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Police are ‘only in the foothills’ of tackling online abuse, MPs told

A senior police officer admitted to MPs that they are “only in the foothills” when it comes to tackling online abuse, after being told that not a single perpetrator has ever been reprimanded for the stream of sexist and racist abuse suffered by Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary.

Asst Ch Const Mark Hamilton, the national police chiefs’ council lead on hate crime, has told MPs that anybody reporting online abuse would expect to get “a more fulsome response” than that described in Abbott’s case.

His acknowledgement came after Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, quoted from a letter from Abbott’s office to the police saying that nobody has ever been reprimanded for the stream of death and rape threats she has received online, despite providing officers with email addresses and postcodes.

The disclose during a Commons home affairs committee hearing in which Hamilton declined to endorse widespread concerns, particularly in the Polish community, that the Brexit triggering of article 50 next month will trigger a fresh spike in hate crime.

Hamilton said police forces were looking at a number of potential trigger points since the Brexit referendum and had been working with the Polish community and a number of embassies on the issue. He said that the spike in hate crime during the EU referendum campaign and its immediate aftermath had been at the lower end involving incidents such as verbal abuse and spitting in the street, which it was difficult to prevent.

“What I do not want to do is to go to a community and say that something is about to happen in the political sphere and you may become a victim of hate crime,” Hamilton told MPs. “Everyone is concerned that there may be more trigger events.”

He said one of the positive elements that had come out of the summer spike in hate crime was the greater willingness of members of the public to record such incidents on their phones and to report them to the police.

Police witnesses told the MPs that, while their response to online crime and online hate crime was “only in the foothills”, it was still the strongest in Europe.

Hamilton said that the last 24 to 36 months had seen a real expansion in online abuse of a highly offensive nature – particularly towards women – and especially towards celebrities and politicians.

He said that it was difficult to prosecute and bring people to justice for incitement to hatred, with the problems involving overseas jurisdictions, weakness in legislation and the capacity of forces to tackle it. He said that there were backlogs in specialist examination of computer images including in child sexual abuse cases: “We are still trying to develop our full response.”