Scotland’s risible hate crime law is an incentive for the police to fail

The Scottish hate crime law has been a prominent feature in the media ever since it came into force just over a week ago on 1 April. This is not merely in its native land, but across the UK as whole.

The content of the legislation is highly contentious, and many words have already been penned on it. But even leaving this aside, it has made a really good story, mixing drama and farce.

JK Rowling appeared on April Fools Day itself. With a series of tweets, she ridiculed the law and challenged the police to arrest her.

The First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, provided the element of farce. By day two of the life of the law, the police had received over 3,000 complaints under the legislation. Most of these related to a speech given by Yousaf himself a few years ago.

The complaints continue to pour in. As a result, the control room staff of Police Scotland have been paid overtime as they struggle to handle the volume. 

We can of course all simply have a good laugh at yet another example of all round incompetence by the Scottish National Party.

But there is a more serious aspect relating to the motivations of the public sector labour force. They are governed by incentives just as much as anyone else. 

The police have become notorious for their failure to, for example, take burglaries seriously. Last month, Home Office data showed that the police had failed to solve a single burglary over the past three years in nearly half the neighbourhoods of the country.

Yet Police Scotland proudly announced in advance of the hate crime legislation taking effect that an officer would investigate every single compliant which was made.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that they took this decision because of the incentives which the hate crime act created.

An officer could sit in a cosy room and solve the “crime” by simply clicking on a link which a complainant had sent to him or her. Much more agreeable than confronting a violent person in the street, or even putting in the hard graft required to gather evidence on a burglary.

The task is even easier. The legislation is drafted in a way which means that the only evidence which is actually needed is the material sent in by the complaint. There is no need to do anything else. Guilt can be established by “any incident which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated (wholly or partly) by malice and ill-will towards a social group”, according to the guidelines of Police Scotland. The mere fact that someone thinks your tweet is motivated by malice is sufficient to establish guilt.

But even better for the police. They are not completely stupid and realise that complaints can be motivated by malice. No need to bring a charge in a marginal case though, just enter it into the register of “non-crime hate incidents”.

So the clear up rate of crimes would be given a substantial boost. Either a person is guilty simply because someone has complained about them, or they are, well, semi-guilty and can be put on a register.

Of course, all this has rather backfired on the police in Scotland. They themselves are being ridiculed and trust in the force is being eroded. So their incentives have changed and they are backtracking furiously.

But all this could have been avoided if legislators had grasped that public servants such as the police are motivated by self-interest just as much as anyone. The incentives which new laws create are powerful drivers of how they are implemented.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th April 2024
Image: Flickr
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