Homophobic crimes have risen across the UK by 23 per cent, according to an Independent on Sunday survey of Britain's police forces. The majority of the country's forces reported a significant rise in the number of incidents last year, with increases ranging from 12.5 per cent in London to a threefold rise in Derbyshire and Gwent.
Gay rights campaigners said the figures were deeply disturbing and called on the Government to introduce a law making incitement to homophobic hatred a crime - something the Home Secretary has so far refused to do.
Last weekend, David Morley, a gay man who survived the Soho pub bombing in 1999, was beaten to death in central London in what police suspect was a homophobic attack. If so, Mr Morley was the fourth man in London to die in a homophobic attack in the past six months.
His death came in the same week that the Jamaican reggae star Sizzla, whose lyrics incite violence against homosexuals, was due to start a five-date British tour. After a campaign by the gay rights group Outrage!, the Home Office announced that Sizzla had been refused a visa.
Twenty-five out of Britain's 50 police forces responded to the IoS survey. Five admitted they kept no figures, two reported a decrease in crimes while three reported no change. The remaining 15 all showed double-digit rises.
Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of the gay equality organisation Stonewall, cited statements by public figures such as Sizzla and the rejected European Commission candidate for justice and home affairs Rocco Buttiglione - who claimed homosexuality was a sin - as helping to create an atmosphere where homophobia is acceptable.
"When we have a culture when politicians, pop stars and newspaper columnists think it is OK to encourage prejudice against gay people, it is hardly surprising that some people assume lesbians and gay men are sitting targets to be attacked," he said.
The Metropolitan police - which has by far the most reported incidents of homophobia - reported a rise of 12.5 per cent, from 1,365 to 1,536 recorded crimes.
Merseyside reported an increase from 92 to 137 - a rise of 49 per cent - to March 2004. Sussex police, which includes Brighton, said there had been 207 reported incidents in the first nine months of this year, compared to 184 crimes in the whole of 2003.
Increases in homophobic crime were not just recorded in areas with prominent gay and lesbian communities. Police in Derbyshire said the figure had risen threefold, while in Gwent reported crimes rose from 21 to 65.
Peter Tatchell, the founder of Outrage!, said the figures were shocking and the likely number of such crimes was probably even higher. "Since many homophobic hate crimes go unreported," he said, "the real figure is probably two or three times greater."
The true scale of homophobic crime is still thought to be hidden. Police forces admit that such incidents are likely to be under-reported, despite the rise in the number of lesbian and gay liaison officers across the country.
Five of the forces that responded to the IoS survey did not even record levels of homophobic incidents. A spokeswoman for Northumbria police, said: "It is not something we record because it's not a Home Office requirement."
The Home Office said there were no plans to record specific homophobic attacks. A spokesman said: "Recorded crime figures submitted to the Home Office by police forces do not separately identify crimes motivated by homophobia. This is because, unlike racially or religiously aggravated offences, homophobic crime is not a distinct offence in law."