A RISE in racially-motivated crimes across East Lancashire is being blamed on drunken behaviour.

Figures show incidents have increased by 17 per cent, from 168 to 198 for the first five months of this year.

The police’s specialist Hate Crime Unit said the majority of incidents happened when offenders were drunk and said taxi drivers were often the victims of late-night racism.

Officers said that youngsters posting racist messages on social networking sites such as Facebook had also become a major problem for them.

Sgt John Rigby, of the Hate Crime Unit, said: “Around 95 per cent of the cases we see are as a result of alcohol.

"It is a massive factor behind racially-motivated crimes.

“One of our biggest victim groups is taxi drivers.

"They are regularly taking home drunks who will be arguing about paying the fare, and this can quickly turn into racist abuse, both verbally and physically.

“A lot of the calls we get, especially at weekend evenings, are from taxi drivers reporting such incidents.”

Last week, a 17-year-old boy was charged with racially-aggravated public disorder after a taxi driver was allegedly abused on a rank in Market Street, Colne.

And a 48-year-old man, also from Colne, has also been charged after an alleged racially-aggravated assault on a cabbie in the town’s Spring Lane area this month.

Makbul Patel, vice chairman of the Blackburn private hire association, said: “It is an issue our drivers are concerned about.

“When passengers are drunk arguments about not paying the fare or the cost of fare can often end up involving racist abuse and it is not something the drivers should have to put up with.”

Mohammed Arif, chairman of Burnley’s private hire association, said drivers were becoming increasingly worried about racist abuse.

“It is one of the biggest problems our drivers face,” he said.

“They are often taking groups of drunk people home late at night and it can be intimidating, especially if racist abuse is involved.

“The problem has definitely been getting worse recently, drivers are under pressure late at night and they want to as much protection as they can get.”

Last month, police teamed up with charity Stop Hate UK to launch a poster campaign in taxis working in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale warning people that hate crime would not be tolerated.

Police said they were also concerned about websites being used to peddle racist messages and harming community cohesion.

Sgt Rigby said: “A big factor these days is Facebook and other social networking sites.

“Youngsters don’t realise the comments they post can be seen by so many more people than they think.

“Quite often we have to contact Facebook electronically about comments on there.

“This is something we didn’t have 10 years ago. It can give a voice to people who want to get such messages into the public domain.”

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act showed there were 392 racially motivated crimes reported in East Lancashire in 2008, down from a high of 607 in 2007.

This increased to 404 crimes in 2009, and the latest figures for January to May suggest that figures will jump to nearer 500 this year.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said the figures were ‘significant’ but might show a positive trend.

He said: “In previous times when there was much more overt racism around one of the consequences was that there were fewer incidents reported.

“Obviously it’s a worrying increase, but I hope it reflects an increase in reporting and identification of hate crimes and a reduction in toleration.”

The increase has led Salim Mulla, of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, to call on councils and the Government to do more to bring communities together.

Mr Mulla said more people had been going to him to report racist incidents.

“I seem to be getting more reports now from members of the community about racist incidents than I did.

"It is worrying that this type of crime is being committed.

“Everyone needs to do a lot more between different sections of the community to try and make sure this doesn’t happen.

“I think the council and Government need to do a lot more to bring communities together."