their membership of a 'goth' subculture will in future be classified as the victim of a hate crime. This is something that Sylvia Lancaster has been campaigning for since the death of her daughter, Sophie, in 2007.
The UK legal definition of a hate crime is "any criminal offence committed against a person or
property that is motivated by hostility towards someone based on their
disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation." What GMP have done is expanded their own definition of crime recording to include attacking someone on the basis of their appearance.
I should point out that this doesn't change the legal definition of hate crime - to do that the government would need to amend the Act of Parliament that defines a hate crime. What GMP are trying to do is change the way they record hate crimes, to include appearance based crimes as one.
Whilst there is some fear that this move will further divide a community that is increasingly suffering from internal divisions and discrimination (I know from my own experiences that there can be a lot of snobbery about the way you dress), my own personal opinion is that it is a good thing, for now.
I worked with the police for a long time when I was a councillor in Exeter on anti social behaviour caused by students. Year on year the same problems came up, but one of the biggest problems faced by police was resources. The way resource distribution (i.e. where do they put the police officers) works in the police forces is based on numbers of recorded crimes. Which becomes a bit of a catch 22 in some respects - if the crimes are recorded properly, they don't appear on the statistics used to allocate policing, and then the fear of crime/actual crime might rise, because there are no police to stop it. Basically if they don't know about it, it doesn't exist.
This was the message we always told our residents. If the police don't know that they were woken up by noisy people at 2am in the morning, then as far as the police are concerned, it didn't happen. Officially anyway. So we always encourage people to report ASB, even if they waited until the next morning to do so (using the non emergency number), because in the police resources world, logs are key.
So what GMP are actually doing is enabling the effective monitoring of the level of hate crime based on appearance. This will then provide them with crucial evidence with which they can help the Sophie Lancaster Foundation effectively lobby parliament for a change in the law. Because without firm evidence in the form of numbers of crimes of this type, it is difficult to argue for a change to the law as a whole. I am not saying that it isn't a problem, I think anyone who dresses in a lot of black has had insults thrown at them in the street etc (I don't consider my choice of clothing at all gothy or extreme and even I have had people yelling at me from car windows as they drive by and I once got into a fierce argument with my neighbour's 16 year old son over his insults). But while these remain unreported, or the more violent assaults categorised as a plain and simple assault, it is difficult for lawmakers to form an informed opinion. And making laws based on knee jerk reactions or unevidenced opinion (think about the law banning 'extreme' pornography which has never been enacted) is never a good idea.
So, bravo to GMP for taking a step to move the debate on from the theoretical to the real. I hope other police forces follow suit, so that a true picture of the level of appearance based assaults can be formed, and the appropriate action taken.