MPs launch inquiry into online abuse of disabled people, following Katie Price petition

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Disability hate crime campaigners are to give evidence to MPs next month as part of a new inquiry into the online abuse of disabled people.

The Commons petitions committee has launched the investigation following a petition set up by former model Katie Price which was signed by more than 220,000 people.

Price’s petition called on the government to create a new criminal offence covering online abuse, and to set up a register of offenders.

She and her disabled son Harvey are to give evidence to the committee on 6 February about the disablist online abuse he has experienced.

Anne Novis, a leading disability hate crime campaigner and adviser on disability to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Metropolitan police, will also be giving evidence to the committee, as chair of Inclusion London.

Novis, also a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, plans to share details with MPs on the committee of Facebook sites that have been “set up to demean disabled people”, and of disablist attacks by some newspapers.

She also plans to raise concerns about government rhetoric around its social security reforms, which she said has demeaned disabled people, “giving permission to others to do the same online and elsewhere”.

She said that such rhetoric and abuse “must be challenged as totally unacceptable in today’s society”.

But Novis (pictured, centre) said she was not in favour of a new “add on” criminal offence, as suggested by Price.

Instead, she said, “we need fair and equal law on hate crime in all its forms, ensuring the law keeps up to date with communication methods, and recognition that verbal and written abuse and prejudice is unacceptable”.

Novis has spoken repeatedly of the need for disabled people to have “equal access to justice” on hate crime and the “inadequacy” of current disability hate crime legislation.

She said a register was “not necessary” because if abusers were charged appropriately – and disability hate crime law was strengthened – there would already be a public record of offenders, while it would be easy for abusers to use false names online.

Stephen Brookes, a fellow coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, and a disability adviser to CPS and the Lancashire and West Yorkshire police forces, said he could support a “specific, clearly defined” new offence.

But he said he could not see how a register would be operated and maintained.

He said: “Online hate, where abusers mistakenly believe they are hidden behind a screen, can be particularly damaging.

“Several of the posts on the Disability Hate Crime Network reflect the fact that many disabled victims of online and social media abuse feel helpless and unprotected.

“One of our regular contacts received a Facebook post after reporting a hate crime which said, ‘You never tire of being the nastiest dirtiest GRASS. If you need a puncture in your wheelchair keep us in mind.’

“But this was not enough to get Facebook to take the post down.”

Brookes believes social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are not doing enough to protect people from online abuse.

He said: “We are told that a key aim of the [government’s new] online hate crime hub is to build a stronger evidence base and better understanding of the scope, nature and scale of online hate, in order to tackle it, but this all takes time, and so many times the perpetrators use the indistinct line between what they say is legitimate freedom of expression, and behaviour that is in contradiction of the ill-defined terms and conditions of social media sites, to get away with their actions.

“So there is a need to force companies to have a standard code of practice and not the current case-by-case approach, and this does need to lead to a better, clear and enforceable law.”

Labour MP Helen Jones, chair of the petitions committee, said: “Katie Price’s petition, which has been signed by more than 220,000 people, has brought to parliament an issue that has not been widely discussed – how online abuse affects people with disabilities and their families.

“The government and parliament are looking at how to tackle online abuse, and we’d like to ensure that the particular issues faced by disabled people are at the heart of those discussions.

“We’ll be speaking to disabled people and other experts about what needs to change.

“We’ve also invited Katie Price and her son Harvey to parliament to tell us about how online abuse has affected their family.” 

The committee will be probing issues such as the impact of online abuse on disabled people; who is responsible for protecting people from online abuse; how well the law protects disabled people from such abuse; and the availability of support for victims.

It will also ask how to draw lines between legitimate freedom of expression, behaviour that contravenes the terms and conditions of social media sites, and abuse that should be against the law. 

In her petition, which closed last year, Price said that trolling was “a major problem” that affects people “from every walk of life” and includes “racism, homophobia, body shaming and a whole range of other hate speech”.

She said she wanted to “help bring justice to everyone who has ever suffered at the hands of trolls” and “hammer home worldwide that bullying is unacceptable whether it’s face to face or in an online space”.

As well as other disability organisations giving oral evidence, including Dimensions UK and Mencap, the committee wants to hear directly from disabled people about their experiences of online abuse.

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesman refused to say if the government supported creating a new criminal offence covering online abuse, or setting up a register of offenders.

But he said in a statement: “We welcome the committee’s investigation. What is unacceptable offline should be unacceptable online and we are seeking to address these issues through our Internet Safety Strategy.”

Ministers have not ruled out introducing a regulatory framework, including a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, if technology companies do not act voluntarily to demonstrate their commitment to online safety.

It has consulted on measures including: a new social media levy, so companies contribute to raising awareness and countering harm caused by the internet; a code of practice to tackle bullying and intimidating behaviour online; and annual transparency reports that would be used to check the progress of companies in tackling such issues.

The consultation closed last month.