By Dan Scorer
A new report looking at disability hate crime has found there is a lack of clarity and understanding about what a disability hate crime is, and confusion amongst agencies and general public about what to do about it.
The report – Living in a Different World – highlights the under-reporting of disability hate crime and has called for further steps to be taken to improve disabled people's confidence in the police. The joint review (by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and National Probation Service) finds that the police and other agencies are failing to consider disability hate crime issues in their day to day work, resulting in inconsistent responses and many cases falling through the gaps between and within agencies.
Sadly, Mencap is not surprised by these criticisms.
Back in 1999 we published our first report on the issue of hate crime. The report exposed a truly disturbing picture of the lives of people with a learning disability; nearly nine in ten of those surveyed had been bullied in the past year. Almost half of respondents had been verbally abused and almost a quarter had been physically assaulted. For many, this bullying was a daily or weekly event.
The term 'hate crime' did not exist in law until the Criminal Justice Act of 2003. However, the message was clear: people with a learning disability are too often lifelong victims of bullying, and this bullying can have cumulative and devastating effects.
However, it took the tragic deaths of Francecca Hardwick and her mother Fiona Pilkington in 2007 to prompt the joint review published this week. Francecca and Fiona had been subjected to seven years verbal abuse and harassment from young people who lived in their area. They had stones thrown at them and bottles smashed outside their home and taunts and insults shouted at them. The torment finally drove Fiona to take her own life and her daughter Francecca's in October 2007. This was exactly the sort of situation Mencap had warned about almost a decade earlier.
Mencap launched the 'Stand by me' campaign to end disability hate crime in 2011. The report we launched alongside the campaign found many police services had no hate crime structures in place and there was a general lack of training in hate crime and learning disability.
This was echoed in the dissatisfaction felt by people with a learning disability with the way they had been treated by police. Some felt police ignored them and others felt officers did not know how to communicate with people with a learning disability in an appropriate way. The report launched the police promise and urged the police to work in a joined-up way, to build partnerships with disabled people's organisations and provide specific training on disability hate crime.
To date, 40 out of the 44 police services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have signed up to the 'Stand by me' police promise to improve how they serve people with a learning disability and tackle hate crime. We have seen police services across the country improve their policies and practices, and last year we launched a 'best practice' guide which documents how the police promise is being put into action.
The support the 'Stand by me' campaign has had from chief constables is extremely encouraging, but this must filter down to frontline officers if people with a learning disability are to receive the service they deserve.
Mencap is calling on newly-elected police and crime commissioners to lead the way in this, and ensure the progress made by police services continues. We still have a long way to go, but some issues with how the police deal with disability hate crime are being addressed.
Between 2009 and 2011 the recording of disability hate crime incidents by police has increased by 49%, from 1,402 to 2,095. This is very likely the result of improvements by the police, and increased willingness of victims to report incidents, which Mencap welcomes.
However the recorded figures are just scratching the surface of the problem – in reality the annual number of disability hate crimes is likely to be in the tens of thousands. The British crime survey estimated that there were 65,000 disability hate incidents in 2010/11. Despite the recent increase in the number of these crimes recorded by the police, the discrepancy between what is actually happening and what the police record is still huge.
Furthermore the increase in recorded hate crimes has not led to an increase in convictions; in fact, the number of cases referred to the CPS by the police and the number and proportion of these that secured convictions fell from 2010/11 to 2011/12.
The CPS' own research into why cases where the victim has a learning disability so rarely get to court found the main reason to be that the CPS questioned the reliability and credibility of the victim, because of their learning disability.
Until prejudice such as this is eradicated, people with a learning disability will continue to be failed by the system and denied justice.
Living in a Different World shows that further progress is still needed to ensure that we will never again see another tragedy like that of Fiona and Francecca.
High profile cases make headlines, but behind those is the daily abuse so many people with a learning disability face. Stamping out disability hate crime in all its forms must be a priority of the police, CPS and all agencies responsible for keeping people safe. It is long overdue, but the growing pressure from the public, charities and government alike mean change must come - and soon.
Dan Scorer is senior campaigns and policy manager at learning disability charity Mencap
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