Equality watchdog’s Tory peer challenged over benefits rhetoric


newslatestThe Tory peer who heads the equality watchdog’s disability committee has faced tough questions over whether the hostile rhetoric of his party’s ministers has helped to fuel hate crime.

Lord [Chris] Holmes, a commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said he placed more blame for any increase in disability hate crime on the media.

He was speaking at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group, which was discussing progress since the commission’s 2011 report on disability-related harassment.

But he was challenged by the Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, who said: “There has been a very marked change of attitude towards disabled people under this government and I regret to say you are a [Conservative] peer.

“I would be very interested to know how you work within government to try and address that, because it does feel to very many disabled people that it has come from the very top.”

Lord Holmes, a multi-gold-medal-winning Paralympian, lawyer, and director of Paralympic integration at London 2012, replied: “I think it is a very difficult time at the moment.”

He insisted that during private conversations he had had with Tory ministers he did not sense “a disdain [for disabled people]”.

He said he blamed the press more than politicians, but would “not just let that slide at all” if he ever came across “that attitude, that belief, that approach from any party”.

But Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the disabled Liberal Democrat peer, said: “A lot of people thought the Department for Work and Pensions was responsible for putting out some pretty nasty stories about welfare claimants, which whether they meant it or not has led to… the harassment of disabled people.”

Anne McGuire, the Labour co-chair of the all-party group, added: “I can think of at least one press statement which did have a ministerial statement attached which implied that all you had to do was fill in a form and you get a disability car.”

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, the disabled crossbench peer and the other co-chair of the party, said she did not believe that Conservative ministers would talk honestly to Lord Holmes about their attitudes to disabled people.

She said: “When you are in  conversation with any government front-bencher they love us to bits. Then you find out the next day their department is briefing against us.”

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, a crossbench peer and another multi-gold-medal-winning Paralympian, said she was worried by the amount of “low-level discrimination”, fuelled by tabloids describing disabled people as “scroungers” and a “drain on society”.

She said: “It just worries me that there is an acceptance that disabled people have no value in society.”

Disabled hate crime campaigner Ruth Bashall, director of the Stay Safe East project, which supports Deaf and disabled survivors of domestic violence and hate crime in east London, said the “pattern of how hate crime has manifested itself has changed”.

She has been working with an Association of Chief Police Officers working group, but she said the picture was “unbelievably patchy”.

She said: “There are tiny bits of good practice here and there but no proper national approach.”

Lord Holmes said the need for better reporting, recording and recognition of disability hate crime was “very key” and was “a thread running through” the follow-up report on the harassment inquiry that will be published next year.

He said: “It is systemic, it is so persistent, it is so endemic still in so many elements and institutions across our society.

“Everyone has to play a part… not just to make a change but to make a paradigm shift so it cannot just go back to the old days.”

10 June 2014