I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Crown Prosecution Service’s approach to prosecuting disability hate crime.
It is nice to speak in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Bone. I welcome the Government’s action plan for tackling hate crime. I know others have been less complimentary because they do not see, for example, a “prevent agenda” for disability hate crime in it. Nevertheless, it is important to hold on to the plan that the Government have produced. “Action Against Hate” sets out that
“Any crime that is motivated by hostility on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity can be classed as a hate crime.”
There are three categories of hate crime in legislation: incitement to hatred offences on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation; specific racially and religiously motivated criminal offences, such as common assault; and provisions for enhanced sentencing where a crime is motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity.
It is worth noting that annex A of the plan sets out the College of Policing’s hate crime operational guidance and shared definitions established by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That guidance goes into a little more detail for those who will implement the actions on the ground, so to speak. Disability hate crime remains both underreported and under-prosecuted. That needs to change.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that improving the understanding of disability hate crime among prosecutors is an essential step in giving more victims the confidence they need to come forward, as we have seen in other areas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will touch on that point a little later.
We are seeing intolerance rising, particularly in relation to disability, which does not lie well in a society where we claim to be liberal and tolerant. I increasingly get the sense of an intolerance to all sorts of people since the referendum—I do not want to bring that issue up, but it is important that we do not pretend that things have not happened and are not happening. In fact, even the most eminent people such as Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice; Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls; and Lord Justice Sir Philip Sales are not immune to the pervading intolerance stalking the country. I deplore the abuse of those public servants for doing what, at the end of the day, is their job.
Even the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it was “seriously concerned” about British politicians’ rhetoric in the lead-up to and following the referendum. Reports indicated that immediately following the referendum, hate crimes surged by 42% in England and Wales, with a total of 3,076 incidents recorded across the country between 16 and 20 June. That rise was in less than one week, and it almost inevitably raises concerns about hate crime in a broader sense and particular groups’ prospects in the future.
For clarity, the disability hate crime statistics I am about to use are from the CPS’s own website on 13 July 2016. It said:
“The volume of cases referred to the CPS by the police for a charging decision increased from 849 in 2014/15 to 930 in 2015/16, an increase of 9.5%.”
It went on to say that the number of convictions had gone up over the two years from 503 in 2014-15 to 707 last year—a big increase of 40.6%. The conviction rate remained broadly consistent over the two years at 75.1%, which I believe compares with an 83% conviction rate for all other hate crimes. Finally, it said:
“The proportion of successful outcomes arising from guilty pleas was 66.1% in 2014/15 and fell slightly to 63.4% in 2015/16.”
That is the context.
The co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network has stated that those figures underestimate the true scale of the problem due to significant underreporting and believes that as many as 60,000 disability hate crimes could occur annually in the United Kingdom. That is supported by research published by the charity Scope, which has shown that two thirds of disabled people feel they are treated differently because of their disability, and only 40% say the UK is a good place to be a disabled person. That is quite shocking.
Young people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. The Equality and Humans Rights Commission found that 22% of young people with a disability between the ages of 10 and 15 had been the victim of a crime in the previous 12 months, compared with only 12% of their non-disabled counterparts. Similarly, 35% of those with social or behavioural impairments such as autism, attention deficit disorder or Asperger’s syndrome had found themselves victims of a crime. Young people and those with behavioural impairments commonly fail to report hate crimes out of fear and a lack of confidence, which goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie).
We often forget the long-lasting damage and devastating effect these crimes can have on not only those subject to abuse but their families. In fact, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said in the media release accompanying the statistics I referred to:
“My message is that a hate crime is exactly that—a crime—and will not be ignored. Hate crime creates fear and has a devastating impact on individuals and communities. Nobody should have to go about their day to day life in fear of being attacked.”
Many victims of hate crime suffer long-lasting fear and anxiety, which has a detrimental impact on their physical and mental health, leaving them cut off and in many cases afraid to leave their house or go to public places.
The Disability Hate Crime Network found through a survey of 100 disabled people that the most common place for disability hate crime to happen is on the high street, followed closely by public transport. Others mentioned the local shop, the pub and social media—social media crops up time and again. The research found that the majority of perpetrators are white and that over half the attacks are conducted by groups of people, rather than just one individual, so there is ganging up. Furthermore, 75% of disability hate crime defendants are men. These hate crimes include verbal abuse and physical abuse, with instances of disabled people being pushed out of their wheelchairs, blocked from accessing disabled ramps and being denied a seat or space on public transport. What kind of people do those things? The research also found that a large amount of the underlying motivation for disability hate crimes is the view that disabled people are on benefits and are therefore lazy and “scroungers”. That is what the research found—it is not an opinion; the evidence is there.
It is telling that disability hate crime has gone up in the past five years, in parallel with the perceived, if not actual, robust approach of the Department of Work and Pensions to disabled people and changes to, for example, the work capability assessment scheme. There have also been regular television series with a morbid fixation, such as “Saints and Scroungers”, “On Benefits and Proud” or “Benefits Street”; the list goes on. I do not want to politicise the issue, but there may be—I will go no further than that—a link between the rhetoric from some, which appears to single out those on disability living allowance and insinuate that a large proportion of those on benefits are somehow cheating the system, and the rise in disability hate crime in the United Kingdom today. There is a danger of going back to the deserving and undeserving poor, but no one knows which is which because of the environment we are operating in. Whether we like it or not, this is a milieu in which hate crime flourishes. We need less rhetoric and a more concentrated effort to raise awareness of disability, as my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Down indicated, and of other sorts of hate crime and to provide better support and guidance so that people can recognise and report hate crime without fear, concern, trepidation or worry. National Hate Crime Awareness Week, which is usually in mid-October, creates a good opportunity to do that.
We need to do more to raise awareness of disabilities that are not physical, focusing on those involving social or behavioural impairments that affect memory, learning, understanding or concentration because people with such disabilities also find themselves victims of crime far too often.
There is room for best practice to be shared, particularly that from areas that have piloted schemes to help disabled people to report hate crimes. Leonard Cheshire Disability piloted a particularly successful programme in Northern Ireland. The Be Safe, Stay Safe programme provides support and education for carers and disabled people on their rights and how best to report hate crimes. In 2014-15, the scheme, in partnership with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, provided support in 126 incidents of hate crime against disabled people.
The Be Safe, Stay Safe programme uses social media to reach out to disabled people who have been victims of disability hate crimes, including online hate crimes. It launched the Support to Report campaign to raise awareness of disability hate crime with allied professionals, clinicians, social care workers and others in the disability sector, as well as MPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly, which I am sure my hon. Friends are aware of. I would like to know whether the Government would consider replicating such a scheme more widely. After all, the Government’s current action plan states:
“Despite good progress since the last Action Plan, hate crime against disabled people remains a particular challenge. We will look at current best practice examples in tackling disability hate crime and work with partner organisations and the police to promote safety for disabled people.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some disabled people need particular support in reporting hate crime and will he join me in paying tribute to Disability Equality North West, which serves both our constituencies and is based just across the river in Preston in my constituency?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. So many voluntary organisations, charities, local government and other agencies do really good work in this area and it would be helpful to have examples of good practice that we can feed into a national database.
I welcome the Crown Prosecution Service’s consultation on hate crime, which was launched in October at about the same time as its 30th birthday, so happy birthday CPS. At the end of the day, the responsibility lies largely with the Government to set the environment in which the Crown Prosecution Service can pursue people responsible for hate crimes against disabled people. It is a team effort for all of us.
In England, some crimes are aggravated by hostility towards disability and those convicted seem to have been given unduly lenient sentences. I recognise that the CPS often comes in for a good deal of criticism in one way or another: that it is either too robust or wishy-washy in its pursuit of alleged offenders. As with most things, I suspect that some criticism is fair and some is unfair, but in the context of the clear levels of disability hate crime out there, the CPS must show that it takes disability hate crime extremely seriously; that it is doing all it can to improve prosecution and conviction rates; and that it ensures consistency across the country.
I have some questions based on the CPS’s October 2014 disability hate crime action plan. It was going to set out a hate crime assurance regime by December 2014. Did it? Is it being monitored? Is it continuing? It said it would refresh the national minimum standards for area hate crime co-ordination. Has that happened? Where is it up to? It talked about detailed analysis, including case examples, of hate crime to monitor victims’ experiences and to follow them up. Has that been completed? Is it being repeated? Where is it at?
The CPS talked about enhancements to the case management system of monitoring and recording applications for sentence uplifts—the section 146 question. Has that been done? How many, if any, uplifts have been applied for and granted? Has there been an analysis of that landscape? It said it would reissue clear guidance to prosecutors and agents to ensure sentence uplift applications are made whenever possible. Has it been reassessed and reviewed? Where is that up to?
The CPS said there would be retraining in the full range of offending to ensure that prosecutors fully understand the different forms of disability. Has that happened? Has it been reviewed and will it be reviewed again?
Has the CPS’s senior management conference had the session on disability hate crime that was promised in its action plan? If so, fab, but will it be repeated and will it be a regular event at conferences? Has the liaison with the judiciary that was promised to discuss recording and monitoring of sentence uplifts taken place, and is it regular event? A one-off event is fine, but we need regular contact with the judiciary. How is the CPS’s hate crime sub-group of its community accountability forum proceeding? It would be helpful to know where that is up to. Is it being repeated? Is it up to date? Is it meeting as often as it should? What action is it taking?
I turn to Dimensions, which is a not-for-profit charity that supports 3,500 people throughout the country who have learning disabilities, autism and complex needs. It produced a blueprint for change, “I'm with Sam”, which sets out a salutary and moving narrative, which hon. Members may wish to read. It is a fairly short and concise document and well worth reading. Among other things, it asks the CPS to improve investigation protocols in the criminal justice system when there is a learning disabilities victim. It would be helpful to have a view on whether that might happen. In addition, it seeks better training for police officers and others to help when receiving a report of a crime involving a person with a learning disability. Again, accessibility to the system is crucial, as is the ability for people to have a sympathetic ear from those who are trained or at least have some knowledge of their needs.
At a wider level, we need to engender a culture of disability awareness and give confidence to victims of hate crime that they can come forward and will be listened to. The Government need to encourage and take a lead in creating an atmosphere in which the tone of debate about policy issues, many of which they have initiated, is moderate and reasonable. The last thing this country needs is another round of finger-pointing at the latest collective bête noire. I agree with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who said in the action plan:
“Tolerance is not something we can take for granted. It is a cornerstone of British values and one of the many reasons we are great.”
If people are not prepared to be tolerant and feel able to abuse vulnerable people, perhaps they should not expect the police and the CPS to be too tolerant towards them. In that respect, there is an expectation from most, if not all, hon. Members that the CPS will redouble its efforts, along with other law enforcement agencies, to send the message to thugs, cowards and bullies—because that is what they are—that the abuse of any vulnerable people, and in this case disabled people, will not be tolerated.
Finally, it is often not sensible to talk of personal experience, but I will make an exception today. I was brought up by a woman, a single parent, a war widow, a Christian, of Irish descent, who in her later years was disabled by partial sightedness. Each of those characteristics, in different situations, in different circumstances, in a different age, could have led to her being the victim of intolerance or hatred, and I think that sometimes she was, so she taught me that toleration was not a gift that was given to someone, but a duty that was owed to them, whoever they were—even to me when I was egregiously problematic to her. Her patience was boundless in that regard, and she was incredibly tolerant.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing the debate. It is timely because, as he will know, the CPS is currently consulting on its policy for prosecuting disability hate crime. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General will ensure that the Hansard record of this debate is forwarded to the CPS as input to the consultation, so that it can hear the views of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber and from all parts of the United Kingdom.
Most of what the hon. Member for Bootle said I can agree with. I might take him to task on just one little bit towards the end of his remarks, but generally he set out the case very well and there was a great deal of consensus. I certainly support him in his contention about the nature of the people who carry out disability hate crime. He is absolutely right: they are thugs, cowards and bullies. I want to see the strongest possible response not just from the police and those who support people with disabilities, but from the CPS, so that people know that if they bring those cases forward and the police collect the evidence, there will be a robust prosecution response.
The hon. Gentleman cited the figures. The heartening thing is that in the most recent data, from this July, the CPS demonstrated that it had prosecuted a record number of hate crimes. We can always be either depressed or optimistic about this sort of data. It is always depressing to see the number of hate crimes going up, or those being prosecuted going up, because it can be said that the problem is getting worse. However, on the basis that certainly in the area of disability hate crime, and hate crime generally, it is accepted that more of it occurs than is tackled, the right way to read the statistics is that we are seeing more of the problem, capturing more of the problem and tackling more of the problem. In a funny sort of way, a set of statistics that shows more referrals to the police, more referrals to the CPS, more prosecutions and more convictions is actually good news, because it shows an increase not in the hate crime but in the ability of the system to tackle it. However, I understand from those who know this field best that a big gap still exists between the problem and the ability of the system to tackle it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention a 41% increase in hate crime prosecutions, compared with the previous year, and the highest proportion of sentence uplifts, which is very welcome. Four in five hate crimes in general result in a conviction, so that should give victims confidence that if they report a hate crime, it will be properly looked at and properly prosecuted and there is a very good chance that the cowards, bullies and thugs that the hon. Gentleman referred to will be properly dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman quoted the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has sent a very clear message that hate crime will not be ignored but will be taken seriously by Crown prosecutors. That is worth repeating.
It is also worth saying that—to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he did recognise this—the coalition Government had, and this Conservative Government have, a plan to tackle hate crime. The hon. Gentleman was not as enthusiastic as I will be, but he did welcome that plan. It will always be capable of improvement, and I have some questions for the Solicitor General about areas that I and some organisations think could be improved, but having a plan is very good.
The action plan that was published this July deals with prevention, with how we respond to the problem, with reporting, with supporting victims and with understanding the problem by being better at collecting the data and setting out the issues.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that awareness by a victim that they are actually the subject of a hate crime is very important, because in some of these cases the criminal is not a stranger? Does he also agree that campaigns—such as the one by the Lancashire police and crime commissioner, “Say No To Hate”—which raise awareness, are good for everyone because victims have more awareness that they have actually been subject to a hate crime?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will say more later about disability hate crime, particularly against people with learning disabilities. In that respect, raising awareness of what is a hate crime, whether someone has been a victim of it and what they should do as a result is particularly important, and I join my hon. Friend in commending the efforts of her law enforcement bodies locally.
To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Bootle about prevention, the CPS has produced a resource pack for schools and teachers on hate crime. I do not know what reach that has had into schools and colleges. Perhaps the Solicitor General could say a little about the extent to which that resource pack has got into schools. Does the CPS have any data about the take-up—the extent to which teachers are using the resource pack in their classrooms? It is clearly very helpful, because if children can be educated about treating people with disabilities properly but also, importantly, looking out for other children with disabilities, that will help the younger people whom the hon. Gentleman talked about. It will help them as they grow up and will improve the ability of society to deal with these problems.
Could the Solicitor General also say something on this progress measure? The CPS has an action plan for dealing with disability hate crime specifically. As the hon. Member for Bootle said, it did a review of training and guidance. That package was delivered across the CPS between last September and this January. I accept, therefore, that it is fairly early days—we have had only nine or 10 months of that training package having been delivered—but I will echo the question asked by the hon. Gentleman about whether we have yet seen any behavioural change in the CPS and any improvement in the way the CPS deals with this sort of crime.
Importantly, the training looked at the victim’s perspective. It looked at increasing sentence uplifts and at prosecutors being more effective at dealing with that, which was particularly helpful. It looked at the guidelines for prosecuting disability hate crime and at the support that some disabled people might need. It looked at the special measures that might have to be incorporated into the courtroom to enable them to give evidence, such as an interpreter or the use of video interviewing methods. Again, it may be too early to have seen huge change there, but it would be helpful if the Solicitor General could say something about that.
The final point that the guidance dealt with is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) just raised. It had some myth-busters, if I can put it like that, to dispel some of the erroneous assumptions that people have about prosecuting disability hate crimes. For example, it made it clear that even if the offender is a carer or family member, it is still a crime. It also made it clear that even if the victim did not have an easily identifiable impairment, which is exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman made, it is still a crime and should be prosecuted.
I wanted to raise a bit of a specialist point with the Solicitor General, who will know that I have recently taken over as chair of the all-party group on learning disability. The secretariat for the group is provided by Mencap, which supports the 1.4 million people with learning disabilities across the UK. Again, Mencap has welcomed what the Government have done on dealing with disability hate crime, but it has a number of questions. It supports the Dimensions campaign, “I’m with Sam”, which the hon. Member for Bootle mentioned, but I want to ask the Solicitor General about a number of issues in particular that it has raised.
How easy is it for people, particularly with a learning disability, to use the system? In my understanding, accessible information and support is not always available to guide them through it. I draw the Solicitor General’s attention to a resource that has been produced in Gloucestershire by students from the National Star College, working with Gloucestershire constabulary, to raise awareness of disability hate crime. That video sets out what disability hate crime is, how people can recognise it and how they can report it and have it dealt with. Much as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble said, that sort of local resource is being taken seriously by my county council, which provides excellent support for people with learning disabilities, and by the police and crime commissioner and Gloucestershire constabulary. All those bodies sending out that powerful message is very helpful. A little bit from the Solicitor General on accessible information would be welcome.
As the hon. Member for Bootle said, Mencap is also interested in looking at using the data better so we can see whether any types of disability hate crime are a particular problem—that might be learning disabilities or people with autism, for example—or whether it is a problem more generally.
The Dimensions campaign asked for a legal change so that online hate crime against people with disabilities is specifically made a crime. I am interested in the Solicitor General’s view on that because, in my understanding, if someone behaves in a certain way online, it is still a crime. It may be more or less difficult to get evidence, but if someone does something that is a crime, the fact that that behaviour happens in the online space does not mean it is not a crime, so I do not know whether it is necessary to change the law specifically to criminalise behaviour online, which is one of the asks in the campaign. It might be helpful if the Solicitor General is very clear in his response that some of the abuse and intolerance that we see online, which the hon. Member for Bootle referred to, is a crime and can be prosecuted. An advantage of online crime in one sense is that it provides a helpful audit trail for police and prosecutors, but I understand that dealing with that is very resource-intensive. It might be helpful if the Solicitor General set out a bit about what is going on there.
I shall make a couple of other points before I finish. The Law Commission has carried out a review into sentencing in this area and has looked at whether the “stirring up offences”, if I may call them that—those that apply currently to race, for example—should be extended to disability. It has concluded that they should not be, but it has made two specific recommendations about sentencing. It said that there should be new guidance from the Sentencing Council about the sentence uplift provisions that are available in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It has also said that when an offender is convicted of a disability hate crime and the sentence uplift is used, the offender’s record on the police national computer should be updated, so that there is a record of that. My understanding is that the Government have not yet responded to those recommendations. I know the Home Office has said that it is keeping them under review and I wonder whether the Solicitor General can provide the House with an update on that before he finishes.
I have a couple of final questions for the Solicitor General. When he was responding in the House of Commons to oral questions, he said that he attended a round table at the national College of Policing in September last year specifically on hate crime and disability hate crime, in particular. It was about sharing best practice across police forces and, of course, the national College of Policing does an excellent job in trying to spread best practice and raise policing standards generally. Will he update the House on any progress that has flowed from that round table, and does he have any further plans in that regard?
Finally, let me turn to the one area of disagreement I had with the hon. Member for Bootle. We agree on the way in which people with disabilities are sometimes reported by the media, but as we have an independent media, politicians are not responsible for what they do. We can suggest to them that they are not being very responsible, but it is not our job to tell them what to print. I do not agree with him, however, about the impact of the Government’s policies on supporting disabled people. I should declare an interest, Mr Bone: before the general election, between July 2014 and March 2015, I was the Minister for Disabled People. The Department’s entire focus—whether it was through our Disability Confident campaign or trying to deliver more help and support for disabled people—was on trying to get disabled people into work where they can. I had a recent debate in Westminster Hall about looking at more opportunities, post-Brexit, for disabled people to get into work. A huge number of people with learning disabilities, for example, could work if they are given the opportunity. They do not get that opportunity. We have seen 350,000 more people with disabilities being given the opportunity to work, so as far as the Government’s messages are concerned—that is what politicians are responsible for; I cannot be responsible for what the media print—they are very clear: they are about providing more opportunity and more help and support.
In the past couple of weeks, a Green Paper was published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the help and support that should be available for getting more disabled people into work where they can work and about increasing the support for disabled people who are not able to work. The messages from the Government have actually been very supportive and I do not think any increase in disability hate crime could fairly be attributed to the policies of the Department for Work and Pensions. The points made by the hon. Member for Bootle may be more advisedly directed to the media, and I hope that they also listen to the debate and behave accordingly.
This has been a very valuable debate and it is an important subject to get on to the agenda. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it and I look forward to the Solicitor General’s response.
May I say what a joy it is to follow the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)? We recall his energies as the Minister for Disabled People and thank him for the good work he put in. It is good to see him here contributing to the debate in a different capacity. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) set the scene so well. This subject is close to my heart and to his, and to the hearts of all who are participating in today’s debate.
This issue has seen some traction recently. More people now understand that to discriminate or target someone due to disability is as bad as targeting someone due to race or religion. It is not acceptable. In this debate we are focusing on hate crimes targeted specifically at those who are disabled. It is just as despicable to pick on someone because of that as it is to pick on someone because of their race or religion. Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 applies to sentencing when the court is considering the seriousness of an offence in which the offender, either at the time of committing the offence or immediately before or after doing so, demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on the victim’s physical or mental disability, or presumed disability; or the offence was motivated by hostility towards persons who have a physical or mental disability or a particular physical or mental disability.
How much those offences rile me personally and each every one of us in this House—those who have spoken before me and those who will speak after me. Such actions are horrible, despicable and clearly unacceptable. When we read about them in the press and in the media, or when we hear about them from constituents who tell us what happens to them, our response is to feel so angry. So again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for giving us all the opportunity to participate in it.
In cases such as I mentioned, the court must treat the fact that the offence was committed in any of those circumstances as an aggravating factor, and must state that in open court. The amount by which the sentence will be increased will depend on the circumstances of the case and the seriousness of the aggravation. There has been an impetus to prosecute more such crimes to send a message, very clearly, that they will not be tolerated in decent society. Can the Solicitor General tell us how many such crimes have been prosecuted in the United Kingdom?
To imagine that someone would be targeted because of their disability is beyond despicable. For that reason, I welcome the news that the CPS has prosecuted a record number of hate crimes—15,442—in the past year, which is a 4.8% rise on the previous year of 2014-15.
The hon. Gentleman, my friend from my neighbouring constituency, is making a compelling case. Does he agree that the Government could demonstrate their commitment to tackling hate crime by publishing a response to the Law Commission’s 2014 consultation paper, which considered extending existing offences? We would like to hear from the Solicitor General on that.
I thank the hon. Lady, who is a friend as well, for her intervention. She has outlined the issue clearly, and I hope that the Minister responds to her point.
The number of prosecutions for the year 2014-15 marked a 4.7% increase on 2013-14, so there has been an increase in the number of prosecutions for the past three years, which indicates that there is a commitment from the Minister’s Department and the CPS to make changes and prosecute these crimes. I will come to more figures later in my speech, but the number of crimes is enormous. The number of prosecutions is just the scrape of the scab, the tip of the iceberg or whatever other descriptive phrase we might use. The CPS’s eighth hate crime report details a
“41% increase in disability hate crime prosecutions compared to 2014/15”.
Even online hate crimes are being successfully prosecuted, and this message must be spread widely: people cannot hide their prejudice or hatred behind a keyboard and a laptop and think that it will protect them. It does not, it cannot and it never should. More than four in five prosecuted hate crimes result in a conviction, with more than 73% of those charged pleading guilty. In 2015-16, recorded sentence uplifts reached 33.8%, which shows a good use of the legislation for what it was designed to do.
I thank the Minister and his Department for what has been done, because it is positive, but I will outline something that I have said, that other Members have said and that those who speak after me today will say. In a written question some time ago, I asked the Attorney General
“what progress his Department has made on providing disability hate crime training for all prosecutors; and what improvements this training will bring to conviction rates.”
It is important to have training in place so that we have people who know how to respond. The answer was:
“Mandatory training relating to disability hate crime was delivered, across the Crown Prosecution Service, between September 2015 and January 2016. Prosecutors will deploy the knowledge gained from the training in the course of prosecutions thereby improving performance. The CPS are enhancing the support provided to prosecutors in dealing with crimes committed against disabled people. They are reviewing their policy and legal guidance on disability hate crime, which will provide assurance to the public of how the CPS intends to deal with such crimes.”
Following on from that, I ask the Minister to provide an update on whether that training has been a success or whether it needs improving. I would like him to update us on where we are and on what improvements could be made to make the training even better.
Other figures have not been so encouraging. The number of hate crime cases referred by the police to the CPS for decision in 2014 was 14,376—an increase of 2.2% on the previous year. However, in 2015-16, the number of referrals decreased by 9.6% to just under 13,000. I ask respectfully whether the Minister can give us some indication of why that happened. Is it because police resources are not focused on disability hate crime? If they are and there is a fall-down, I ask him to let us know so that changes can be made to address the issue. The optimist in us all would love to believe that the decrease in the number of referrals by the police to the CPS is due to more people recognising the boundaries of how they can treat others, but that is probably not the reason behind the drop.
The hon. Member for Bootle mentioned Northern Ireland’s Be Safe, Stay Safe campaign. Just over a year ago, back in October last year, I made the House aware in a question—I think it was to the Solicitor General—that the Police Service of Northern Ireland had launched an online campaign after 44 disability hate crimes were recorded over a six-month period. The PSNI contacted the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, which, as the Solicitor General will know, has set up an advocacy scheme to help disabled people access the criminal justice system. Will the Solicitor General consider similar action? He responded positively to that question, in which I underlined what we are doing in Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Member for Bootle said, if something good is happening in the United Kingdom—legislation or whatever it might be—whatever the debate is, we should all learn from it. We are doing something good in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman clearly, gently and supportively said. What we are doing in Northern Ireland is a response to the general public’s request to put positive legislation in the hands of the police to make it happen and make a difference.
More must be done to ensure that disabled people are aware of the rights that are enshrined in law already and, more importantly, that they have the support they need to approach the police and to give evidence to further their case. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more than 60,000 incidents of disability hate crime are committed in England and Wales over a year, so I want to ask about prosecutions. I am thankful that the CPS has made more than 15,000 prosecutions, but if there are 60,000 incidents of disability hate crime, we are a long way from getting to where we need to be.
I know that the Minister is absolutely and totally committed to making the changes that are needed, as his demeanour and his response to the questions that he has raised will indicate. There is a chasm between 60,000 and 15,000, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point. More must be done to ensure that those two figures are more closely aligned. That is not to say that every off-the-cuff comment is worthy of prosecution, but I firmly believe that many crimes are being committed and not reported, which means that there is no help for the victims. The House must address that.
We must look at how the message can be made clearer that disability hate crimes exist and are not acceptable, that victims will be not further traumatised but helped and supported, and that justice can be served without it being at victims’ expense. Could that be done in conjunction with the Department for Education? Could part of the process involve co-operation with media channels to spread awareness? I am not one who watches the soaps on TV. I could tell hon. Members nothing about the storylines and little about who the characters are, but my wife loves those programmes and could tell hon. Members the details of every character’s life. Some of those soaps could be used for good. One example is “Coronation Street”. Although I am not an avid watcher of the programme—indeed, I do not watch it—I understand that it portrays the issue of Down’s syndrome. There are ways of using the media and the TV for good. Perhaps the Minister could look into that possibility.
We must ask our ourselves whether we have done all we can to encourage the process of making people aware of protection, how serious disability hate crime is, and how seriously it will be treated. To our shame, I do not believe that we have. I implore the Minister to do more to take the matter further and bring about real change. Yes, we have done much good and made gigantic leaps forward, but we have not finished. More can be done.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response, which I know will be positive, and I thank the hon. Member for Bootle for giving us all a chance to participate in the debate.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for securing the debate. This is one of those special debates where it is easy to find broad consensus, which we should always cherish when we find it.
In the past year, the Crown Prosecution Service has prosecuted 15,442 hate crimes in England. That is a 4% rise on the previous year, which also saw a rise of 4.7%. Campaigners are convinced that those prosecutions are the tip of the iceberg and that the true scale of the problem is much greater. Many cases go unreported, as the hon. Members for Bootle and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have pointed out in some detail. Indeed, the Disability Hate Crime Network believes that there are 60,000 hate crimes against disabled people every year, and the hon. Member for Strangford set out that case in some detail.
The Disability Hate Crime Network fears that disabled people lack confidence that they will be listened to, and we must recognise that there is some real hostility towards disabled people. Figures published by The Independent last year suggest that that hostility is real and growing, and it is often facilitated by our online digital world, as the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) said.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, disabled people now have the same legal rights as everyone else following high-profile campaigning by disabled people themselves. It is shameful to think that, before that legislation was enacted, a disabled person could be legally turned away from a restaurant, prevented from using public transport, fired from their job for being ill or even isolated from society behind the walls of their own home. Changing the law to protect people was important to our society because it said that discrimination against disabled people—indeed, against any people—is simply not acceptable but, as we have heard today, there is some evidence that attitudes towards disabled people are hardening. The hon. Member for Strangford gave us some examples of that.
More needs to be done to address the pervasive, low-level negativity towards disabled people that provides the perfect conditions for hostility and hate crime to thrive. Scope, the disability rights charity, says that 42% of non-disabled people do not know a disabled person so, as the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, education is important.
Police investigations of such cases have improved since the tragic death of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter in 2013 following years of bullying and abuse—that bullying and abuse was ignored at the time by the police. Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has indicated that the police still need to do more to address such abuse, which is suffered by too many disabled people on a regular basis.
The CPS completed 941 disabled hate crime prosecutions in 2015-16, compared with 666 in the previous year, and convictions increased by 40%. It has publicly said that it wants to push up the rates of prosecution and conviction for such crimes, sending out a message that those crimes will be treated extremely seriously, but an understanding of hate crime needs to be developed among prosecutors, as the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said.
As the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, progress is being made—we are capturing more of these crimes—but we still have a long way to go. Hate crime is a crime committed against a person or property that is motivated by
“malice or ill-will towards an identifiable social group”.
The Scottish Government have invested more than £100 million in promoting equality and addressing discrimination. A refreshed and strengthened disability action plan will be published later this year specifically to raise awareness of disability hate crime.
The environment in which we operate matters. Although we know that disability hate crime is underreported, we also know that more victims are finding the strength, the facilities and the support to come forward. That is enough to tell us that we have a duty to continue raising awareness about this issue so that even more victims feel able to come forward with confidence that they will be listened to, and that such crime is simply not acceptable in our society.
We must also build strong, supportive, cohesive communities where people can live in peace. Work has been undertaken in a practical sense, with Police Scotland visiting schools and communities to raise awareness and educate groups of all ages about disability hate crime. I mention those examples because we all could and should study good practice in one part of the UK to see how it can be deployed in other parts. I have said that in just about every single debate in which I have participated in this place, and today I find myself in the esteemed position of echoing the words of the hon. Member for Strangford.
Despite the hate crime action plan published by the UK Government, I feel compelled to point out that the ideologically driven austerity agenda, which is perceived as targeting disabled people, has helped to encourage toxic rhetoric about the most vulnerable in our society. That apparent targeting of disabled people is not necessarily deliberate, but it is enough that it is thoughtless and insensitive. When some social security powers are devolved to Scotland, we will base our system on dignity and respect—new employment support programmes for disabled people will begin to be delivered in Scotland from April 2017.
When our society is marred by prejudice and hatred towards those with disabilities, we all agree that we must react. We cannot and must not underestimate the impact of such crimes on individuals and their families. Such crimes leave disabled people and their families feeling isolated, intimidated and rejected. We must continue to reinforce a zero-tolerance attitude to such crimes and towards those who engage in them. That is why I am so proud that the Scottish Government are further promoting their Keep Safe initiative, which works with local businesses to create Keep Safe spaces for disabled and vulnerable people. I note with interest the comments of the hon. Member for Bootle, who spoke about how some disabled people feel that it is not even safe to leave their home.
I would like to hear the Solicitor General speak today about what further we can do to work together across the United Kingdom to ensure that all in our society are given the respect and dignity they need and deserve. As we have heard today, we clearly cannot take tolerance for granted.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It is also a great privilege to speak opposite the Solicitor General for the first time. As a fellow Welsh lawyer, I look forward to speaking opposite him and to our future debates.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this debate and on the nature of his contribution. He started his speech by defining disability hate crime very precisely. The only point I would add to that and to the debate is that we have been talking about disability hate crime in terms of open hostility, but there is also a very different type of crime: those who befriend disabled and vulnerable people, seek to take them into their confidence and take advantage of them. I hope that, in addition to hate crime, the Solicitor General will consider that strand of crime.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle set out the political context extremely well. Hate crime and disability hate crime have a detrimental impact on victims, their families and friends. This is a key issue that goes to the heart of what we are as a society. We in this place should judge the quality of our policies and those of our Government not by their effect on the strongest but by their effect on the most vulnerable in our society and by the protection those people are given.
This has been a constructive debate. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) made a good point about the sensitivity of the prosecutors of such crimes. Indeed, she asked about a response to the Law Commission report, which I will come to in a moment.
The hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) talked well about raising awareness and supporting disabled people in the reporting process. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has momentarily popped out, spoke powerfully about how crimes are committed online—the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) also made that point—and there has to be a strong and powerful message that the keyboard warriors who spread bile and hatred online have no hiding place behind their monitor and keyboard. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke powerfully about attitudes in our society and what we must tackle in that respect.
I agreed with the vast bulk of the speech made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean, particularly what he said about awareness in schools. He made a number of constructive suggestions, including about support through the criminal justice system as more and more cases are, hopefully, brought. That will clearly be important. However, I want to take him up on one point. He is entirely right that it is not politicians’ fault what the press choose to write, nor should we interfere in that choice, but politicians can create a permissive environment. I will give one specific example. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), said on the “Today” programme in October 2012:
“It is unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits.”
The problem with a statement like that is that, first, it divides people into workers and non-workers. Secondly, it implies that all those on benefits are the same. It also seems to imply an inherent sense of unfairness that people are on benefits. We must be careful with our rhetoric. The environment that it creates can lead to the demonisation of disabled people in our society.
I tried hard not to be tempted, but the hon. Gentleman has pushed me too far. I take his point, but the former Chancellor made it clear which people he was talking about. The Government made it clear that people who can work should work. He was not attacking people who cannot work, and I do not think that anyone honestly thought that he was. The Government have been clear that we support people who cannot work, but that we expect those who can work to do so, and not to live off others. That is the point that the former Chancellor was making, and it is a reasonable view that I think would be shared by people across the country.
In my experience, the people who get most cross about people who could work but do not are those who live next door to them, who are struggling hard and who see others not doing their fair share. It is in no way an attack on people who cannot work. The Government spend £50 billion a year on supporting disabled people. It is right that we should do so. We will continue to support disabled people who are not able to work, as is right in a civilised society.
All I can say is that it is a shame that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not go on to make that distinction when he made those comments on the “Today” programme, which I was careful to quote precisely and not to paraphrase. I am afraid that such comments, in isolation, can have the effect that I mentioned.
I will turn to my remarks to the Solicitor General, because I want to make some constructive contributions. One good point made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean involved the provision of Hansard reports of debates on this subject to the ongoing Crown Prosecution Service consultation. In its 2014 consultation paper on hate crime and whether the current offences should be extended, the Law Commission said that
“we share the view expressed by most consultees that it is undesirable for the aggravated offences not to apply equally to hostility based on race, religion, transgender identity, sexual orientation and disability. It sends the wrong message about the seriousness with which such offending is taken and the severity of its impact, if offences attaching a specific aggravated label and a potentially higher sentence only exist in relation to two of the five statutorily protected hate crime characteristics.”
Can the Solicitor General comment on the possibility of reviewing the operation of aggravated offences to consider parity across all protected characteristics?
There is also a great issue involving data. Last month, a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found a number of areas of concern involving incidents of hate crime in the UK and apparent failure to prosecute such crimes, including specifically a lack of data on the use of extended sentencing powers. It made a couple of recommendations. One involved sections 145 and 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, with which the Solicitor General should be familiar. Where they are imposed, that should be recorded, including, as the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, on the criminal records of offenders. I suggest that we also need to collect data on where aggravated offences and enhanced sentencing have been invoked initially but then dropped through the process of accepting a guilty plea. The ECRI report also recommends, finally, that steps be taken to narrow the gap between hate crimes being recorded and subsequently referred for prosecution. I would be grateful if the Solicitor General commented on that in his remarks.
Such measures are extremely important when one looks at the statistics. The latest statistics that I could find, in “Hate crime, England and Wales, 2015 to 2016”, published only last month, show that 3,629 disability hate crimes were recorded by the police in 2015-16, a 42% rise from the previous year. That should be welcomed, of course, but concerns remain that levels of reporting are still extremely low. The 2014-15 national crime survey for England and Wales estimated that the annual figure might be closer to 70,000, which shows that there is much more for us to do.
The Crown Prosecution Service’s own 2016 “Hate Crime Report” showed that 941 of those 3,629 offences, or 26%, were prosecuted, and that 707 of those prosecutions were successful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle pointed out, that is a 75% conviction rate, which is still below the rate for hate crimes generally, which is 83%. Although we are, admittedly, discussing a low base and small figures, the conviction rate is pretty stubborn. We have managed to move from 503 convictions in 2014-15 to 707, but successful convictions are still around 75%. I also urge the Solicitor General to consider carefully the regional variations, why they exist and what can be done to make the policies comprehensive across this country and give them an impact as close to universal as possible.
Finally, I return to where the debate started. It is vital that we have strong measures, that the Solicitor General reviews and keeps under review the position on aggravated sentencing, that we have strong and robust data and, above all, that we seek with the laws of our land to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing the debate; I am profoundly grateful to him. He and others who have taken part will know that the issue of disability hate crime has been close to my heart not just as Solicitor General but as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, and indeed as a parent, for a number of years.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made particularly apposite remarks about the fact that many people in our society just do not know somebody with a disability. That lack of understanding and awareness lies at the heart of some of the attitudes that we see towards disability. It is too big a picture to be laid at the feet of any particular Government or of an alleged ideological approach to austerity, which I utterly reject. It is a long-term societal issue, and only in recent years have all of us, irrespective of party, started to wake up to it and put ourselves in the shoes of individuals with disabilities.
I reiterate the Government’s co-ordinated and cross-departmental approach to the issue. I am particularly delighted to welcome the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, whose presence at this Westminster Hall debate eloquently represents her commitment to the issue. We have met about it, and we will continue to meet and, more importantly, to take co-ordinated action to ensure that all relevant parts of Government do everything they can to tackle this scourge, because scourge it is.
I am equally grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who did so much as Minister for Disabled People to advance the cause, paying attention to the sort of detail that he has raised today. I hope to be able to answer his questions, and indeed those of the hon. Member for Bootle. I will seek to do so in the course of my remarks.
As I said, it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of a person with disability. That person faces three things. First, they sometimes lack the awareness that they have been or continue to be the victim of a crime, because for so many people with disabilities it has become normal and part of their way of life—it is just something that they accept. We know that is not good enough. Secondly, when that lack of awareness ends and a person starts to understand that they are a victim, what do they do? Who will listen to them and help them to report the crime? Thirdly, when that crime is reported, how do the authorities deal with it? Those are the three stages of the problem that need to be understood. It is clear that we need to do more to support people with disabilities at every stage.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for raising the Northern Ireland experience. We have discussed before the Leonard Cheshire initiative, which puts advocacy at the heart of the project. Advocacy for people with disabilities will be the key to unlocking many of the issues that have come up, and we are seeing that approach taken widely in parts of England, Wales and Scotland. In my own area, Swindon, I am lucky to have the Swindon Advocacy Movement, an organisation that empowers people with disability to understand their rights and entitlements and helps them if they have been the victim of crime or abuse. It is all about a move away from doing things to or for people with disabilities and towards helping people with disabilities to help themselves and empowering them to become part of mainstream society.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran was right to remind us that only 20 years ago, before the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was passed by a Conservative Government—I am proud of that—people with disabilities were facing a kind of Jim Crow situation. They were not able to access mainstream life and were being excluded—not only physically excluded from premises, but excluded, in a societal way, from mainstream life.
Therein lies one of the problems. One of the perceptions we need to challenge at all times relates to what disability means to people with a disability themselves. We sometimes use the word “vulnerable” a bit carelessly; there is an assumption that just because somebody has a disability then they are automatically vulnerable is not helpful to them. I think a person with a disability would say to us that there are times when they end up in situations that make them more vulnerable than others, but that does not mean that they are vulnerable at all times. Once one starts to make that sort of cosy assumption, the wrong sort of conclusions are reached. For example, people start to ask questions about why people with disabilities go out in public. Why do they go nightclubbing or shopping? Why do they do all these things that put them in danger? That is the wrong approach.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I welcome him warmly to his position and congratulate him on attaining it. It is a pleasure to work with him. He is quite right to talk about “mate crime”. Perhaps such examples highlight one of the deficiencies and inadequacies of using a phrase such as “hate crime” to describe the full panoply of crimes committed against people with disabilities. Mate crime is an insidious way in which perpetrators gain the confidence of often isolated and sometimes rather lonely people, perhaps with a learning disability such as autism, or another disability, and, using the trust they have built up, proceed to abuse it, very often in the form of financial crime, such as fraud, or worse—violence and sexual crime are also covered by the definition of mate crime. That is worse than confidence tricksters; it is an abuse of trust. In my mind, that makes the crime even more serious.
I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members for having raised some of the important figures and statistics relating to the increase in the number of reported disability hate crimes and, indeed, prosecutions for those offences. There has also been an increase in the use of the sentence uplifts that are available to judges under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, from just over 5% of cases in 2014-15 to 11% of cases in 2015-16. We are coming from a low base, but that is going in the right direction.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) asked about the recording of applications in which there has not been an uplift. I hear what he says, but the difficulty is that the Crown Prosecution Service is currently recording a vast number of indices through the flagging system, and it is difficult for every area of the CPS to record information with precision and then translate it in a way that makes it readily available to people like me. I hear what he says and will certainly ask whether it would be feasible, but I have to put that caveat on his request. It is clear to me that having more data is always useful, but it is then a question of how they are to be used and understood. We need to step back from that to a more fundamental position on training and awareness.
I indicated in my contribution that the figure for prosecutions was down in the past year, and asked whether that was because the police were not giving the issue the focus and priority that they should. If the Minister can answer that now, that would be good, but if not I am happy to wait for a response. Is disability hate crime a priority for the police?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. On as many of the questions he asked as possible, I shall outline the measures that are being taken. The mandated package of training—to which I think he referred in a question to me in the main Chamber some months ago—has been delivered through a classroom-based approach, as opposed to using the internet. That is very important. It was a mandated package, so it had to be delivered to all prosecutors, and it was delivered between September last year and January this year. In particular, it incorporated the victim’s perspective and provided support on identifying evidence of hostility in order to obtain those important recorded sentencing uplifts.
I parenthesise a moment by reminding Members that section 146 is not the end of the story when it comes to how judges should sentence for offences with a disability element. There are guidelines that allow judges to look at the situation or vulnerability of the victim and their characteristics and take that into account when assessing the overall length of sentence. That message, too, has gone out loudly and clearly to all those involved in the prosecution of crime.
Members should reflect on where we hit a difficulty—perhaps we can debate this in future—which is on how to approach sentencing when it comes to people with invisible, not hidden, disability. I think in particular of learning disability and autism. Far too often, the perpetrator is able to say, “Well, I didn’t know he was autistic.” That puts the judge in a very difficult position, because they then do not have evidence of either hostility or some sort of motivational offence, or that the perpetrator even knew about the victim’s characteristics. We are getting into the debate about the eggshell skull theory, with which the hon. Member for Torfaen will be familiar, but it is a debate we need to have when it comes to how adequately we protect and support people with invisible disabilities.
I turn to the other questions that Members asked. I am glad to say that the hate crime assurance scheme is happening, and that live files are being tracked as a result. That is helping to support the quality of casework, with real-time scrutiny as cases progress.
As we have seen, that scheme is having results with an increased number of sentencing uplifts being applied. It also checks all finalised hate crime cases, so that we can identify best practice and any lessons that can be learned. In other words, and to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Torfaen, the failed applications are being looked at and that is a vital part of how we can improve our approach.
Members are aware, of course, of the 13-week consultation published by the Crown Prosecution Service in October, which sets out the approach taken by the CPS to such crimes. A plain English version of that consultation is available too, which is particularly important for people with disabilities themselves, so that they can have their voice heard. Also, the legal guidance for prosecutors will be updated and published at the same time as the consultation response, so work is ongoing.
The statement that has been provided by the CPS has been developed with the involvement of interested groups and community representatives, who have highlighted the social model of disability. That model suggests that the prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by many disabled people is not the inevitable result of their condition but instead stems from the various barriers that they experience daily and that hon. Members have talked about in this debate. That social model is the basis on which the CPS understands, dismantles and reduces the effects of those barriers, as far as we are able to, leading to improved safety and security, access to mainstream life and indeed work, where appropriate, for people with disabilities.
Last month, the CPS also published two guides on the recognition and reporting of hate crimes for individuals and agencies who might be the first to hear about a hate incident. Those guides are intended to increase public confidence and in turn improve reporting levels, so that they more accurately reflect the experience that we know people have in their communities.
We have already discussed such third-party reporting, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) gave an example of it. I was delighted to meet the organisation she referred to when I visited CPS Manchester earlier this year. Indeed, I pay tribute to such organisations, including the one in my constituency that I mentioned earlier, and to campaigners such as Stephen Brookes MBE, who is from Blackpool and who has long championed the issue of third-party reporting, showing that where it is done well it really makes a difference for people with disabilities. My message to hon. Members, therefore, is that if, for whatever reason, they do not have third-party reporting in their community, they should ask why and see whether such provision can be improved.
The hon. Member for Bootle also asked about senior management. I am happy to tell him that I will be in Liverpool next week, at the CPS senior management conference, and he can bet his bottom dollar that I will raise the issue of disability hate crime in his home town. It is important that that is not a one-off but another example of how law officers, the Director of Public Prosecutions and senior leaders can set a good example.
On judicial meetings and the links that we have with the judiciary and the DPP, the issues that we are discussing are raised on a regular and systematic basis. Although sentencing is, of course, an independent function, we can ensure that the policy context is fully understood by those responsible for sentencing.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean mentioned education, and the Government have allocated—as part of our hate crime action plan—important funding to help to equip teachers to have what can sometimes be difficult but important conversations with young people, by funding programmes through organisations such as the Anne Frank Trust UK and Streetwise. Again, the training that teachers receive through those programmes will be classroom-based and of real use.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned social media. The Government are clear: whether online or offline, crime is crime and the CPS and the police will follow the evidence wherever it leads and however difficult it is to follow it. An unfortunate perception has arisen that, somehow, something online is more difficult to trace. I just do not accept that; there is a clear evidence chain there. All of us know that removing things from the internet is not as easy as it might seem—thank goodness, in the context of such offending—and the message must go out loud and clear that online abusers will be detected and prosecuted, wherever it is appropriate to do so.
I will deal with the points that have been made about the Law Commission. Its report is an important one, which I have read and considered myself. I am happy to say that, although the Government have not come to a fixed conclusion about the extension of the aggravated offences to cover all five protected characteristics, that matter is still very much under review. As a prosecutor myself in my former life, and having used such offences since they were introduced in the late 1990s, I know that they had a transformational effect and therefore I understand their power. In the meantime, however, it is very much a question of the police, the CPS and all agencies using the powers that they have more effectively.
Hon. Members mentioned the cross-Government hate crime action plan, which includes a proper emphasis on increasing awareness of and support for victims. It is clear that if a person with a disability feels that they will be taken seriously and listened to, they are more likely to come forward.
I go back to the point I made at the beginning of my speech about the importance of perception from the viewpoint of another person. We want to increase the reporting of hate crime by improving the reporting process itself, for disabled people and for people with other protected characteristics.
The CPS has played an important part in contributing to that hate crime action plan. It has made a number of commitments, which will be delivered by 2020, and I will continue—as a law officer—to work with the CPS, to ensure that perpetrators are punished and to publicise successful prosecutions, because that will create confidence among the members of a community that when hate crime is reported, action will be taken.
New guidance will be produced by the CPS—
I am very grateful to you, Mr Bone, for that clarification. I will conclude by saying that for far too long people with disabilities have accepted being treated as second-class citizens. That is why I commend the work of the CPS in tackling the scourge of hate crime and I again thank the hon. Member for Bootle for raising this important issue.
I appreciate the comments of everyone who has participated today; it is an important debate to get out into the open. It is crucial that we push on with this matter and ensure that once an action plan is down on paper— however good or bad those proposals might be—it is put into action; hence my comments to the Minister in relation to some of the points that I raised.
Regarding the comments made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), my point was—I was careful to say it—that I did not want to politicise this issue. I was trying to make the point that an environment can develop in which people feel they are having the finger pointed at them. Maybe it is and maybe it is not, but it establishes an environment that is of concern in the round. We have to be very careful that we do not go down the path of having collective bêtes noires—be that immigrants or, as in the past, Irish people or Jews—and so we have an environment in which people can point the finger at others. That takes attention away from the real matter.
I am really pleased that we have had this debate today and I look forward to monitoring the development of these matters in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Crown Prosecution Service’s approach to prosecuting disability hate crime.