LONDON (Reuters) - Britain saw a sharp rise in the number of hate crimes recorded by police last year with the vast bulk of offences motivated by race, official figures showed on Tuesday.
There were 52,528 hate crimes in the 12 months to March, up 18 percent on the year before, with the Home Office (interior ministry) suggesting that the increase was due to more victims coming forward and police becoming better at identifying such offences.
Hate crimes are defined as a criminal offense which the victim believes was motivated by a personal characteristic such as race, religion, or disability.
Separate government figures based on statistics over the last three years from the annual Crime Survey, which collates figures from interviews with the public, suggested there were an estimated 222,000 hate crimes on average per year.
Prime Minister David Cameron said the rise was unacceptable and Karen Bradley, the government minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, said they would develop a new action plan to try to stop them.
"Crimes motivated by hatred or hostility towards someone because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender-identity or because they are disabled are absolutely abhorrent and this government will do everything to eradicate them," she said.
All strands of hate crime saw noticeable rises, but the greatest increase was in the number of religiously motivated offences, up 43 percent on the previous year.
Cameron, who was due to host the inaugural meeting of a new Community Engagement Forum to discuss countering extremism, said police forces in England and Wales would be asked to record anti-Muslim hate crime as a specific category.
This would put such crimes on the same footing as anti-Semitic incidents.
"I want British Muslims to know we will back them to stand against those who spread hate and to counter the narrative which says Muslims do not feel British," he said in a statement. "I want police to take more action against those who persecute others simply because of their religion."
The move comes with the government due to publish a counter-extremism strategy soon which will detail proposals for tackling radical ideologies which ministers argue put people on the path to violence, but which others say risk curbing free speech.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison)