Fighting disability hate crime is the minimum the government should be doing

Shadow equalities minister Kate Green writes about her success in getting the government to accept and amendment which will equalise tariffs for disability hate crime.

Kate Green MP (Labour, Stretford and Urmston) is the shadow minister for women and equalities

There hasn’t been much to celebrate about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill, which received its third reading in the Commons this week.

But I was both delighted and surprised when, in the course of Tuesday’s debate, Ken Clarke responded to my amendment to recognise the seriousness of disability hate crime by agreeing to increase the minimum tariff for murder where the victim’s disability has been a motivating or aggravating factor.

I’m very grateful to a number of organisations and individuals who first brought the issue to my attention.

Writer and journalist Katharine Quarmby, representatives of the Disability Hate Crime Network and RADAR, and, most importantly, Christine Oliver, sister of Keith Philpott, a learning disabled victim who was tortured and murdered by a group of people whom he’d got to know socially, all spent time taking me through the compelling need for a change in the law.

My amendment (which had support from MPs right across the House) would have aligned the tariff in cases where disability is an issue with the treatment of race, religion and sexuality. On Tuesday, Clarke promised the government would bring forward its own amendment when the bill reaches the House of Lords.

This is very welcome news, and I look forward to seeing the Lord Chancellor’s proposal.

There’s an opportunity for the government to be much bolder than I was able to be with my amendment. Disability hate crime covers a much wider spectrum of offences than simply murder, so the government must take the opportunity to develop a much fuller strategic response to this shameful – and all too often hidden – issue.

Last month the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published “Hidden in plain sight”, a report of its inquiry into disability-related harassment. That report reveals that nearly 2 million disabled people were victims of crime in 2009/10.

Although it’s not known how many were victims of harassment, we do know disabled people are more likely to be victims of crime than the non-disabled, and there’s evidence that they’re also more at risk of experiencing anti-social behaviour.

Cases that come to court, especially murder cases, are only the tip of a very sizeable iceberg. The underlying institutional and societal problems revealed by the report show a pattern of failure to address discrimination against disabled people. There is currently no holistic approach to dealing with attacks and harassment of disabled people. Data is patchy, professionals’ responses vary, and awareness is often low.

The EHRC therefore makes a number of suggestions, both to improve practice, and to monitor much more accurately the extent of harassment of disabled people.

Its proposals would improve access to the criminal justice system for disabled people and their families. Professional behaviours and attitudes that mean the issue goes unrecognised, or that discourage victims from reporting (often they feel they will not be believed), systemic barriers to sharing information, a lack of understanding of the drivers of perpetrators’ behaviour: All of this needs to change.

Amending the sentencing provisions in relation to murder would be important, but it’s only the first step in ensuring people never have to suffer abuse or harassment because of their disability.

There is a wider context however; the Conservative-led reforms to our welfare system which demonise those unable to work, and broader underlying attitudes to disabled people, which, as research from the Glasgow Media Group has very recently shown, have become increasingly hostile.

Disabled people have gone from being seen as “deserving” to “undeserving”, too often portrayed as workshy scroungers, not least by Coalition Ministers keen to “talk tough on welfare” and demonise those in receipt of social security benefits.

The issue shouldn’t be about which disabled people are deserving, but of how we can successfully provide autonomy, equality and rights. Disabled people should not be less protected than those without disabilities. That means there’s an obligation on society to address the structural disadvantage that they face at every level.

The real importance of Clarke’s concession will therefore be if it marks a sea-change in wider institutional attitudes and behaviours, if it kick starts government action to reverse damaging legislation and begin to better support and protect disabled people, and if that in turns helps transform public attitudes too.

Disabled people should insist they are at the heart of driving such change, and as shadow minister for women and equalities I will make sure the Labour Party is behind them every step of the way.

See also:

The missing millions in the legal aid cutsAlex Hern, November 2nd 2011

Compensation changes will leave Paralympic heroes without vital supportJonny Mulligan, September 9th 2011

NHS report urges government to stop legal aid cutsJonny Mulligan, July 12th 2011

Fat cats will continue to milk the legal aid budget – while the vulnerable sufferJonny Mulligan, June 22nd 2011

Two women a week die from domestic violence; legal aid cuts will see moreJonny Mulligan, June 16th 2011

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