Law Commission review brings tougher hate crime laws closer

The prospect of tougher laws on disability hate crime has moved a step closer, after the government’s advisers on law reform launched a review of how current legislation was working.

The Law Commission will look at two possible changes, both mentioned in the government’s hate crime action plan in March, but will not report until the spring of 2014.

The first possible change will involve looking at how crimes such as assault or criminal damage are currently prosecuted as “aggravated” offences with higher sentences – under the Crime and Disorder Act 1988 – if the offender demonstrated hostility or was motivated by racial or religious hostility.

The commission will examine whether these aggravated offences should now be extended to crimes motivated by hostility on the grounds of disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Law Commission will also examine laws that provide protection – under the Public Order Act 1986 – against publication of material intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

The commission will examine whether those offences should now be extended to disability and gender identity.

The government has already doubled to 30 years the starting point for sentences for murders motivated by hate on the grounds of disability or transgender status – in line with other hate crime murders – after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act became law in May.

But disabled activists have long campaigned for the laws on aggravated offences and stirring up hatred to be extended to disability-related offences.

Katharine Quarmby, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, and author of Scapegoat, a ground-breaking investigation into disability hate crime, said the Law Commission review was “really quite significant”.

She suggested that new laws on inciting hatred of disabled people could persuade newspapers to “think twice” before they write stories that could stir up such hostility, and could put an end to some of the “lazy disablist remarks” often made across the media.

She said: “I think people would be much more careful of causing offence if they knew there was a possible criminal action.”

Southampton Centre for Independent Living (SCIL) also welcomed the Law Commission’s announcement, and added: “SCIL believes that legislation should be reformed to extend protection to all five groups and will be making representations to the Law Commission to this effect.”

Damian Green, the Conservative justice minister, said: “All hate crimes are deplorable; they leave people living in fear of unprovoked attacks and violence.

“We are pleased that the Law Commission has been able to take on this review and look forward to receiving their report.”

Leveson’s third party reporting call ‘is no slippery slope’

The government must back Lord Justice Leveson’s call for disabled people’s organisations to be allowed to lodge complaints with the press regulator about misleading and disablist newspaper coverage, say campaigners.

A letter published in The Guardian this week says disabled people, alongside other minority groups, have experienced “sustained levels of misleading, hostile and discriminatory reporting in the press”.

Activists say there is strong evidence that such reporting has caused an increase in disability hate crime.

The letter welcomes the conclusion by Leveson – in his report on press standards – that the presence of “a significant tendency” within the newspaper industry has led to the publication of “prejudicial or pejorative” references to disabled people and other minorities.

Leveson’s report says a new press watchdog would need to “address these issues as a matter of priority”, with the first step allowing groups representing minorities to lodge “third party complaints”, with the possibility of fines, corrections and apologies if the newspaper was found to have breached the relevant standards.

The “editor’s code” of the current press watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), says newspapers must avoid such “prejudicial or pejorative” references, but provides no protection for minority groups if no individual has been identified in a story.

This has given newspapers freedom to run articles portraying disabled benefits claimants as “scroungers” and “fakers”, with the PCC powerless to act.

The letter was written after a Conservative MP told the Daily Telegraph – one of the newspapers criticised by Leveson for publishing misleading stories about disability benefits – that third party reporting could lead to “sinister” and “politically motivated” complaints.

This week’s letter to the Guardian says third party reporting is “critical to ensuring a right of redress and a voice for minority groups”, and was “not a slippery slope to the press being ‘hijacked’ by ‘sinister’ pressure groups” but would “give those who are so often the victims of sensationalist and prejudicial headlines the basic right to make a complaint”.

The Guardian letter has been signed by disabled activists, disabled people’s organisations and hate crime campaigners, including Tracey Lazard and Kirsten Hearn, chief executive and chair of Inclusion London; Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education; Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts; journalist Katharine Quarmby, author of Scapegoat, a ground-breaking investigation into disability hate crime; John McArdle, a founding member of the user-led campaign group Black Triangle; Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network; and John Pring, editor of Disability News Service.

12 December 2012

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ODI silence suggests ministers think alliance voices will be more to their liking

Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have questioned the government’s willingness to listen to disabled people, following the first meeting of a new “alliance” set up to advise the government on disability issues.

Leading disabled figures who attended a preliminary meeting of the Disability Action Alliance (DAA) were left frustrated by the lack of clear information about how the group would operate, how it would be funded, and what its purpose was.

But they also questioned why the alliance of charities and private and public sector organisations should be necessary at all when there was an existing group of DPOs set up to perform an almost identical task.

The preliminary meeting of DAA took place two weeks ago and was attended by several leading DPOs, companies such as British Telecom and Lloyds Banking Group, three government departments, quangos, and charities such as Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability.

The government will now ask these and other organisations if they want to become DAA members, and will also set up a steering group.

The government has said DAA will focus on “delivering action through partnership”, bringing together DPOs with public, private and third sector organisations, and will “operate alongside, and not replace, existing mechanisms for engaging with disabled people”.

But some of those who attended the DAA meeting have been left questioning its purpose, how it will work, and why the government appears to have abandoned its existing Network of Networks (NoN), a collection of 12 DPOs set up under Labour to create “a more efficient two-way communication between disabled people and government”.

NoN completed one consultation on disabled people’s views of the work of the DWP, and passed on the results to the government, but was never given the go-ahead for its next piece of work.

Its members say the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) is now refusing to answer questions about NoN and whether it still has a role. Instead, it is focusing on DAA.

Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), who attended the DAA meeting, said NoN had written to seek clarification from the new Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey.

He said: “My suspicion is that they didn’t like the actual answers that were given in the first consultation.”

He added: “The work the ODI have asked the alliance to do sounds very, very similar to what the ODI were originally going to be asking the Network of Networks to do.”

Melanie Close, chief executive of Disability Equality North West, which is part of NoN but was not invited to the DAA meeting, said ODI appeared to have dropped NoN without telling its members, and was no longer replying to emails about the project.

She said: “It seems like they have looked at those DPOs and thought, ‘We don’t like those answers, we are going to try somebody else.’”

Close said she believed the government only wanted “yes people” to be part of DAA and did not want people “who are going to be a bit more contentious, who are going to challenge”.

She was also angry that there appeared to have been no DPOs from the north of England invited to the DAA meeting.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, who attended the DAA meeting, said she was concerned at the prospect of a DPO-led body like NoN being replaced by one that was not user-led.

She said: “I went along to try to find out more and left with no clearer idea. It was frustrating in its lack of information about the context and the thinking behind the alliance, and how it would work. It seemed ill-thought-out.”

Douglas Gilroy, who attended the DAA meeting on behalf of The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFB), but spoke to Disability News Service afterwards in a personal capacity, said he believed DAA would be just “window dressing” for the government.

He said: “I think it is better that NFB gets on with its work, which is campaigning. I really think the disability movement should be led by disabled people and I do not think that this is quite the scenario [with DAA].”

Some of the disabled people who attended were slightly more positive about DAA.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said he was “more than happy to give it a go”, although he said he would “not be part of anything that becomes a talking-shop”.

Heather Fisken, who manages the Independent Living in Scotland project, said the DAA meeting was an “interesting event” but there were “still some questions to be answered about how the group will fit in with the work of existing organisations and groups”, although it was still “early days”.

6 December 2012

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Government refuses to research hate crime impact of special schools

The Department for Education (DFE) has rejected a key recommendation of the equality watchdog’s disability hate crime inquiry, which could have undermined the government’s anti-inclusion stance on the education of disabled children.

Although most of the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) Hidden in Plain Sight report were accepted by the government this week, the DfE refused to fund research that could have undermined its backing for segregated education.

The EHRC’s inquiry report, published last September, concluded that hundreds of thousands of disabled people a year were subjected to disability-related harassment, but that public bodies were guilty of a “systematic, institutional failure” to recognise the problem.

And it suggested that the failure to include disabled people in society – including the history of forcing disabled people to live in institutions, and segregated employment and education – had helped cause disability-related harassment.

It called for the government to commission research on how segregated education, or inadequate support in mainstream education, affected children’s schooling and the ability of disabled children to “re-integrate into wider society”, as well as the extent to which segregation “adversely impacts on non-disabled children’s views of disability and disabled people”.

But DfE this week rejected the recommendation, and said it wanted to see “the development of a diverse range of good quality provision for disabled children, whether in mainstream or special school”.

The government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education has sparked anger and protests by disabled activists since the coalition came to power.

Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said they were “very disappointed” that the government did not want to commission the research.

She said: “It clearly indicates that the government wants to go ahead with providing a greater amount of segregated education provision without considering the long-term impact on disabled children and young people who experience segregated education.”

The only other major EHRC recommendation rejected outright was a call for the government to introduce national reports and plans on disability-related harassment. The Home Office and Ministry of Justice said it was “more appropriate” for these to be issued locally.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said he would give the government’s overall response just “five out of ten”.

He said: “What they are doing is taking out the bits that are going to be costly and annoying and leaving in the bits that are up to everybody else.”

He said he was particularly disappointed with the government’s rejection of the need for national action to tackle disability hate crime.

Brookes welcomed the government’s praise for the partnership work on tackling hate crime that he had supported in his home town of Blackpool, which had led to a “dramatic increase” in disabled people having the confidence to report hate crime.

But he said the government needed to take a leading role and not just leave it to local agencies.

The EHRC said it was “pleased that the government has agreed with a significant majority of our recommendations”.

An EHRC spokesman said: “We are currently reviewing the detailed response, alongside the responses of nearly 50 other national organisations and bodies, and will be reporting on them in our Manifesto for Change report which will come out this autumn.”

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Shadow minister calls for Leveson to think again on media hostility

Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people has called on Lord Leveson to rethink his decision to prevent disabled people giving oral evidence to his inquiry into press standards.

Disabled campaigners want to give evidence about national newspapers that have stirred up hostility towards claimants of disability benefits, but say they have been sidelined by the inquiry.

Anne McGuire MP told Disability News Service (DNS) that she was “really disappointed” that Lord Leveson had decided not to take any of this evidence in person.

She said: “Given the onslaught against disabled people that has appeared in the media over the last number of months, you would have thought this would have been something that ought to be aired properly in public at the inquiry.”

She added: “The way in which disabled people have been vilified in the press from my point of view is every bit as important as the way in which politicians and media personalities have been treated.”

McGuire said that the way the media was “misrepresenting the lives of disabled people” was causing many of them “distress” and “beginning to impact on the confidence” of many disabled people.

Disabled people’s organisations – including Inclusion London, the UK Disabled People’s Council and the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) – told DNS last November that they wanted to give evidence to the inquiry, set up in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

They believe there is strong evidence that disabled people are facing an increase in targeted hostility and hate crime as a result of stories that have been published in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, particularly on the subject of disability benefits.

They say that headlines such as “Disabled Benefit? Just fill in a form” (in the Daily Mail) and “75% on sick are skiving” (in the Daily Express) are leading to the “demonization” of disabled people, while “fair and accurate reporting, particularly in relation to disability benefit fraud, has gone out the window”.

But although the inquiry has accepted their written statement, it has refused to allow disabled people to give evidence in person.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, wrote last month to Lord Leveson on behalf of 18 disabled people’s organisations and campaigners to ask him to reconsider his decision, but the inquiry has turned down their request.

A Leveson inquiry spokesman said: “The inquiry has responded to a large number of pieces of correspondence and the position is the same as it was.

“If the shadow minister has other points that she wants to make she is more than entitled to write to the inquiry.”

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Three-year cruelty campaign was not hate crime, says judge

A judge has sparked concern after refusing to treat a three-year campaign of cruelty in which a disabled man was repeatedly beaten by relatives as a disability hate crime.

Preston Crown Court heard last week that Ghalib Hussain, who has epilepsy and learning difficulties, was beaten with a stick, had a jump-lead clamped to his nose, and was headbutted and whipped.

Hussain had come to Britain from Pakistan for an arranged marriage with the daughter of Nek Alam, 72, from Accrington.

But he was rejected by his new wife, and subjected to a three-year campaign of harassment and emotional abuse at the hands of Alam and his three sons, Zahir, 33, Zahoor, 32, and Janghir, 29.

All four pleaded guilty to putting Hussain in fear of violence by harassment, over a three-and-a-half year period between 2007 and 2010.

Nek, Zahir and Zahoor Alam were each jailed for 15 months, while Janghir Alam was jailed for 10 months.

The court had heard that one of the Alams described Hussain as “mentally sick”, another said he was “a burden”, while one of the sons said he had a “childish mind” and was referred to as “the clown or the mental case”.

But although Lancashire police and the Crown Prosecution Service both treated the offences against Hussain as disability hate crimes, the judge, Jonathan Gibson, refused to increase their sentences under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, which allows for harsher sentences for hate crimes.

The judge told the court that he was “satisfied that this is a case where your frustrated reactions to his poor behaviour (as you saw it) overflowed and the poor behaviour was as a result of his disability”.

He added that Hussain had “displayed some difficult behaviour whilst in the care home [where he is now living] and, it seems to me, (and I sentence you on this basis) that he clearly displayed difficult behaviour whilst in your family home”.

A spokesman for the Judicial Office said the judge had told the court that he was sentencing the defendants “on the basis that they had not properly understood the nature of the victim’s disability and that they had reacted wrongly and criminally to what was, in their eyes, the victim’s difficult behaviour”.

But Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said: “It is going to frustrate us and the CPS when we are trying to drive the process of getting section 146 recognised if the courts are turning round and not applying what the CPS and the community feel is appropriate.

“I think it emphasises the fact that judges and magistrates do need to be brought into the real world in terms of training for the application of section 146.”

A CPS spokesman said: “The CPS explained the facts of the case to the court and suggested the court consider section 146… which sets out the basis for an increase in sentence where the circumstances of the offence show the offender demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on the victim’s disability or sexual orientation.

“We felt that was appropriate in these circumstances. The court did not agree with us that the specific circumstances of this offence fitted the criteria set out in section 146.”

He said the CPS was unable to comment further on the judge’s decision.

A Lancashire police spokeswoman said: “We did deal with it as a disability hate crime because that is how we perceived it to be.”

Asked how the force felt about the judge’s refusal to treat the offences as disability hate crimes, she said: “It would not be appropriate for us to be commenting any further.”

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Leveson inquiry ‘has sidelined disability’

Disabled activists who want to give evidence about newspapers that have stirred up hostility towards claimants of disability benefits appear to have been sidelined by the Leveson inquiry into press standards.

Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) – including Inclusion London, the UK Disabled People’s Council and the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) – told Disability News Service (DNS) last November that they wanted to give evidence to the inquiry, set up in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

But although the inquiry has accepted their subsequent written statement, it appears to have ruled out any chance of disabled people giving evidence in person.

Inclusion London, and the other DPOs and activists who signed up to its witness statement, say there is strong evidence that disabled people are facing an increase in targeted hostility and hate crime as a result of stories that have been published in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, particularly on the subject of disability benefits.

They believe that headlines such as “Disabled Benefit? Just fill in a form” and “75% on sick are skiving” are leading to the “demonization” of disabled people, while “fair and accurate reporting, particularly in relation to disability benefit fraud, has gone out the window”.

But despite a joint written submission being accepted and published on the Leveson website, an inquiry spokesman told DNS that it was now too late to take evidence in person on the issue because the inquiry had moved on from discussing the relationship between the press and the public.

He said the inquiry team was “content” with the evidence it had been sent in written form, and added: “They are happy to work off written evidence and submissions and they think they have got enough of them.

“The inquiry is content that it will cover issues around the way the media has treated people with disabilities.”

He said the inquiry intended to publish “further submissions relating to disability issues shortly”.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said they and other organisations and individuals would be writing to the inquiry to “strongly urge them to specifically address the issue of the portrayal of disabled people in the media” and to ask to be able to give oral evidence to the inquiry.

She said: “This issue is extremely important to disabled people and the impact of current grossly inaccurate reporting is directly linked to rising incidents of disability hate crime and hostility which in turn is causing disabled people to live in fear and anxiety.”

Stephen Brookes, a DHCN coordinator and the retiring joint chair of the National Union of Journalists’ disabled members council, said: “I am deeply dismayed that a real opportunity has been missed by Leveson and those submitting to its work in making the press as a whole take responsibility for creating an environment which is not just hostile to, but actually has created criminal hate towards, disabled people and other minority groups.

“It is of little surprise that disabled people and their organisations are at odds with the media in all its guises.”

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