Labour’s commitment at its party conference to reform hate crime law so that disability has parity with other forms of hate crime is welcome. A change in the law is long overdue.
For people with learning disabilities, hate crime is sadly often a part of everyday life. For example, the majority of people with autism – 72% – reported being the victim of disability hate crime in a 2012 survey, by the National Autistic Society. Other surveys, going back more than a decade, have reported similar results.
So it has always struck me as odd that, given its prevalence, disability hate crime is not classified in the same way as other forms of hate crime. Specifically, “aggravated offences” such as assault or criminal damage, can carry higher sentences if the offender demonstrates racial or religious hostility or is motivated by that type of hostility at the time of the offence. But taking account of an added element of hostility does not apply where disability is involved.
Likewise, “stirring up” offences, such as publishing material intended to encourage hatred, only apply on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation.
But, if Labour wins the next general election, it has pledged to change this. This has to be welcomed, but it should be noted that the Law Commission has been conducting a consultation on reform of these aspects of hate crime law to include disability (as well as gender identity and, in the case of aggravated offences, sexual orientation) all summer. The consultation closes on September 27.
The Law Commission has also been examining whether the current sentencing regime for all forms of hate crime where hostility is established provides a sufficient response and whether existing criminal offences provide adequate protection. Its final report is due in Spring 2014.
However, even if reforms of the laws are recommended, it is unlikely that there will be time for any legislation to be passed before the end of the current Parliament.
Nevertheless, Labour’s commitment to change can only be a good thing. It would be nice to see the other parties will make a similar pledge.
Labour’s plan to introduce a specific offence of disability hate crime is also a heartening move, given that a joint inspection of the police, probation and Crown Prosecution Service in March this year uncovered a lack of understanding of what counts as a disability hate crime and confusion around how this type of offence should be recorded and investigated.
Hopefully, whichever party – or parties – is/are in power after May 2015 will ensure that hate crime laws are reformed. This inequality in law for people with disabilities has been allowed to stand for far too long. Hate crime against them is just as serious as that committed against people on the grounds of race, religion, gender or sexuality. Making disability hate crime equal in law will send out a clear public message about how unacceptable it is, that it will not be tolerated and that perpetrators can expect to face severe punishments.