On 8th November 2016, Peter Dowd called and led a Westminister Hall debate on CPS and Disabilty Hate Crime. Peter has been concerned by rising levels of intolerance, under reporting and questioned the current CPS approaches to such Hate Crime. You can read his full contributions here.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Crown Prosecution Service’s approach to prosecuting disability hate crime.
It is nice to speak in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Bone. I welcome the Government’s action plan for tackling hate crime. I know others have been less complimentary because they do not see, for example, a “prevent agenda” for disability hate crime in it. Nevertheless, it is important to hold on to the plan that the Government have produced. “Action Against Hate” sets out that
“Any crime that is motivated by hostility on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity can be classed as a hate crime.”
There are three categories of hate crime in legislation: incitement to hatred offences on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation; specific racially and religiously motivated criminal offences, such as common assault, and provisions for enhanced sentencing where a crime is motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity.
It is worth noting that annex A of the plan sets out the College of Policing’s hate crime operational guidance and shared definitions established by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That guidance goes into a little more detail for those who will implement the actions on the ground, so to speak. Disability hate crime remains both underreported and under-prosecuted. That needs to change.
We are seeing intolerance rising, particularly in relation to disability, which does not lie well in a society where we claim to be liberal and tolerant. I increasingly get the sense of an intolerance to all sorts of people since the referendum—I do not want to bring that issue up, but it is important that we do not pretend that things have not happened and are not happening. In fact, even the most eminent people such as Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice; Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls; and Lord Justice Sir Philip Sales are not immune to the pervading intolerance stalking the country. I deplore the abuse of those public servants for doing what, at the end of the day, is their job.
Even the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it was “seriously concerned” about British politicians’ rhetoric in the lead-up to and following the referendum. Reports indicated that immediately following the referendum, hate crimes surged by 42% in England and Wales, with a total of 3,076 incidents recorded across the country between 16 and 20 June. That rise was in less than one week, and it almost inevitably raises concerns about hate crime in a broader sense and particular groups’ prospects in the future.
For clarity, the disability hate crime statistics I am about to use are from the CPS’s own website on 13 July 2016. It said:
“The volume of cases referred to the CPS by the police for a charging decision increased from 849 in 2014/15 to 930 in 2015/16, an increase of 9.5%.”
It went on to say that the number of convictions had gone up over the two years from 503 in 2014-15 to 707 last year—a big increase of 40.6%. The conviction rate remained broadly consistent over the two years at 75.1%, which I believe compares with an 83% conviction rate for all other hate crimes. Finally, it said:
“The proportion of successful outcomes arising from guilty pleas was 66.1% in 2014/15 and fell slightly to 63.4% in 2015/16.”
That is the context.
The co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network has stated that those figures underestimate the true scale of the problem due to significant underreporting and believes that as many as 60,000 disability hate crimes could occur annually in the United Kingdom. That is supported by research published by the charity Scope, which has shown that two thirds of disabled people feel they are treated differently because of their disability, and only 40% say the UK is a good place to be a disabled person. That is quite shocking.
Young people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. The Equality and Humans Rights Commission found that 22% of young people with a disability between the ages of 10 and 15 had been the victim of a crime in the previous 12 months, compared with only 12% of their non-disabled counterparts. Similarly, 35% of those with social or behavioural impairments such as autism, attention deficit disorder or Asperger’s syndrome had found themselves victims of a crime. Young people and those with behavioural impairments commonly fail to report hate crimes out of fear and a lack of confidence, which goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie).
We often forget the long-lasting damage and devastating effect these crimes can have on not only those subject to abuse but their families. In fact, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said in the media release accompanying the statistics I referred to:
“My message is that a hate crime is exactly that—a crime—and will not be ignored. Hate crime creates fear and has a devastating impact on individuals and communities. Nobody should have to go about their day to day life in fear of being attacked.”
Many victims of hate crime suffer long-lasting fear and anxiety, which has a detrimental impact on their physical and mental health, leaving them cut off and in many cases afraid to leave their house or go to public places.
The Disability Hate Crime Network found through a survey of 100 disabled people that the most common place for disability hate crime to happen is on the high street, followed closely by public transport. Others mentioned the local shop, the pub and social media—social media crops up time and again. The research found that the majority of perpetrators are white and that over half the attacks are conducted by groups of people, rather than just one individual, so there is ganging up. Furthermore, 75% of disability hate crime defendants are men. These hate crimes include verbal abuse and physical abuse, with instances of disabled people being pushed out of their wheelchairs, blocked from accessing disabled ramps and being denied a seat or space on public transport. What kind of people do those things? The research also found that a large amount of the underlying motivation for disability hate crimes is the view that disabled people are on benefits and are therefore lazy and “scroungers”. That is what the research found—it is not an opinion; the evidence is there.
It is telling that disability hate crime has gone up in the past five years, in parallel with the perceived, if not actual, robust approach of the Department of Work and Pensions to disabled people and changes to, for example, the work capability assessment scheme. There have also been regular television series with a morbid fixation, such as “Saints and Scroungers”, “On Benefits and Proud” or “Benefits Street”; the list goes on. I do not want to politicise the issue, but there may be—I will go no further than that—a link between the rhetoric from some, which appears to single out those on disability living allowance and insinuate that a large proportion of those on benefits are somehow cheating the system, and the rise in disability hate crime in the United Kingdom today. There is a danger of going back to the deserving and undeserving poor, but no one knows which is which because of the environment we are operating in. Whether we like it or not, this is a milieu in which hate crime flourishes. We need less rhetoric and a more concentrated effort to raise awareness of disability, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Down indicated, and of other sorts of hate crime and to provide better support and guidance so that people can recognise and report hate crime without fear, concern, trepidation or worry. National Hate Crime Awareness Week, which is usually in mid-October, creates a good opportunity to do that.
We need to do more to raise awareness of disabilities that are not physical, focusing on those involving social or behavioural impairments that affect memory, learning, understanding or concentration because people with such disabilities also find themselves victims of crime far too often.
There is room for best practice to be shared, particularly that from areas that have piloted schemes to help disabled people to report hate crimes. Leonard Cheshire Disability piloted a particularly successful programme in Northern Ireland. The Be Safe, Stay Safe programme provides support and education for carers and disabled people on their rights and how best to report hate crimes. In 2014-15, the scheme, in partnership with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, provided support in 126 incidents of hate crime against disabled people.
The Be Safe, Stay Safe programme uses social media to reach out to disabled people who have been victims of disability hate crimes, including online hate crimes. It launched the Support to Report campaign to raise awareness of disability hate crime with allied professionals, clinicians, social care workers and others in the disability sector, as well as MPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly, which I am sure my hon. Friends are aware of. I would like to know whether the Government would consider replicating such a scheme more widely. After all, the Government’s current action plan states:
“Despite good progress since the last Action Plan, hate crime against disabled people remains a particular challenge. We will look at current best practice examples in tackling disability hate crime and work with partner organisations and the police to promote safety for disabled people.”
I welcome the Crown Prosecution Service’s consultation on hate crime, which was launched in October at about the same time as its 30th birthday, so happy birthday CPS. At the end of the day, the responsibility lies largely with the Government to set the environment in which the Crown Prosecution Service can pursue people responsible for hate crimes against disabled people. It is a team effort for all of usIn England, some crimes are aggravated by hostility towards disability and those convicted seem to have been given unduly lenient sentences. I recognise that the CPS often comes in for a good deal of criticism in one way or another: that it is either too robust or wishy-washy in its pursuit of alleged offenders. As with most things, I suspect that some criticism is fair and some is unfair, but in the context of the clear levels of disability hate crime out there, the CPS must show that it takes disability hate crime extremely seriously; that it is doing all it can to improve prosecution and conviction rates; and that it ensures consistency across the country.
I have some questions based on the CPS’s October 2014 disability hate crime action plan. It was going to set out a hate crime assurance regime by December 2014. Did it? Is it being monitored? Is it continuing? It said it would refresh the national minimum standards for area hate crime co-ordination. Has that happened? Where is it up to? It talked about detailed analysis, including case examples, of hate crime to monitor victims’ experiences and to follow them up. Has that been completed? Is it being repeated?
The CPS talked about enhancements to the case management system of monitoring and recording applications for sentence uplifts—the section 146 question. Has that been done? How many, if any, uplifts have been applied for and granted? Has there been an analysis of that landscape? It said it would reissue clear guidance to prosecutors and agents to ensure sentence uplift applications are made whenever possible. Has it been reassessed and reviewed? Where is that up to?
The CPS said there would be retraining in the full range of offending to ensure that prosecutors fully understand the different forms of disability. Has that happened? Has it been reviewed and will it be reviewed again?
Has the CPS’s senior management conference had the session on disability hate crime that was promised in its action plan? If so, fab, but will it be repeated and will it be a regular event at conferences? Has the liaison with the judiciary that was promised to discuss recording and monitoring of sentence uplifts taken place, and is it regular event? A one-off event is fine, but we need regular contact with the judiciary. How is the CPS’s hate crime sub-group of its community accountability forum proceeding? It would be helpful to know where that is up to. Is it being repeated? Is it up to date? Is it meeting as often as it should? What action is it taking?
I turn to Dimensions, which is a not-for-profit charity that supports 3,500 people throughout the country who have learning disabilities, autism and complex needs. It produced a blueprint for change, “I'm with Sam”, which sets out a salutary and moving narrative, which hon. Members may wish to read. It is a fairly short and concise document and well worth reading. Among other things, it asks the CPS to improve investigation protocols in the criminal justice system when there is a learning disabilities victim. It would be helpful to have a view on whether that might happen. In addition, it seeks better training for police officers and others to help when receiving a report of a crime involving a person with a learning disability. Again, accessibility to the system is crucial, as is the ability for people to have a sympathetic ear from those who are trained or at least have some knowledge of their needs
At a wider level, we need to engender a culture of disability awareness and give confidence to victims of hate crime that they can come forward and will be listened to. The Government need to encourage and take a lead in creating an atmosphere in which the tone of debate about policy issues, many of which they have initiated, is moderate and reasonable. The last thing this country needs is another round of finger-pointing at the latest collective bête noire. I agree with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who said in the action plan:
“Tolerance is not something we can take for granted. It is a cornerstone of British values and one of the many reasons we are great.”
If people are not prepared to be tolerant and feel able to abuse vulnerable people, perhaps they should not expect the police and the CPS to be too tolerant towards them. In that respect, there is an expectation from most, if not all, hon. Members that the CPS will redouble its efforts, along with other law enforcement agencies, to send the message to thugs, cowards and bullies—because that is what they are—that the abuse of any vulnerable people, and in this case disabled people, will not be tolerated.
Finally, it is often not sensible to talk of personal experience, but I will make an exception today. I was brought up by a woman, a single parent, a war widow, a Christian, of Irish descent, who in her later years was disabled by partial sightedness. Each of those characteristics, in different situations, in different circumstances, in a different age, could have led to her being the victim of intolerance or hatred, and I think that sometimes she was, so she taught me that toleration was not a gift that was given to someone, but a duty that was owed to them, whoever they were—even to me when I was egregiously problematic to her. Her patience was boundless in that regard, and she was incredibly tolerant.
I appreciate the comments of everyone who has participated today; it is an important debate to get out into the open. It is crucial that we push on with this matter and ensure that once an action plan is down on paper— however good or bad those proposals might be—it is put into action; hence my comments to the Minister in relation to some of the points that I raised.
Regarding the comments made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), my point was—I was careful to say it—that I did not want to politicise this issue. I was trying to make the point that an environment can develop in which people feel they are having the finger pointed at them. Maybe it is and maybe it is not, but it establishes an environment that is of concern in the round. We have to be very careful that we do not go down the path of having collective bêtes noires—be that immigrants or, as in the past, Irish people or Jews—and so we have an environment in which people can point the finger at others. That takes attention away from the real matter.
I am really pleased that we have had this debate today and I look forward to monitoring the development of these matters in the future.