Over the summer, I received several disturbing reports ranging from school yard taunting of the children of EU nationals about ‘returning home’ post Brexit right through to criminal damage of commercial premises. In light of this, I took the opportunity to ask Cllr Barry Thomas, Leader of Powys County Council, a question on reported incidents of hate crime at the Full Council last month. Given the need to keep our communities secure, tolerant and welcoming, I asked what specific measures are being promoted within the Powys Public Service Board, to combat intolerance and prejudice, in furtherance of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This followed a useful meeting that Cllr Thomas and I had with newly elected Dyfed-Powys Police and Crime Commissioner, Dafydd Llewelyn, at the Royal Welsh Show.
What prompted me to ask the question is the ongoing climate of uncertainty and apprehension, evident amongst sections of our population in Powys and across Wales. The playground taunting that was brought to my attention may have been an isolated incident in that school – but by its nature, this kind of name calling and worse is likely to go underreported. We need therefore to be extra alert to signs of it. The minutes of the local Community Safety Partnership indicate a significant spike in hate crime in midsummer, with 12 referrals to Victim Support in June 2016, compared with 8 the previous year. These incidents took place in the immediate aftermath of the 23rd June – tying in with similar incident statistics across Wales and the UK. Clearly the febrile atmosphere unleashed by the Referendum campaign had played its part.
Most Leave voters, including many whom I would count as friends, had reasons for their choice – and would roundly condemn any hostility towards EU Nationals, or indeed any other minority groups caught up in the cross fire. However, it has become apparent that a small minority of individuals, who have always harboured prejudices, are emboldened in the post Brexit climate to give voice to them regardless of the feelings of others. Whilst it seems that the surge in such incidents in Wales has ebbed, the overall atmosphere in our communities, our work places and even our schools, remains potentially vulnerable to fresh waves of such sentiment. This is a particular danger, should our economic circumstances deteriorate.
At times over the summer, by contrast, I have seen spontaneous displays of kindness and thoughtfulness at community level. This was manifested memorably when Talgarth Town, my local football team, hosted a friendly against Unity in Diversity, a Swansea based refugee team back in July. Similarly, a young Polish Mum cried as she told me about the flood of text messages that her daughter had received from school mates, offering friendship and support in the Brexit aftermath.
So it is clear that we are all able to make a contribution towards safeguarding the kind of decent, tolerant society that we would wish to live in. Especially in our schools, teachers, governors and parents can be alert to these matters in their own communities. I am not convinced that the Home Office’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, which targets radicalisation, is well adapted to combatting home grown nationalism, jingoism and ignorance. We need bespoke strategies to challenge these behaviours – and this task should be on the agenda of our Public Service Boards.
The First Minister has repeatedly stated that Wales values the presence and contribution of many thousands of EU Nationals and others to our communities and our public services, notably in the healthcare sector. My Welsh Liberal Democrat colleague Kirsty Williams AM, as Cabinet Secretary for Education, has recently emphasised too the importance of EU students to the sustainability of our universities – and our farming and automotive sectors remain heavily reliant on EU exports, regardless of the theology of Brexit. The recent events around Nissan are a powerful reminder of this.
As communities across Wales prepare to recall the sacrifices made for the freedom and tolerance of our society, there is maybe more than ever to reflect upon this year. The mass slaughter of the last century reminds us of what can happen when nation states pursue their interests unfettered and come off the rails. The 11th November is, of course, also Polish Independence Day, when Poles recall winning their freedom from domination by more powerful neighbours. Poland’s contribution to our own struggle against fascism is a proud part of our shared history. In recent days, the German Embassy in London has reported a significant rise in those of German Jewish heritage in the UK applying for German and therefore EU citizenship to which they are entitled under the German Grundgesetz. Whatever their motivation, this move should cause all those of us who care about the reputation of our country abroad a sharp intake of breath.
For these – and so many other reasons – it is not only common decency, but also common sense, for us to remain mindful of the feelings and anxieties of our fellow residents and to call out unacceptable behaviours as we navigate our way through the post Referendum world.