Last week the EHRC published an extremely helpful report on the incidence of disability hate crime from 2007/8 to 2011/12. Based on analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales and the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey it estimates there to have been on average 72,000 disability hate crimes in each year. This is higher than a previous estimate of 65,000 for 2010/11. Critically however, it finds that there have been no statistically significant changes over time. That is to say, according to these surveys, the incidence of disability hate crime has neither gone up nor down since 2007/8. What has changed (for the better) are the numbers of such crimes reported to and recorded by the police and others, albeit not uniformly and with a considerable room for improvement.
Hence the widely misreported increase in recorded disability hate crime in 2012, attributed to ‘scrounger rhetoric’, was actually largely a sign of things (very marginally) improving: greater recognition of the phenomenon, increased confidence to report such crimes and improved practice by the police and partners. Yet in an otherwise powerful piece in today’s Independent newspaper, Ian Birrell suggests again that ‘reported hate crime against people with disabilities is rising, fanned by rhetoric against “scroungers.”
Might we have expected the overall incidence of disability hate crime to have gone down for the same reasons? Again, what looks like things failing to improve could in fact be the precise opposite. The Crime Survey captures crimes that people may not bother to report because they think the crime was too trivial or the police couldn’t do much about it. A central finding of the research I commissioned for the EHRC prior to its Disability Harassment Inquiry was of people becoming conditioned to the hostility they experienced – that it had just become so much a part of their day to day life that they themselves had come to accept it. More people reporting disability hate crime via the Crime Survey may suggest fewer people willing to accept such behaviours towards them, not an actual increase (or lack of a decrease) in incidence.
As for the role of ‘scrounger rhetoric’, one might wonder whether it has prevented a reduction in the incidence of disability hate crime that would otherwise have happened since May 2010? If this is the case, then by implication are we are saying that something else was causing all of the 72,000 such crimes each year before 2010/11 and then ‘scrounger rhetoric’ took over? Or we are saying that such rhetoric has long been a contributory factor (lest we forget it was commonplace before the 2010 election) but that its increased intensity means it accounts for a greater proportion of disability hate crime and has staved off a drop in incidence?
Or are dots being joined to forge a political narrative? Are some seeking to liken the the government’s attitudes to and policy towards disabled people to disability hate crime? Or to suggest that government policy and rhetoric has legitimated and caused more disability hate crime? Certainly that seems to be the subtext of Labour’s ‘Making Rights a Reality’ document and the way it was presented when launched. The irony is that there would be no tactical advantage to Labour in making such a claim were it not for the fact that, despite the ‘scrounger rhetoric’, public support for disability benefits remains significantly higher than for welfare in the round.
Unfortunately we still know very little about the motivations of perpetrators of disability hate crime, and the construction of the law in this area is such that it doesn’t encourage perpetrators to tell us lest they prejudice their own situation. However, what we do know about the nature of prejudice towards disabled people – prejudice which can manifest as hostility or abuse – is that typically it regards disabled people as vulnerable, weak or as having little value in society. Prejudice towards disabled people may take a different shape to racism or homophobia, but it still fundamentally involves dehumanising the person or people who are its object. This is why disability rights campaigners employed the slogan ‘piss on pity’, It’s why Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires governments to ‘promote the capabilities and contributions’ of disabled people.
It’s also why people need to be very careful to avoid re-enforcing such prejudices in the way they challenge government policy. ‘Scrounger rhetoric’ may well add to hostility or provide greater opportunity for it to find expression, just as anti-immigration rhetoric can do so for racist incidents. It is both de-humanising and it invites and legitimates prejudice and hostility towards those receiving (or presumed to be receiving) State support. But challenging it with language and ideas which – even with the best of intentions – inadvertently or deliberately paint disabled people as helpless, vulnerable victims in need of being rescued isn’t fighting fire with fire, it’s pouring fuel on it.
If people genuinely care about eliminating disability hate crime, they should think twice about using it as a political weapon in this way.