Usually, I write about local events and issues in my regular column, but this week I wanted to write about an issue that has been a top priority for me since I was first appointed as Solicitor General last year. As a backbench MP, I campaigned hard on disability issues, so it was a natural progression for me to seek to improve the way in which disability hate crime is reported, investigated, and prosecuted. My commitment to creating a better understanding of disability and tackling forms of abuse and discrimination pre-dates my entry into Parliament, and I have a strong personal commitment from my own family experiences to seeing improvements in this area.
Disability is an area where social attitudes are still ill informed. There is a lack of understanding within society about the nature and scale of disability hate. As disability takes many different forms, so do offences that are motivated by hostility to people who are disabled. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said, it is a “crime hidden in plain sight”, not just because some disabilities are not immediately obvious, such as autism, but because the prevalence of disability hate crime in our society has not been properly acknowledged. I am determined to see change in this area.
There needs to be recognition that disability hate crime has a unique position and requires careful treatment to ensure that it is on equal footing with other hate crimes. This requires a commitment on the part of all the agencies within the Criminal Justice System to improve the way in which crimes are investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced.
Last Thursday, I was invited to attend a hate crime co-ordinators meeting at the Police College in Ryton, where I made a speech ahead of Hate Crime Awareness Week commencing 12th October. The meeting brings together representatives from the Crown Prosecution Service and the police in order to share best practice in the investigation and prosecution of hate crime and discuss recent legal and policy developments in the area.
Towards the end of October, I will be joining other Government Ministers including my North Swindon colleague and Minister for Disabled People, Justin Tomlinson MP, for a roundtable meeting on disability hate crime amid work to refresh the cross-Government Action Plan to Tackle Hate Crime published in March 2012.
Since the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 62,000 disability motivated hate crimes were committed in 2013-2014 but only a couple of thousand were actually dealt with by the courts, , I have been particularly impressed by emphasis on quality assurance and training by the CPS and the police in order to tackle this alarming “justice gap”.
In May 2014, the Crown Prosecution Service released a Hate Crime Strategy. By December, every prosecutor will have been given training to ensure that they fully understand the different forms of disability hate crime and the application of the sentence uplift provision under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Under this legislation, courts are obliged to impose an uplift in sentence for crimes where an offender has demonstrated hostility towards a victim based on a disability or a presumed disability. The signs are that results are gradually improving. Since March of this year, the number of disability hate crimes prosecuted has risen by 15%. Whilst only 10.8% of those had a recorded uplift in sentence, progress has been made on 2013-2014 when the recorded uplift in sentence was only 0.6%.
Whilst Police and Prosecutors are vitally important in changing perceptions and showing that offences motivated by hostility to disability will not be tolerated, there needs to be a change in society in the way we view disability and disability hate crime. I am greatly encouraged by the commitment I have seen within the Criminal Justice System so far, but there is still a long way to go. This change is up to all of us to achieve.
In our push for improved results, we must not lose sight of the experiences of those directly affected by disability hate crime. Only by understanding their perspectives and listening to their needs can there be real change.