Public authorities in England and Wales will face an inquiry into their handling of disability-related harassment by the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, the watchdog announced today.
The commission has promised that agencies that do not adequately uphold the rights of disabled people could face legal action. Public bodies are under a legal obligation to take steps to eliminate disability-related harassment under the disability equality duty.
The inquiry, which will publish its final report in early 2011, follows the inquest into the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her disbled daughter Francecca. Pilkington killed them both following years of harassment and a serious case review exposed weaknesses across public bodies in working together to tackle harassment.
EHRC commissioner Mike Smith said: “Disabled people experiencing harassment can become conditioned to hostile treatment, or are sometimes told to ignore it by those around them – including by public authorities. They may also go to enormous lengths to avoid putting themselves at risk which can limit their freedom and opportunities. These are unacceptable outcomes for anyone in our society.”
The commission said it already had evidence that harassment of disabled people was widespread throughout Britain and that people with learning disabilities and mental health problems were at a particularly high risk.
Chief executive of Mencap Mark Golding welcomed the inquiry saying the charity hoped it was a “turning point” for its members. He said: “For too long harassment and abuse that is criminal behaviour has been treated as antisocial behaviour. This has resulted in public bodies consistently failing to protect people with a learning disability and their families.”
The inquiry will look at how public authorities are working to tackle prejudice and the causes of harassment, as well as harassment itself. Joined-up working procedures will be given close scrutiny as part of this.
Ruth Scott, director of policy and campaigns at disability Scope, said: “We would like to see the inquiry focus on how public authorities are raising awareness of disability related harassment among disabled people, to increase their confidence in reporting such cases, and supporting and training frontline staff across public authorities to ensure they respond appropriately and promptly.”
A document outlining the terms of reference will be published shortly for consultation and the terms will be finalised early next year.
The announcement of the inquiry comes on the United Nations’ annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year the day aims to promote the involvement of disabled people in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals which aim to tackle problems such as reducing poverty and improving health in member states.