This week, I was proud to bring in a Bill in the Commons to require police forces to register hate crimes against people with learning difficulties and disabilities, including autism. The Bill also enjoyed crossparty support as well as support from Ricky Gervais, Katie Price and Melanie Sykes.
People with learning difficulties and disabilities are regularly abused and subjected to hate crime and, frustratingly, the police are unable to adequately catalogue these hate crimes.
Earlier this year, I tabled a Commons motion which was backed by over 100 MPs across the political spectrum, congratulating Kevin Healey, an Ambassador for the National Autistic Society, who has been helping to raise awareness of hate crimes such as cyber-bullying, trolling, stalking and physical bullying against those suffering with autism.
I cited the findings of a National Autistic Society survey that revealed that most respondents experienced verbal abuse, while half had been physically assaulted and a quarter had suffered cyber-bullying.
Social attitudes change frequently and fast. Just think of the sort of things many used to say about women, gays and black people. Most people just wouldn’t dream of doing so now. Look at how racism has been largely stamped out at football matches. The same can be the case with those with learning difficulties. After all, we usually know someone with learning difficulties personally or through friends and families.
I first encountered this problem when it was repeatedly brought to my attention when I chaired the Valuing People Now Partnership Board for the North East, where service user groups regularly prioritised reporting and solutions to hate crime
To appreciate the seriousness of bullying and hate crime, we need only look at the tragic case of Fiona Pilkington, who took her own life and that of her daughter, Francesca in 2007, after a decade of harassment by bullies. Their deaths were largely caused by missed opportunities by the police to record information, act on that information and identify the family as vulnerable and in need of care and support.
In the North East, a few years back Brent Martin, a young man with learning disabilities, was beaten to death by three people he took to be friends.
The Home Office officially recorded nearly 44,000 hate crimes last year. Most were race-related with just 4% for disability hate crimes.
The Director of Public Prosecutions says that some force areas recorded a nil return for disability hate crime. This is literally incredible and shows that something is wrong. A joint review of disability hate crime also found that disability hate crime is “overlooked” and “under-reported”.
Some police officers confuse learning disability and difficulty with anti-social behaviour. Many people with learning difficulties and disabilities find it difficult to communicate with others and this has resulted in some quite horrific cases. Such offences should be treated in the same way as those motivated by racial or religious hatred. The victims of these crimes are equally aggrieved and harmed.
We can all agree that we want disabled people to feel safe and to be protected from criminals and bullies but we need an effective system whereby hate crimes against these vulnerable individuals are properly reported, recorded and reviewed to ensure that police resources are efficiently targeted.
It is important that we accept that this is a national scandal, where people with learning disabilities and difficulties are having dreadful experiences because of bullying, verbal and physical abuse an intimidation.
We need a clear definition of disability hate crime, which encompasses people with learning disabilities and difficulties and disability hate crime should become a specific criminal offence.
If this happens, police forces around the country can introduce proper recording methods. I hope that they, and Police and Crime Commissioners like Northumbria’s own Vera Baird, can be persuaded to take learning disability and difficulty hate crime seriously.
My actions in the Commons won’t change attitudes and practices overnight but they begin a process of change which can lead to the vast majority of people shunning and rejecting bullies.