The latest Home Office Hate Crime statistics are out, so its time for my now traditional annual diatribe against the misinterpretation, abuse and misuse of this information.
First of all, all hate crime, including disability hate crime, is an abomination. One hate crime is one too many. As an expression of more widely held prejudices it reminds us how far we have to go to foster equality and respect for human rights. We must do all we can to rid our society of such vile, oppressive behavior. That means understanding why it happens, taking action to prevent it, ensuring people who experience it recognise and report it, ensuring that the police and others respect and listen to people when they do, investigate alleged crimes thoroughly and with the Crown Prosecution Service ensure perpetrators are punished for their crimes. It means ensuring government, the media or others avoid and are deterred from cultivating social conditions which are either permissive of such behaviours or which motivate them.
Disability hate crime wasn’t really recognised as such in the UK before the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The late Nick Russell joined forces with Stonewall and the Disability Rights Commission to secure s146 of the Act, which for the first time recognised hostility towards people on grounds of disability or sexual orientation as an ‘aggravating factor’ to be taken account of in sentencing. It was several years later that Disability Hate Crime came to be recorded by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and in the Crime Survey. My team at the Disability Rights Commission played a crucial role, as did key people such as Paul Giannassi, Joanna Perry, Mark Brooks, Anne Novis, Stephen Brookes and Katherine Quarmby. We picked up the thread when the EHRC took over from the DRC, first with seminal research into disabled people’s experiences of violence and hostility and then the Disability Related Harassment Inquiry.
Since then there have been various drives by government, police forces and the CPS, often working with disabled people’s organisations to drive up reporting and to ensure recording of disability hate crime. Unsurprisingly, the number of disability hate crimes recorded by the police has as a result increased since it was first recorded in 2007, and it is these recorded crimes that the Home Office reports on. They are though but a drop in the ocean. Over 90% of disability hate crime incidents still go unreported or recorded. Yet the way these statistics are reported manages both to obscure this fact, whilst giving a completely misleading and harmful picture of what is really happening.
In the past 24 hours it has been reported – by disability charities including Leonard Cheshire, the BBC and others – that disability hate crime has risen by 53% in the past year and that such crimes against children have increased by 150%. Yet these alarming figures concern the numbers of such crimes recorded by the police, not overall incidence. The most recent analysis of incidence by EHRC actually suggests incidence has declined since 2011 from an average of 72000 disability hate crime incidents a year between 2007-11, to 56,000 per year between 2011-12 to 2013-14, reflecting a decline in crime overall.
As I tweeted last week, disability hate crime is one of those issues where things can look worse at the very point they are improving. For example, in March 2016 the Metropolitan Police and Inclusion London launched Disability Hate Crime Matters which aimed to improve the identification, investigation and response by officers to disability hate crime (DHC) through awareness raising across the force. In March 2017 the Independent Newspaper reported a ‘huge rise’ in Hate Crime across London, and that ‘Numbers of disability hate victims have increased by 216 per cent in the last year alone, up from 251 in 2015-16 to 794 in 2016-17.’ Of course some of this rise may be down to increased incidence, but much of it is more likely a result of the success of the efforts of the Met and Inclusion London.
So, incidence of disability hate crime appears to be going down, while reporting to and recording by the police is continuing to go up. That suggests we are beginning to get a handle on it, which one might hope and expect a decade or so on. But it is incredibly slow progress, which really should be the focus of the story. In the week that women on social media have used the hashtag #metoo to convey the scale of sexual harassment and abuse, these statistics should remind us how so many disabled people continue to simply live with such behaviour and we should recommit to ensuring people do not suffer in silence.
The second problem I’ve written about previously is the misappropriation of disability hate crime for other political ends. Intuitively I share the belief that rhetoric surrounding welfare reform has made permissive and indeed fostered a hostile climate towards benefit claimants and I have read enough personal testimonies of people experiencing hostility that they regarded as being connected to presumptions about their benefit claimant status. But the quote below from Linda Burnip, which appeared in the now apparently-regulated-by-IMPRESS online journal The Canary has absolutely no evidential basis whatsoever:
‘It is very sad to see that even disabled children are now viewed as unworthy and subject to abuse from the public. This is the direct responsibility of a callous and uncaring government who from 2010 onward has dedicated itself to promoting the scrounger rhetoric in relation to disabled people, leading to a massive increase in hate crimes.’
As I have already explained, there has not been a ‘massive increase in hate crimes’ there has been a decline, according to official crime statistics, and that decline coincides the very period Burnip is referring to. If so called scrounger rhetoric was so central a cause of disability hate crime, one might at least expect a ‘blip’ coinciding the period before the Welfare Reform Act 2012, just as the latest Home Office statistic release reports a blip in racial and religiously motivated crime around the time of the EU referendum. Yet there is nothing in the overall incidence or stats on reporting of Disability Hate Crime to indicate this. Moreover, there was nothing in the stories of disabled children’s experience of hate crime covered by the BBC linking it to so-called scrounger rhetoric either. This did not stop Steve Topple from the Canary tweeting that the ‘biggest rise’ in disability hate crime was for disabled people, accompanied by an image of a person in a wheelchair being thrown off a cliff and the DWP’s logo. When I challenged and suggested he was abusing and exploiting the statistics for politics he replied that I was someone who ‘would prefer disability not to be an inherently political issue, when it is’ adding with a charming flourish ‘Bored of your trolling. Do fuck off.’ Disability hate crime is a political issue, just as welfare reform is a political issue. It’s just that they’re not the same political issue.
So I will fuck off in a moment. But before doing so, I’ll explain why I believe this misinterpretation, disinformation and misappropriation needs to end. First, because it causes alarm and needlessly increases the fear of crime, which evidence shows has a hugely negative impact on people’s lives as people take steps to avoid it, like never leaving the house at night. But perhaps more importantly because it is failing past, present and future victims of disability hate crime to obscure the facts, divert people from the real problems and to misdiagnose the causes in the pursuit of other political agendas.
So lets actually become aware this hate crime awareness week and really get a handle on eradicating the scourge of disability hate crime.