MP’s bill ‘could damage disability hate crime battle’


newslatestDisabled campaigners have raised concerns that an MP could be damaging the fight against disability hate crime by introducing a parliamentary bill that focuses on people with autism and learning difficulties.

The hate crime (people with learning difficulties and learning disabilities) bill was introduced by the Labour MP Ian Mearns last month.

Although the bill has yet to be published, it would force police forces to “register hate crimes committed against people with learning difficulties and learning disabilities including autism”.

Mearns told fellow MPs during the bill’s first reading that there needed to be “an effective system whereby hate crimes against these vulnerable individuals are properly reported, recorded and reviewed to combat this scourge”.

His bill was inspired by a meeting earlier this year with campaigner Kevin Healey, who has autism and runs his own anti-bullying campaign, and has 120,000 followers on the social media website Twitter.

Mearns, who referenced reports by the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Mencap in his speech, called for police forces and police and crime commissioners to “take learning disability and difficulty hate crime seriously”.

He added: “We need to ensure that people with learning difficulties and disabilities are protected from this unwanted and unwarranted harassment, physical harm and mental torture, which can often make lives a misery and indeed lead to tragic consequences.”

But Sarah Hewitt, who herself has autism and is an ambassador for NAS and a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said the bill was “extremely ill-conceived”, “flawed” and “divisive”.

She said: “I don’t see why you would want to give people with autism particular special treatment over people with other disabilities who are experiencing the same incidents, the same abuse, the same crimes being committed against them.

“If you start implementing legislation to focus on people with autism then there is surely a danger that other people are going to slip through the net.”

She said the bill was a dangerous distraction from the need for a new disability hate crime offence in law – covering all impairments – rather than the current, poorly-implemented measures which allow only for increased sentences.

Stephen Brookes, another coordinator of the network, said the bill “overlooks the fact that there are many, many disabled people without learning disabilities who are victims of disability hate crime”.

He said that what was needed was a “full and clear commitment to increase reporting of all aspects of disability hate crime, and to identify just one aspect sends out entirely the wrong message to some police forces and indeed many [disabled people’s organisations]”.

Mearns has so far not responded to a request for a comment.

But Healey – who was harassed and abused at school and later received death threats and was bullied online – said he backed the bill because he wanted new laws that would protect him from hate crime.

But he added: “I totally agree that there needs to be a law for all different disabilities, not just autism, but if this bill does get through it will open the flood-gates for other disabilities.

“I am not a politician and I didn’t write the bill but I do agree that it should be for everybody.”

A Mencap spokesman said the charity had played no part in drafting the bill, but had provided Mearns with information.

He said: “Mencap firmly believes that hate crime against people with any disability must be taken seriously and stamped out.

“But we believe there are specific issues around learning disability hate crime that need addressing and, as everything we do is about valuing and supporting people with a learning disability and their families, we welcome Ian Mearns MP’s efforts to stir up debate around this issue.”

Mencap was previously warned itself in 2011 that its efforts to focus on hate crime against people with learning difficulties could be a distraction from wider efforts to combat disability hate crime.

And in 2010, it faced similar criticism over its plans to lead a new hate crime coalition.

A spokeswoman for NAS said the charity supported the new bill but that its involvement had also been restricted to briefing Mearns, and it had not helped to draft the bill.

She said: “We were asked to provide a briefing and obviously as we are an autism charity the facts and figures that we provided were about this particular disability.”

28 November 2013