The sentencing of 11 former employees of a private hospital for abusing people with learning difficulties has become mired in confusion, with the government unable to say whether the judge treated the offences as disability hate crimes.
The sentencing of the former staff of the Winterbourne View private hospital for people with learning difficulties, near Bristol, secured wide coverage in the media.
Six of the former employees of Winterbourne View were given prison sentences at Bristol Crown Court, ranging from six months to two years, while another five were handed suspended sentences.
The convictions followed last year’s screening of an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama, which exposed a regime of “appalling and systematically brutal” abuse at the hospital, and was followed by a second Panorama investigation this week.
But none of the media coverage suggested that judge Neil Ford QC treated the offences as motivated by hostility towards disabled people, even though the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated that it had viewed them as disability hate crimes that were “based on ignorance, prejudice and hate”.
Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 says a judge must treat the fact that an offence was a disability hate crime as an “aggravating factor” in deciding a sentence, and must state in open court that he has done so.
The Judicial Communications Office, the CPS and the Courts and Tribunals Service have all been unable to say whether the judge accepted the CPS view that the regime of abuse was motivated by disability-related hostility.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice declined to comment.
In May, another judge, Jonathan Gibson, was criticised after he refused to treat a three-year campaign of cruelty against a man with epilepsy and learning difficulties – in which he was beaten by relatives with a stick, had a jump-lead clamped to his nose, was headbutted and whipped, and was referred to as “the clown” or “the mental case” – as a disability hate crime.
And last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Hidden in Plain Sight report concluded that public bodies were guilty of a “systematic, institutional failure” to recognise disability hate crime.
A follow-up report published last week found that actions taken to prevent and tackle harassment had been “patchy”, with some public bodies “doing nothing or very little at all”.
The CPS insisted that the Winterbourne View sentences sent “a clear message to those who believe there will be no consequences for their abuse of disabled people”.
But leading members of the self-advocacy movement disagreed.
Andrew Lee, director of People First Self Advocacy, said his reaction on hearing the sentences was one of “rage”, while he said the sentence of just two years in prison for Wayne Rogers, recognised as the ring-leader of the abusers, was “woefully inadequate”.
Gavin Harding, co-chair of the National Forum of People with Learning Difficulties, said he did not think the sentences would act as a deterrent to other abusers.
To read a blog on Winterbourne View by John Pring, editor of Disability News Service and author of a book on the institutional abuse of people with learning difficulties, visit the DNS website.
31 October 2012