Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)
It is, as always, a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have the chance to open this debate.
Writer and journalist Katherine Quarmby, who addressed a joint meeting of the all-party groups on disability and learning disability in Parliament a couple of months ago, told us that in the course of her research into the subject she had been unable to find much evidence that disability hate crime had been debated in either House in Parliament. I am glad that we are able to put that right today.
The issue concerns many hon. Members from across the House. I am particularly pleased to see the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has done a great deal of work on this subject, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who will be responding to the debate from the Labour Front Bench.
I acknowledge the Lord Chancellor’s commitment to align the tariff for murder where disability is a motivating or aggravating feature with that for race, religion and sexuality, which he made in response to my amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill last month. That amendment enjoyed the support of a number of hon. Members from across the House.
That commitment was a useful step in the right direction and one that organisations such as Mencap, the National Autistic Society, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others have been calling for. I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s undertaking and look forward to hearing in more detail how the Government will progress his commitment.
The reality is that sentencing for murder is just the tip of a deeply disturbing and significant problem. As the recent EHRC report “Hidden in plain sight” has shown, attitudes, behaviours and practices, both institutional and individual, are contributing to a growing climate of hostility towards disabled people and fall well short of being a satisfactory response to the harassment of those people and the commission of crimes against them. I hope that today’s debate will give the Minister the opportunity to tell us specifically what actions the Government are taking to address so-called disability hate crime and to tackle one of the nastiest, most disgraceful forms of crime in our society. The coalition Government have promised a hate crime action plan, but we are still waiting for it. Disabled people, their families and campaigners are rightly anxious for action now.
The EHRC reports that around 1.9 million disabled people were victims of crime in 2009-10. We do not know how many were victims of harassment, but we do know that disabled people face a greater risk of being a victim of crime than people who are not disabled. There is also evidence that disabled people are more likely to experience antisocial behaviour, although more research is needed on that to confirm the scale of the problem. That is clearly unacceptable. What is worse, we also know that too often disabled people will feel forced to put up with a pattern of harassment, humiliation, antisocial behaviour and low-level criminal behaviour and come to accept it as an inevitable part of their lives.
What may start as relatively low-level harassment all too often escalates, becoming intolerable for the victim. In the worst cases, it can spiral to the point of violence, even murder, or to a situation in which victims and their families are simply unable to carry on with their lives. Hon. Members will be all too aware of the shocking case of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca, whose suffering of persistent harassment and abuse ultimately led to their deaths.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this important debate. She has mentioned the issue of attacks on people with disabilities. Does she not agree that there needs to be a campaign to increase awareness of that? We congratulate Mencap on its excellent “Stand by Me” campaign, but does she not agree that such awareness needs to start back at primary school? Schools need to have a role and to teach our young people to have respect for people with disabilities.
Indeed, and I will say a little more about that. It is an important point that highlights that some of the perpetrators of really shocking instances of abuse and criminal behaviour are very young. Intervening early to demonstrate to them the absolute unacceptability of such behaviour is clearly the right thing to do.
Cases such as that of Fiona and Francecca Pilkington are of course the extreme, but they exist in a context of rising hostility to disabled people, which fuels abusive behaviour and leads to an increase in the harassment of them. Recent research for Scope by ComRes has shown that 47 % of disabled people feel that attitudes towards them had got worse over the past year, with 66% of disabled people reporting experiencing aggression, hostility or name calling.
A study published last month by the Glasgow Media Group, which analyses how the media are reporting disability in the context of Government spending cuts, reveals a major shift in how disabled people are portrayed, and the negative impact that that is having, both on public attitudes and on disabled people themselves. The research found a fall in media coverage that described disabled people in sympathetic and deserving terms, and an increase in the number of articles focusing on disability benefit fraud. Researchers observed an increase in articles portraying disabled people as a “burden” on the economy, with some articles even blaming the recession on incapacity benefits claimants.
Harassment and attacks exist and flourish in that context of hostility—a context, it has to be said, to which politicians are helping to contribute. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the derogatory and damaging language that has surrounded too much of the debate about welfare reform, and will give her commitment that there is a determination across Government to stamp out any negative portrayal of disabled people.
Although attitudes and language are important, campaigners have rightly identified the need for a much wider, whole-system change. That requires that public bodies and the professionals who work in them treat all manifestations of disability-related harassment and hate crime with the utmost seriousness. Too often, victims fail to report harassment and attacks, because they are unsure to whom they should report them, or because they feel that they will not be believed. Too often, when attacks are reported, the response of the professionals is to focus on the behaviour of the victim and how that should change. In other words, they focus on how victims should curtail their lives to avoid finding themselves in a situation in which they continue to experience harassment. That cannot be right. The priority must be to focus on the behaviour of the perpetrators, to challenge behaviour that is unacceptable, to deal appropriately with criminal behaviour and to take all necessary steps to prevent it occurring.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has just made the point about people being subjected to patterns of harassment. Is she hearing from police officers that they are increasingly conscious that, when younger officers or officers who are new to an area produce a report and check the books, they find that that report is the latest in a series of reports about harassment being suffered by a particular individual? It is almost because a report forms part of a pattern that the police are inclined to say, “There is nothing we can do about it”, because nothing has happened about the previous reports. The police fail to appreciate the cumulative impact of this sort of antisocial behaviour and constant harassment. Such behaviour and harassment should be a call to action rather than a call to indifference.
That is an important point and I am sure that it is one that the police will also take note of. Too often there is an attitude that nothing can be done because the victim is disabled and there is scepticism about what disabled victims say. One shocking case, quoted in Katharine Quarmby’s book “Scapegoat”, was that of a blind woman who had been sexually assaulted, but the response of the police was that it was not possible to proceed with the case because, of course, she had not seen her attacker.
In its report, “Hidden in plain sight”, the EHRC has proposed a number of important measures to help to improve the situation. First, there must be leadership and ownership of the issue across all public bodies. This is not an issue simply for one arm of government. It cuts across central Government Departments, local government, the criminal justice system, the education system, health, housing, care, transport, employment and so on. Therefore, a signal from the Minister today of the seriousness with which the Government regard the issue will be important. However, warm words will not be enough. Disabled people want to know how Ministers will ensure that the issue remains a priority for ministerial attention across Government; what structures exist within Whitehall to focus attention and drive action; what accountability mechanisms will be put in place; how public institutions that fail to take action will be compelled to do so; and how Ministers will work with local government to ensure ownership of the issue at local level.
Secondly, such an approach must be informed and supported by the systematic gathering and monitoring of data that spell out the scale and severity of the problem, and by analysis of that data to support and direct policy makers’ attention to where action is needed. We know that there is significant under-reporting of harassment and abuse of disabled people, and there is a need to improve the recording and reporting of disability hate crime.
Radar has responded to that problem through its “Stop Disability Hate Crime” project, which is working with disabled people’s organisations and the authorities to develop a national independent disability hate crime reporting centre, which will provide minimum standards for other such centres, and raise awareness of disability hate crime and incidents and how to report them. The project also maps the disability hate crime third-party reporting sites that already exist or are being established. Also, a survey has been undertaken to find out why disabled people do not want to report disability hate crime and what would make them more confident to do so.
The Radar project is an important initiative and I hope that the Government will look carefully at the lessons that emerge from it, and at ways of strengthening the capacity of third-party hate crime reporting centres as a valuable way of increasing the incidence of reporting. Of course, it will be important that such centres follow minimum standards, but I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will welcome Radar’s work in that area and look forward to its report, which is due to be published early next year.
Thirdly, practice at the front line is, of course, vital to ensure that action is taken swiftly to respond to and prevent harassment or criminal attacks on disabled people. That requires the engagement, attention and effort of a range of public institutions. Crucially, those public institutions must work in partnership with each other and with disabled people to develop and to implement the right strategies to tackle disability hate crime. That partnership working can enable early identification of the patterns of behaviour that we have been discussing today, which is essential if problems are not to escalate. Today those patterns are too often missed, or cases are dealt with in isolation. As a result, the response of the authorities can be fragmented, inadequate or too slow.
In its 2009 report on the security of disabled people, the EHRC pointed out that a range of public authorities were not playing any preventive role: housing associations, social care providers, health care providers, the voluntary and community sector and local authorities. Too often, there is an inadequate response to incidents even when they are reported. That must change. Although there has been some progress in the response of the criminal justice agencies, action across the piece is needed and it is in that context that the Government’s action plan will be so important.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and bringing this matter to the Chamber today. Society is always measured by how it treats those who are less well-off, and that is true of individuals as well as of society as a whole. She has discussed a campaign that she hopes the Government will support. Does she feel that that campaign should not only be an England and Wales campaign but a campaign that goes to Scotland and Northern Ireland, too? If so, perhaps the catalyst to make that happen will come from this Chamber today. I ask the Minister to consider that point too in her response to the debate.
That is also an important point, and if there is good practice from which we can learn we will want to learn it in every part of the United Kingdom.
The Government’s action plan will need to include action on developing a better understanding of the motivations of perpetrators of disability hate crime, and of the interventions that are effective in changing such behaviour. It must be a priority to develop appropriate interventions that can be made in schools, which have already been mentioned, in the criminal justice system, through family and community programmes, and in other settings. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what analysis and action the Government are considering with regard to those interventions.
The action plan must also address the need for proper training of front-line professionals who may be required to recognise and respond to issues of disability-related harassment. Such training must include training in communication skills and understanding and recognising signals of abuse. I hope that the Minister will be specific today about the steps that the Government are taking to make progress on those matters and I look forward to hearing her response.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight one especially vulnerable group of victims—those people with learning disabilities who have experienced sexual violence or abuse. All too often in those cases, the perpetrator is a partner, a family member or a carer, so the attack is compounded by an abuse of intimacy and a breach of the victim’s trust.
A shockingly high proportion of women with learning disabilities have experienced sexual abuse. The problems that other victims of disability hate crime experience are magnified for these women by their not being believed, by professionals not knowing how to address the issue, and by abuse continuing and escalating over a long period, which happens all too often.
During the summer, I attended a conference with a group of learning disabled women to discuss the measures that are needed to address that form of abuse. The conference was jointly organised by the rape crisis centre in my own borough of Trafford, Salford university and Change, an organisation that is run by and for learning disabled people.
The learning disabled women present at the conference, who themselves were victims of sexual abuse, were absolutely clear about the action that is needed. I should say that they were also prepared to acknowledge that there have been improvements in parts of the criminal justice system, including better awareness among the police, greater understanding of their circumstances and their needs by the Crown Prosecution Service, and greater responsiveness from the courts. However, they also highlighted the need for specialist advice and support to be much more widely available. They spoke about a lack of access to health services and other support services, which happened for a number of reasons: sometimes because of discrimination, sometimes because of a lack of communication skills, and sometimes because they and other learning disabled women were not empowered to express their needs. They repeated that there was a need for training for front-line professionals, which they strongly suggested should be delivered by learning disabled women themselves. They identified an additional barrier that they faced, which was dealing with workers who did not have the confidence to deal with them as learning disabled women.
Women often want to use mainstream services where they can, but feel that the staff are often not equipped to support them. In her role as Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I hope that the hon. Lady takes these points up urgently with colleagues in the relevant Departments, and urges them to engage directly with learning disabled women in formulating Government policy.
I want to put on record my gratitude to the disabled people and their families who have taken the time to describe to me the deeply distressing, shocking and vicious attacks they have experienced, and how the system has sometimes let them down. I also want to thank the families of Keith Philpott and Gary Skelly, members of the Disability Hate Crime Network, Simon Green and Stephen Brookes, and the women I met at Change. Their stories of abuse, violence and in some cases death, have brought home to me that there remains a dark and primitive side to our attitudes to disabled people, which still too often manifests itself in harassment and criminal behaviour that simply cannot be tolerated in any civilised society. I am pleased that we are debating the issue this morning. It must not remain hidden in plain sight.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate on a very important issue.
I, too, met the family of Gary Skelly on Monday, and we watched the 15-minute video they have put together as part of their FACE Facts campaign. Gary Skelly, a 53-year-old man who lived in Norris Green, Liverpool, was attacked just over a year ago—punched for no obvious reason, and killed. The perpetrator was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter, so, unfortunately, even the amendment that the hon. Lady and I have tabled to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill would not have given him the sentence I feel he deserved. What happened left the family not just bemused and confused, but greatly distressed. They simply could not understand what had happened to someone about whom they, and many in the community, cared greatly.
I consider myself relatively fortunate in Blackpool, in that I have an excellent third-party reporting centre and the Disability Hate Crime Network is very strong. The hon. Lady has already mentioned Stephen Brookes, one of my constituents, who helps up and down the land in ensuring that the fight to have this form of hate crime recognised is prosecuted as widely as possible. Yet I can still be shocked. About six months ago, a father and his son came to one of my constituency surgeries. The son, in his early twenties, had had a serious car crash a few years previously and now has a developmental learning disorder. He was trying to go to college, but faced abuse from neighbours and cat-calls as he walked there, and was now dropping out. I thought, “My word, even in Blackpool, where we are really trying, this is still occurring.” But what really shocked me most was that it was occurring not in my constituency, but in my own road, where I live, and had been going on for many months without my being aware of it, not 100 yards from my front door. Such incidents are hidden in plain sight, as the title of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report makes clear. It is probably happening in very close proximity to where we all live, and we might not be aware of it.
I want to focus today on an aspect of disability hate crime that does not yet get sufficient attention: the needs of many people with learning disabilities, who are subjected to what is increasingly being called mate crime. Why has it developed? Some 50 years ago, society’s answer for many people with learning disabilities was to shut them away out of sight—hide them away, so society did not have to confront them. Ensuring, rightly, that they live fulfilling lives in their local communities, participating in everything we all do, has put them at risk from a few ignorant individuals who do not understand what a learning disability is. That makes them vulnerable.
The hon. Lady mentioned the types of press coverage that we see. I welcome the fact that serious examples of disability hate crime are now being covered and referred to as such, but what we do not hear about every day is the so-called friend who relieves someone of a £10 note. That might not seem a particularly large crime, certainly not in financial value, but if a so-called friend of someone with a learning disability abuses their trust, that is a far greater crime, in human value, than if they were stealing £1 million. It is not just a financial crime; it is an attack on the person’s humanity and identity.
Something that the Skelly family stressed to me on Monday—indeed, we began the discussion by talking about it—was the labels that people put on others. Yes, society is very complex, and I am sure that we all find it difficult to deal with at times, but it is much more difficult for someone with a learning disability. We apply these labels to try to help ourselves to simplify the world around us and to help us to understand things that might be at the margins of our understanding, about which we know we ought to think in a particular way. We put the labels on them, then think we understand them. The labels are often the beginning of a prejudice—a way of assuming that someone acts in a certain way or that they are a particular way because of how they are. That is perhaps the most dangerous thing we do in our society. We cope with the people at the margins—people we do not quite understand—by just putting labels on them.
Two or three months ago, we heard about the sentencing of the murderers of Gemma Hayter, a lady in Rugby with a learning disability who had gone to visit her so-called friends and had been tied up, locked in a toilet, forced to drink her own urine, led to a railway line, wrapped in plastic bags and stabbed to death. Her attackers got the sentence they deserved, but sadly they could not face the 30-year tariff, which I believe such people should face, proposed in our amendment. That incident brought home to me the vulnerability of such people.
There are things that the Government can do, and I urge Ministers to consider them. It is vital that the Government take on board, as Mencap is requesting, the Law Commission proposals to extend the definition of harm to include exploitation, particularly financial exploitation. I hope that when we see a social care Bill, we can put the adult safeguarding boards on a statutory basis. Sadly, no organisational structure can stop evil occurring in a person’s head, but we can try to do something to ensure that when we identify people at risk, the different agencies involved are at least made aware of what is going on. If people are talking to people, and agencies are talking to agencies, we will at least have some hope that, just maybe, solutions can be found.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing the debate. Is he aware of a recent case in, I think, Bristol? A gentleman with learning disabilities went into a barbers, and the barber thought it amusing to shave “fool” on his head—an unbelievable story. I cannot remember the details, but the punishment was lamentably low.
I thank the hon. Lady for that classic example of how unfeeling and insensitive individuals can be. I hope that the punishment is that the local community boycotts that barber, because he does not deserve to have any customers if that is how he treats them.
A more fundamental issue that concerns me is that the Government are not approaching properly the philosophical status of day care centres. That might seem like a slightly abstruse point to make, but in many social services departments these days, the day care centre seems to be an unfashionable creation. Some want people to be out in the community all the time, as though a day care setting somehow denied them the right to be in the community. That concerns me greatly. For many people with a learning disability, particularly those of an older generation, a day care setting offers the very support network that so many of them crave, and in pursuit of which they often put themselves at risk from so-called friends.
I urge the Minister to consult with her colleagues to ensure that day care centres are not written out of the picture. We have an excellent one in Blackpool called the Rock Centre, which is indeed a rock for many in the community. Although the activities that people there engage in might not strike us as terribly meaningful—
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to make a quick point; I very much support what he says. One challenge of disability and learning disability is that people in Whitehall and the professions often think that they know best. For the past 15 years, the direction of travel has been to reduce day care. I endorse totally what he says: for a lot of disabled people, particularly those with learning disabilities, the reduction in day care centres has reduced their quality of life. I support him in pushing the Minister to ensure that that understanding filters through to the professions and Whitehall.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and agree wholeheartedly. It struck me when I spoke to users of the Rock that they feel happy, fulfilled and, above all, safe and secure in that environment. That is surely what we want for the most vulnerable in society: that they feel safe and secure, that they are not placed at risk and, most importantly, that anyone who dares to presume that they can inflict their prejudices and their crippled attitude to human life on those vulnerable individuals feels the full force not just of the law but of the local community’s criticism and condemnation.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who always speaks in an informed way. Today was no exception. I join him in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on obtaining the debate at an important time, and on her excellent speech. I hope that she will forgive me if I re-emphasise some of her points, each of which was well made.
Disability hate crime is a big issue, affecting about 60% of all disabled people in the UK. Within that number, people with learning disabilities are hugely affected: according to Mencap, nine out of 10 say that they have been bullied, harassed or harmed because of their impairment. I should declare that I am the joint chair, with Lord Rix, of the all-party parliamentary group on learning disability.
The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report “Hidden in plain sight” suggested that disability harassment is so common that many have come to accept it as part of their everyday lives. The report also found that numerous agencies, including the police, the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and local authorities, have failed to recognise disability hate crime and respond effectively when it happens.
Mencap’s “Stand by me” campaign aims to rectify the issue by encouraging police forces to give greater attention to disability hate crimes and promoting the need for Government to do more to achieve improvement. In June this year, I had the privilege of hosting a reception. I was delighted that the Minister was there, as I am always delighted when she is present. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), whom I am delighted to see back in a post to which she is eminently suited, feels equally welcome.
The Government committed to publishing a hate crime action plan, but there is no evidence of it yet, although it is essential if we are to achieve strategic direction and a co-ordinated approach to tackling hate crimes, such as those aggravated by disability. Sentencing is a key issue that has been raised. Recently, the Government announced their intention to equalise minimum sentences for murders aggravated by disability as part of schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I welcome that strongly, of course, but it does not mean the end of the issue. Murder is just one part of a huge spectrum of abuse suffered by disabled people, and provision should be made to safeguard all disabled people who suffer any sort of disability hate crime.
Types of hate crime vary substantially, as we have heard. Murder and physical abuse are the most hard-hitting and widely publicised. However, name-calling and general harassment build up over time and can cause long-lasting psychological damage to the victim, as was seen in the case of Fiona Pilkington, who, sadly, killed her learning-disabled daughter and herself after years of abuse. Another, relatively recent phenomenon, referred to by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, is mate crime, in which perpetrators falsely befriend disabled people and exploit them financially, physically or sexually. Sentencing for disability hate crime should be comprehensive enough to safeguard against all those forms of crime.
The Government have also announced that they will reform section 146 of the 2003 Act, which imposes sentence uplifts for crimes aggravated by protected characteristics such as disability. Section 146 is widely unenforced: only 1,200 cases of disability hate crime have been prosecuted, compared with 48,400 racist and religious hate crimes. However, the Ministry of Justice has said that the Act will be updated so that where any offence is shown to be motivated by hostility towards the victim on the grounds of transgender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, sentences must be more severe. The implication is that the law will be strengthened so that courts “must” impose a sentence uplift, thus removing their discretionary power. Will the Minister clarify the situation? I would welcome that.
Another issue that must be addressed is the power of the Attorney-General to review sentences deemed unduly lenient. That power does not extend to sentences for disability-motivated offences, which creates an inconsistent picture in the legislation on disability hate crime. There is a possible implication that disability hate crime is not as much of a priority as other strands of hate crime such as race or religion, important though those are. Disability hate crime must be recognised as an equal issue across all forms of sentencing.
My right hon. Friend rightly highlights the fact that the Attorney-General can review lenient sentences for racial or religiously aggravated attacks, even where the offence is relatively minor, but the law insists that disability-aggravated crime may be reviewed only if it is most serious. Does that not essentially put the law and the Attorney-General in the Sepp Blatter position of saying, “Yes, it’s wrong, but it’s not really serious; it’s unacceptable, but it’s somehow understandable.”?
My hon. Friend’s point is salient and I am sure that we all take it on board. It is essential that the issues under discussion are dealt with as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill; otherwise, the opportunity for disability hate crime to achieve the type of parity for which we are calling will pass.
What needs to happen? I acknowledge the Home Office directive on collecting figures on disability hate crime. That could achieve a better understanding of the national picture, taking in every part of the United Kingdom. However, more needs to be done to be proactive, even beyond that.
Police forces need better to understand disability, including learning disability, so that they can effectively support victims of disability hate crime. That includes flagging up repeat cases of disabled people being victims of abuse. Mencap’s police promise initiative, for example, encourages police forces to sign up to a list of pledges to show their commitment to tackling disability hate crime.
Courts and the criminal justice sector should employ special measures, as per the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendations in the “Hidden in plain sight” report, better to accommodate disabled people. That includes effective support for witnesses, which can be crucial in so many cases.
It is also hugely important to tackle wider public attitudes about disabled people, as hon. Members have mentioned. There is a lot in the media about people being “benefit scroungers”, and disabled people are often deemed guilty by association, which breeds contempt among the public, some of whom perceive disabled people to be cheating the system to ensure that they get state handouts. That is wrong and unacceptable.
I again welcome the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston on securing it. I strongly believe that we should face the issues and problems of sentencing and respond accordingly, and her debate today has given us a wonderful opportunity to focus on that.
It is an honour and a pleasure to take part in this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and congratulate her on securing it. I was present in the main Chamber when she managed to secure the important concession from the Lord Chancellor on schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I pay tribute to her and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for their work. They will be glad to know that, as well as the Members present, those in another place, particularly Lord Touhig, have played a key part in changing the Government’s mind. We met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), only some 10 days prior to that concession, to press the case on schedule 21, and I am delighted that the Government have moved so swiftly to regularise the position.
That, of course, gives rise to the question: why not move in other areas? Why not regularise the law so that disability hate crime is treated in the same way as an aggravated offence, as is the case with race or religion? That would require an amendment to primary legislation, and yes, I know it would be a big step, but it would be an important one. If we are making concessions elsewhere, we should regularise the law in that area as well. We treat equalities as a single concept now and we have an Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Surely moving beyond schedule 21 means that, as a society, we should ensure that we do not seem to treat disabled people as a people apart, almost saying that different attitudes, legislation and approaches are required for them. The more we treat disabled people like those of us who are not disabled, the more likely society as a whole is to follow that example and move away from treating them as almost subnormal or abnormal.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for dealing with a point that I was about to address and that has been alluded to by other Members. The focus needs to be shifted away from always analysing a case’s evidence by looking at the victim, and towards the wrongdoing and what the offender has done. That welcome shift of emphasis was displayed in guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecutors in England and Wales in March 2010. It is similar to the shift in focus that occurred some years ago in relation to domestic violence. People used to ask of the victim, “Why did she stay with him?”, instead of focusing on the behaviour of the perpetrator, which, I am glad to say, is what is now happening in cases of domestic abuse. The same must happen in relation to disability.
The danger we face in focusing on the victim and their behaviour is that in assuming that all disabled people are vulnerable just because of their disability, we start asking dangerous questions, such as, “Why don’t they avoid these situations? Why do disabled people put themselves in that position in the first place?” By asking those dangerous questions, we are at risk of driving disabled people back into their homes and into institutions, and away from mainstream society. That is wrong and I hope that today’s debate will give a clear message to the Government that we must avoid it. We are in danger of being as bad as the people in ages past who used to apply the dunce’s cap to disabled people in the classroom.
Such attitudes lead to other dangerous assumptions, such as that of some involved in the criminal justice system that disabled people are somehow unreliable or incredible witnesses, simply because of their disability. That is another dangerous and fatal assumption, which, I am afraid, has played far too great a part in the criminal justice system and has prejudiced and stopped cases involving disabled people. It has ended in miscarriages of justice involving disabled people.
I have mentioned the guidance, which was welcome. It followed a speech made by Lord Macdonald when he was Director of Public Prosecutions, which I think helped to clarify the CPS’s position and its understanding of disability. I welcomed his comments about the concept of hate. We have to be careful when using the word “hate”; we must make clear what it covers. The danger with the word is that hate is an extreme concept, so we think that there cannot be many people in our society capable of it. The definition, however, is a wider one, and includes hostility or prejudice. What does that mean? There are other words for hostility, such as unfriendliness, antagonism, meanness and sheer ignorance. That is particularly important when we consider that many acts are perpetrated over a long period. We have heard about many sad cases, both today and elsewhere, that involve the victims of a crime finally suffering the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It is important to remember that “hate” has a wide definition and involves a whole section of attitudes that I believe are bred from ignorance and sheer lack of understanding of the needs of disabled people. That leads to offences that take place on many levels; low-level offences can cause so much misery to the lives of disabled people.
We have been rightly reminded of the provisions of section 146 of the 2003 Act. To be fair to the drafters of that welcome provision, it says that the court “must” treat the fact that the offence was committed in an aggravating way when the offender, immediately at the time of the offence, or before or after it, demonstrated hostility based on the disability or presumed disability of the victim. The provisions are there; they are mandatory. The problem is with the previous stage, because there must be evidence of hostility beforehand, which is where the work of prosecutors becomes extremely important.
The guidelines include a welcome set of considerations that all prosecutors should consider when reviewing cases involving disability. They are the sort of factors that we have discussed today, such as previous incidents involving the victim and the offender. Are the incidents escalating in severity or frequency? Is the targeting becoming systematic and regular, rather than opportunistic offending? On the status of the offender, we have heard about so-called “friends” who befriend people and then manipulate the circumstances. A lot of proper questions are being asked in the guidelines. The key now is to ensure that in every case, those considerations are applied, looked at and checked in each case file.
Key actions could be taken now to help both prosecutors and sentencers. For example, section 146 should be flagged up as a consideration in every case file, so that when prosecutors assess and prepare the evidence, any sentencer is aware of it. In open court, the prosecuting solicitor or barrister should remind the court of their powers under section 146. Such nuts-and-bolts practical measures could see the sort of increase in the use of section 146 that was rightly referred to by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), and which we all want to happen.
Court practitioners and judges need more training on disability issues, most notably the use of section 146. The key point that I found, depressingly, time and time again is that the equation between disability and reliability has to be broken. We have to break that link in the hearts and minds of those involved in the system.
In respect of the whole question of sentence uplifts, the ECHR report stated that sentence uplifts have never been applied to any prosecution of rape or sexual assault where the victim was a disabled person. Is the point about the question of unreliability of people as witnesses, which the hon. Gentleman has just made, a factor in that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will address his point directly. There is no doubt in my mind that prosecutors who face a case where the victim has disabilities feel that somehow the prosecution will be an uphill struggle. Far too often, the use of special measures is not considered as much as it should be. For example, in a case that I was involved in, a person with a moderate learning disability was the victim of a rape. Through the help of an intermediary, the person was able to give evidence through a video link and a conviction was secured. The intermediary was a speech and language therapist. She was not only able to give confidence to the victim, but was there to assist the court if there was any ambiguity or lack of clarity to the jury in what the victim was saying. It was a most encouraging exercise, not only in achieving a fair result, but in making sure that the voice of that person was heard.
The role of intermediaries should be expanded and encouraged, not viewed as an unusual event in our courts. I think that there was an instinctive suspicion among practitioners that somehow the use of an intermediary would dilute the victim’s evidence, or would in some way interfere with the process of giving evidence. Those concerns are unfounded. People should think of intermediaries as officers who help the court, rather than people who somehow manipulate or interfere with the evidence. That is not my experience, nor that of many other people who have successfully used intermediaries. To put it bluntly, if the intermediary had not been there to assist the witness in that very serious offence of rape, I do not believe that we would have secured a conviction. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.
It has already been said that in the past four years, despite the fact that there are 10 million disabled people in the UK, only 1,200 cases of hate crime have been prosecuted. On the basis of a recent Scope survey, conducted in May 2011, that is an incredibly low figure. The survey revealed that almost 60% of disabled people had experienced hostility, aggression or violence due to their impairment, and that half of disabled people said that they experience hostility on at least a weekly basis. Almost 40% of disabled people said that hostility had got worse in the past year. If we extrapolate those figures, we see that millions of people are suffering in silence or, when their voice is heard, that the situation is not being effectively dealt with by the authorities.
We have come a long way since society wished to institutionalise disabled people and wholly shut them out from the mainstream, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that when disabled people, rightly, access mainstream life, they do not become vulnerable because of the circumstances in which they put themselves. We must all, as a society, stop asking these dangerous questions: why do they come out into the mainstream and why do they put themselves in those positions? Let us focus on the offender. Let us focus on the offending. With that approach, we can achieve real results in the field of disability hate crime.
I start by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate. I recognise that she has long been a champion on the issue. As someone who sat on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill Committee, I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will table amendments in the House of Lords to offer disabled victims of crime the same protection as those who are targeted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. The provisions were pushed for by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston and by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).
Although I am particularly pleased to learn that the Government will be tabling those amendments, I hope that they will seek to build on experience north of the border. In 2010, Scotland became the first country in Europe to have specific disability hate crime legislation on its statute book. The Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) (Scotland) Act 2009 makes provision for statutory aggravations that can be attached to offences motivated by prejudice towards disabled or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and requires courts to say what impact, if any, those aggravating factors have had on sentencing.
In Scotland, any criminal offence that is partly or wholly motivated by prejudice on such grounds is to be dealt with as a hate crime all the way through the system. For example, the offence could be assault, vandalism, verbal threats, abuse that could be charged as breach of the peace, or any other crime. If the person committing the offence uses disability-prejudiced language, or if there is any other evidence of a prejudiced motive, that makes it a hate crime. If anyone witnessing a crime thinks it was a hate crime, the police must record it as a hate incident. If there is any evidence of a hate motive—for example, prejudiced language—it will be charged as a hate crime. If the person charged is found guilty, the hate motive will be taken into account in sentencing, and the court must say publicly what difference the hate motive made to the sentence.
It is interesting to hear about the experience in Scotland, from which I am sure we can learn. I was very interested in what the hon. Gentleman said—that if anyone identifies the crime as a hate crime it must be treated as a hate crime. Is it not also important to recognise that although victims themselves often specifically exclude the possibility that it was a hate crime, that in itself should not be taken at face value, because there may be all sorts of pressures on them not to identify it as such?
I absolutely agree. In fact, the hon. Lady’s intervention feeds very nicely into my next point. Twenty years ago, when I was going through basic training as a police officer, racial incidents were going through the self-same process. When someone was the target of a racial incident and did not necessarily feel that it was one, the fact that someone else had witnessed the incident was sufficient to make it a racial incident. That was the test that I was taught to use 20 years ago. I have to admit that at the time it felt excessive, but it was only thus that such crimes and incidents became generally unacceptable. In that way, there was a move to general agreement that much of the racist language of the ’70s and ’80s, which was tolerated by the silent majority, was derisive and abusive. Such a move is required in attitudes to disability hate crime, and is massively overdue. I trust that the Minister will be able to assure us that the amendments that the Government have now promised to table in the Lords will go further and build on the experience in Scotland, affording a similar level of protection in England and Wales.
The announcement from the Government signals recognition, welcome to us all, of the need to tackle those despicable crimes. It is also heartening for me to help push forward the agenda that my predecessor in Edinburgh West worked on in the previous Parliament. Responding to a parliamentary question tabled by my predecessor, John Barrett, in April 2008, the then Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said:
“The Home Office is responsible for the police recorded statistics. Statistics are collected on the number of racially or religiously aggravated offences but no information is available on those offences which are specifically ‘disability hate’ crimes.”—[Official Report, 29 April 2008; Vol. 475, c. 330W.]
I welcome what the Government have already done, specifically the coalition commitment to improve the recording of such crimes. Since April 2011, all police forces now report hate crimes centrally. Published data from the Association of Chief Police Officers show increases in the number of disability hate crimes reported in 2010—a 21.3% increase on the recorded figures in 2009. This must be one of the few areas where we can welcome a large increase in reported crime, as it shows that the push for people to report the crimes is having an effect.
I await the promised hate crime action plan and the Government response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry, but it is positive that the issue is finally receiving the attention that it deserves, although of course it is a shame that this or any Government have to tackle it at all. Such horrific cases as the killings of Brent Martin, Steven Hoskin or Fiona Pilkington should assault our consciousness as a decent society and daily remind us how serious the situation can become if left unchecked. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission noted in its “Hidden in plain sight” inquiry, we need to look at preventive strategies alongside any legislative changes, ensuring that we nip in the bud such attitudes and behaviours before they escalate. We also need to address the wider geographical, social and economic factors, identified in the Commission’s research, that can leave disabled people and others at greater risk.
A change of attitude in this country is vital. After all, it is not disabled people who create their oppression, it is others. As previously said, and as Sir Ken Macdonald so eloquently argued in one of his final speeches as Director of Public Prosecutions, we must overcome a prevailing assumption that disabled people’s intrinsic vulnerability explains the risk that they face, an assumption unsupported by evidence. At best, that had led to protectionism, constraining rather than expanding the individual freedom and opportunity that greater safety and security should provide. Only by extending the same expectations of safety and security to disabled people as to everyone else can we truly address the deficits in our current approach and wake up to the need to act. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on those points as well.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We are currently finishing an inquiry into independent living, which has looked at various aspects such as access to welfare, housing and employment and the differences in provision between different local authorities and nations. We have even had the Minister along recently to answer various questions about Government policy. However, I now realise that we have omitted investigation of a basic element. A constituent part of ensuring access to independent living is laid out in article 3 of the universal declaration of human rights:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and”—
crucially—“security of person.” What is clear from many of the dreadful examples that we have heard today is that that security is put at risk daily by the criminal acts of a few, which are unfortunately tolerated by many more.
As a member of the JCHR, I have also taken note of the EHRC’s endorsement of the mechanisms of the Human Rights Act 1998, which it says are essential for the protection of human rights in the United Kingdom. The EHRC also argues that the existing law is well crafted to balance Britain’s international obligations with its constitutional conventions. In particular, the existing Act preserves parliamentary sovereignty and the role of British judges in interpreting the legislation, and has allowed many people to exercise their basic rights without the time and expense of taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that the Minister can reassure me and other members of the Joint Committee that any revision of the Human Rights Act will not change that crucial lifeline for those who are disabled.
In conclusion, I welcome the issue finally receiving the attention it deserves. I await further concrete steps by the Government to deal with this hidden crime.
Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak. I appreciate that it is far more important for the Chamber to listen to the Front Benchers, so I shall be very brief, which is a challenge, because I feel strongly about the subject. I have been very impressed by the speeches today, in particular those from my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart). I want to focus on one area only.
What is incredibly important around disability hate crime is the use of language and how we approach it. I do not believe that Whitehall knows best. I shall give the Chamber a quick example to ponder. I remember a good friend of mine who is a wheelchair user telling me a few years ago the reason he hated being patronised far more than he hated someone being angry with or unpleasant to him. When he was patronised he felt shamed, and he did not know how to respond, which is perfectly normal. If I am patronised, even though I know the person is wrong, I feel shamed—that is human nature. He gave an example of being ignored in a restaurant, but his partner, who is not in a wheelchair, was addressed—he would feel that sense of shame. He said, “The thing is, Stephen, even though I did not like either, the advantage of when someone is unpleasant is that I feel angry, and that gives me a sense of empowerment.”
That point might be a little counter-intuitive within such a brief discussion, but my real point is that I want the Government and all politicians across the piece who feel so strongly about the issue to be intelligent about it. We do not want to go back to what we had many years ago, when disabled people were seen only as victims, which was counter-productive and appalling. Disabled people have fought hard over the past 15 years to stop that. I want the Government to take it on board that this is about listening to how disabled people want them to deal with hate crimes. That will help them to achieve a much more productive and sensible way forward to nail this, rather than ever going back down the road of saying, “You poor disabled person, you are a victim and you just need protecting.” That is not what the disability fight has been all about. Lord knows, I know, because I have been with it for 20 years.
I am delighted to be in the Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I have known you for more years than either of us cares to remember, so it is a pleasure to find ourselves in this situation this morning.
I echo the remarks of others and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on initiating this important debate. I thank other colleagues—my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) and the hon. Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland)—for their powerful comments. I also thank colleagues from Northern Ireland who participated in the debate. The question was asked about this being a UK issue; it is definitely a UK issue. Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report makes recommendations for the devolved Administrations, which I hope they will be able to pursue.
As others in the Chamber have said, it is to our collective shame as a society that we are having to consider such a report 11 years into the 21st century. We are supposed to be committed to a road map for equality for disabled people, yet we are considering a document that highlights the antagonism, harassment, assault and even murder inflicted on those whose only crime was that they were disabled and were therefore seen as a legitimate target by those who sought to harm them.
It is difficult to read the report without becoming angry about the fact that, after the passing of two disability discrimination Acts, an equality Act, the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, which is now the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the signing and ratification of the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, the Autism Act 2009, the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, and the introduction of public sector duties, our society still sees disabled people being abused daily and regularly becoming victims of violent crime. That is the picture that has been presented to us in the report.
The lessons are stark. For example, public authorities such as police and social services have often been aware of harassment of individuals, but no action has been taken. Even when the harassment escalates, it is often the case that little effective action is taken to protect the disabled person, which often results, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, in an escalation of the victimisation of the disabled person. When action has been taken, it has often been unco-ordinated, with little exchange or intelligence sharing among those public authorities that were duty-bound to be part of the support network for the disabled person.
As has been alluded to, research shows that some 60% of disabled people have been the victim of some sort of hostility, violence or aggression from strangers. As the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, there is increasing awareness that some disabled people are victimised and abused by people who are known to them. To echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, it is particularly worrying that, according to Mencap, nine out of 10 people with learning disabilities have experienced such abusive behaviour, and there is evidence to suggest that such behaviour is on the increase. I will come to that later.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report says that disabled people are more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled people. That reflects a pattern of disadvantage for disabled people in many spheres, including education, health outcomes and access to services. More worrying—I hope that we do not lose sight of this point—is the fact that many disabled people have come to accept that that is an unwelcome but almost inevitable part of their daily lives. What a devastating indictment it is that we have disabled citizens who believe that abuse and harassment, or worse, come with the territory and are things they must put up with.
I congratulate Mike Smith, lead commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry, who was extremely challenging in his foreword to the report. His words are worth quoting:
“For me, two things come out of this inquiry that are far more shocking than the 10 cases that we cover in more detail, awful as they are. The first is just how much harassment seems to be going on. It’s not just some extreme things happening to a handful of people: it’s an awful lot of unpleasant things happening to a great many people, almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands each year.”
That echoes the experience of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which is that even someone with his awareness found out that someone in his street was being abused. Mike Smith’s second point was that
“no one knows about it. Schools don’t know how many disabled pupils are bullied; local authorities and registered social landlords don’t know how many antisocial behaviour victims are disabled; health services don’t know how many assault victims are disabled; police don’t know how many victims of crime are disabled; the courts don’t know how many disabled victims have access to special measures”
and so on. That is the picture that Mike Smith paints today.
Although the cases are horrible individually, collectively they are truly horrific. Michael Gilbert was a young man with an undiagnosed mental health condition whose dismembered body was found near Luton. He was murdered after years of torture by the Watt family. He had been in contact with police on various occasions, but was never afforded the protection he deserved. Steven Hoskin was a 38-year-old with learning disabilities who was found dead at the bottom of a 100-foot railway viaduct in St Austell, Cornwall. He had been tortured for years before his death, and suffered various
injuries inflicted upon him by people he knew. He had been tied up, dragged round by a lead, imprisoned, burned with cigarettes, humiliated, and violently and repeatedly abused in his own home.
One would think that going to the hairdresser was a safe activity for a disabled person. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston raised this matter and said that a young man did a normal thing and went to a hairdresser, but the hairdresser thought he would have a bit of fun at that young man’s expense. Something that links back to the comments of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) is the fact that although we may believe that the sentence was not adequate—I believe it was 200 hours of unpaid work, compensation and court costs—the magistrates increased it by using section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allowed tougher sentences for disability hate crimes. Police, prosecutors and magistrates won praise for the way they co-ordinated their action and used that provision. A little light was shed on the situation.
I ask the Minister to address the Government’s responsibilities concerning the environment in which disabled people live their lives. We have heard a great deal about the cultural environment in which we work, and we have heard about the Scope report. We have not heard about the second part of the report, but it says that 65% of disabled people thought that others did not believe that they were disabled, and 73% thought that others presumed that they did not work.
Leaving aside the debate on whether the Government are on the right track with their welfare reform—that is for another Chamber and another time—the daily feeding to the media of press releases and distortion of figures, and the calling into question whether people really are disabled, has changed the landscape for disabled people. Glasgow university’s monitoring report showed a dramatic increase in the number of media articles related to disability fraud. When its focus group was asked for a disability story, it typically came up with benefit fraud. Is it any wonder that we are seeing cases such as the one reported last week in South Shields, where Peter Greener, a wheelchair user with a brain condition, suffered months of taunts about being a benefit scrounger, stone throwing and harassment by his neighbour, who thought he was exaggerating his disability?
We have heard stories about the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions being enraged when he was told by his Department that no precise figures for the number of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who receive free cars were available. The paper concerned had to correct the story the following week, at the prompting of not the Department, but a disability organisation. It does not help disabled people to live their lives when statements are made that disability living allowance is available just by filling in a form. The Minister knows, and I know, that that is not a true picture.
I say with the greatest respect—I exempt the Minister from making such outrageous comments; she has conducted the debate with a measured approach—that she should challenge some of the more outrageous and outlandish comments by some of her senior colleagues, because they are creating an atmosphere that is to the greater disadvantage of disabled people, and that causes fear and uncertainty in their lives.
We can have the debate about welfare reform, but we must ensure that the language—the hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to this—with which we discuss these issues is that of moderation, which recognises that people have their own dignity, and that they are entitled to be treated with dignity and not be encapsulated in some cheap media headline.
I appreciate that the Minister has a very short time in which to respond. I look forward to that response and congratulate her and other colleagues on allowing us to have this important debate.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I commend the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing this debate. It has given us all an opportunity to focus on this issue in what has been an extremely informed, lively and useful debate.
I will try to respond to as many issues as possible in the time that I have available. There is a great deal of ground to cover. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) put his finger on the issue when he said that we need to change attitudes, as we saw happen for the victims of domestic violence. That brought home to me the issue that we need to deal with here. I absolutely agree with what he said.
In 2008, the then Director of Public Prosecutions said something that many hon. Members would agree with: the issue of disability hate crime is a scar on the conscience of the criminal justice system. It is important that we recognise, both within the House and outside, the magnitude of the problem that we face. Any form of discrimination against disabled people is absolutely unacceptable. Hate crime is a particularly disgusting and disgraceful abuse of disabled people, which has no place in civilised society. Working with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations and raising awareness through debates such as today’s is a way of trying to continue to change attitudes, which was a theme in hon. Members’ contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) talked about the importance of the way in which we handle this matter. He made the important point that disabled people do not want to be treated as victims. Our starting point must be that disabled people have to be absolutely clear that they are adequately protected by the law. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston wanted to know about practical things that the Government are doing now. She is absolutely right that warm words are not enough, so I will cut straight to the quick.
We have made a commitment in our coalition agreement to improve recording, and we are delivering on that. I do not need to rehearse with the hon. Lady the work that we are doing in that area. We have also supported the work that Radar is doing to improve reporting across the country, and I am pleased that one of our staff from the Office for Disability Issues has been seconded to help in that work. We are also working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that it is doing all it can. We have heard from hon. Members today that there are more than 1,500 recorded disability hate crime offences. I think that that is the tip of the iceberg and we need to continue to work hard on that.
Several hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), raised the issue of sentencing. I will take a couple of minutes to dwell on that, because it is complex. We have heard that we can perhaps learn something from Scotland, for which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West. We are committed to ensuring that everybody has the freedom to live their lives free from the fear of targeted hostility or harassment on the grounds of a particular characteristic, including disability. On section 146, undue leniency and aggravating factors—issues that hon. Members have raised today—we are absolutely open to looking at how the law is working in practice, particularly around section 146 and any inconsistencies by the court. We are always looking at evidence that suggests that courts consider their powers insufficient to deal with such cases.
We will be considering carefully the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and we will respond to them. I am pleased to note that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), has already met Mencap and the National Autistic Society to discuss these matters in detail. I want to go one stage further for the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston to underline my concern and commitment to ensure that we see action. I will undertake to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Justice and also Mencap and any other organisations that have an interest to ensure that we are delivering not just warm words but action in this area.
Hon. Members have noted the important progress that we have made with regard to sentencing. They may be interested to know that in September I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice to underline the need for change to resolve the issues around schedule 21. I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Justice was able to confirm the Government’s intention to publish amendments in the other place, so that murders motivated by hostility towards disabled people will have the same sentencing starting point of 30 years as those aggravated by race, religion and sexual orientation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) made an extremely impassioned contribution to the debate. I welcome his insight. He raised the issue of mate crime. Mencap’s work in this area has been extremely helpful. Crimes targeted at disabled people by friends, relatives and carers are a significant challenge for the criminal justice agencies and the Government. I reassure him that the issue is seen as a priority.
I was pleased to see Mencap’s “Stand by Me” charter. It is something that individual police forces and chief constables are able to support, and I encourage them to do so. Recognising hate crime and improving its reporting must be a continued priority. We have 19 organisations that work to support victims of hate crime. We have made sure that additional funding is available for the work that they do. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to the organisation that I met with him in Blackpool and the excellent work that it does with the support of Stephen Brookes. I want to reiterate his comments.
Other hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), raised the issue of devolution and the importance of a UK-wide approach. Perhaps he will be reassured to know that the ACPO lead on hate crime is a Northern Ireland police officer. Although there are devolved issues in terms of crime and justice, ACPO is ensuring that we are all working closely together.
Hon. Members will know that the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its report in September. On the back of that report, I took the opportunity to write to relevant Ministers to underline my support for its work and to highlight the requirements of the public sector equality duty, which must be considered in their response. The recommendations are being considered at the moment and will be reflected in the cross-government action plan, which I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to know will be published early next year. It was important that we had the EHRC report to reflect on first.
I have demonstrated that there has been absolutely no pause in the work of the Government to tackle disability hate crime while the action plan is being considered. Indeed, action across Government continues to be critical, which is an issue that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised. I want to reassure her that we have important structures in place around the independent advisory group, which continues to advise across Government. We are also about to engage in a major new piece of work to look at how we can change attitudes towards disabled people, which was at the heart of much of today’s debate. Over the next few months, I look forward to working with disabled people on those issues.
The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) mentioned the portrayal of disabled people in the media. She and I are as one on this.