I know I’m not famous among Progress readers for my tough attitude to sentencing in the criminal justice system. But this week I’m proud to be proposing an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill to increase the minimum mandatory life sentence for those convicted of murder where the crime was motivated or aggravated by the victim’s disability.
My amendment – which I am delighted has secured cross-party support – would treat so-called ‘disability hate crime’ in the same way as is the case for murders motivated by race, religion or sexual orientation. It would set the ‘tariff’ for such attacks at a starting point of 30 years in custody.
That’s an exceptionally long sentence by any standards, but this is one of the nastiest forms of crime. Often, the victim has suffered longstanding social isolation because of his or her disability, and has initially been befriended by the attacker. That’s been the case for example in recent murder cases where the victims were learning disabled.
Last week, I spoke to Christine Oliver, whose brother Keith Philpott was murdered following a prolonged and horrible attack. It seems he was tortured by people he knew, who then went on to murder him. He’d originally made friends with the sister of one of his attackers, but the friendship developed into abuse. Keith’s murderers’ sentences were increased on appeal, but the judge had to read aggravation into the case – it wasn’t automatically provided in law.
Brent Martin’s case also highlights deficiencies in the current law. Like Keith, Brent was killed by so-called friends, and was tortured before his death. The sentence was increased because of the sadistic behaviour of the perpetrators, but again this was a more complicated way of arriving at the sentence than it need have been since the fact that Brent was disabled was not an automatic aggravating feature.
These sorts of cases are thankfully rare, but my amendment is important because it highlights the wider context in which these shocking murders took place. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has just published Hidden in plain sight, a report which shows that harassment of disabled people is a significant and under-noticed problem. Relatively few cases come to court, but many more disabled people face repeated disability-related harassment. Yet both the public and public authorities are in effect in denial about the situation.
The report makes very depressing reading, but perhaps we should not be surprised at its findings. Recently it was reported that public hostility to disabled people was higher than for many years. Harassment and attacks exist and flourish in this context of hostility – a context, it has to be said, to which politicians and the media, repeatedly harping on about ‘benefits scroungers’ in receipt of disability benefits, are helping to contribute.
But while changing attitudes and language are important, tackling disability hate crime requires institutional change too. My amendment focuses on sentencing and the role of the courts, but right through the criminal justice system, and beyond, change is needed now. Still too often, disabled people don’t report crimes against them because they feel that their evidence won’t be believed. Too often the authorities put the crime down to the disabled person’s ‘vulnerability’, and focus on the victim’s behaviour rather than on dealing with the perpetrators. And there’s a failure among institutions to identify repeated patterns of abusive and criminal behaviour, so too often cases are treated in isolation.
It’s not all bad – there has been progress. For example, I was told of good work by the police in relation to work with learning disabled victims of sexual assault. But with a shocking nine out of 10 learning disabled women having experienced a sexual attack, it’s clear that all our institutions, and all of society, still have a long way to go. Learning disabled women in my constituency thought it was vital that professionals were better educated in the problem. They wanted more priority given to training, developed and delivered by learning disabled people themselves. Will anyone ask them to do this?
It’s become clear to me, reading the report, talking to learning disabled women in my constituency, thinking about my amendment, that our attitudes to and treatment of disabled people are much more primitive and darker than I’d liked to believe. And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s high time we re-examined our attitudes and our behaviours, and afford disabled people the same respect and protections that all of us expect. I profoundly hope my amendment will gain parliamentary time for debate this week, so that we will have the opportunity to begin to shed some light on this shameful and hidden disgrace.
Kate Green is MP for Stretford and Urmston and writes a weekly column or Progress, Kate Comments
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