The government's Hate Crime Action Plan is coming under fire from campaigners who say there needs to be tougher measures to ensure agencies work together, writes Vern Pitt
Teenage boys hanging around in Donna Smith's neighbourhood plagued her for months.
Smith, a wheelchair user with a severe speech impediment, endured burglary, street robbery and youths mimicking her speech and calling her a spastic. The routine abuse made an impression that lingered long after the problem went away. "For a few months after the incidents I kept looking, turning my chair around to see that I had not been followed," says Smith.
She is sure that what she was experiencing was disability hate crime: "I feel that the crime relates to my impairment because my inability to speak in a 'normal' way makes me appear different."
Smith experienced a number of barriers in having action taken against her tormentors. She had to type up her own statement after her handbag was stolen by one boy because of communication barriers with the police, who found her speech impediment difficult.
She asked her social worker to support her at a court hearing, where she said the teenage boy's lawyer "did all that was in his power to get him off", but the social worker refused, saying he was not allowed to go.
In general, she says social services were unco-operative and did not want to become involved.
Serious case review
Smith's experiences of hate crime mirrors those of Fiona Pilkington and her 18-year-old disabled daughter, Francecca Hardwick. Pilkington killed herself and her daughter in October 2007 after years of antisocial behaviour and harassment from local young people in Barwell, Leicestershire.
A serious case review published last month identified a lack of partnership working between agencies, while a review of police involvement in the case admitted there was no recognition of the family's possible vulnerability, despite repeated complaints by Pilkington about antisocial behaviour.
Despite 13 recorded incidents involving the family in 2007, no referrals were made to social services.
The SCR and the inquest into the Pilkington case came hot on the heels of the government's Hate Crime Action Plan.
The plan's specific pledges include new Crown Prosecution Service guidance on prosecuting disability hate crimes, due by December 2009, and advice for health and social care professionals on supporting disabled victims of crime by 2011.
More generally, the action plan promises to "facilitate and encourage joint working among all public bodies involved in tackling hate crime".
Communication in these cases is of paramount importance to ensure professionals have the full picture of what a person is experiencing because they may report only a small proportion of incidents to individual agencies. However, campaigners have been critical of the lack of measures in the action plan to mandate joint working.
"There needs to be a clear mandate to say that this kind of approach to joining up the way you work helps to keep people safe," says Scope policy director Ruth Scott.
There is already a framework for joint working between social services, health and police to safeguard vulnerable adults, in the shape of the 2000 No Secrets guidance.
But the Pilkington SCR identified problems in using safeguarding adults procedures to tackle disability hate crime.
It concluded that, had police made a referral to social services, it would have been treated as a request for services, not a safeguarding issue, because "no abuse had taken place in the family or professional support system".
Anticipating the SCR, the action plan pledged to examine the relationship of policies on disability hate crime and safeguarding vulnerable adults through the current review of No Secrets.
Low prosecution levels
Voice UK chief executive Kathryn Stone sees language as the only difference between the two areas. "If we're talking about sexual abuse, in the real world that's rape or sexual assault, and financial abuse - if it happened to me - would be called theft or embezzlement."
As Smith's case illustrates, disabled people face barriers to having hate crimes taken to court - and prosecution levels are far lower than for other hate crimes (see Hate Crime Facts, below).
Besides new guidance on prosecution, the action plan promises to empower victims with accessible means of reporting crimes, including third-party reporting systems for those who feel unable to approach the police.
Voice UK is already taking action to support victims, which will be enhanced by the award of £50,000 from the government, announced alongside the action plan.
This will fund training for the police in supporting disabled victims and support and advocacy work carried out by three regional support workers, based in Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester.
Stone says the advocacy service, to which social workers can refer service users, has proved invaluable in empowering disabled people to report hate crime.
However, despite its aspirations, the action plan may not go far enough in this respect, says Scott. "There is very little in terms of supporting the victims of hate crime. There is a lot about supporting witnesses."
Smith asked for just this kind of help to put her case across with the police and in court but was unable to get it from social services and had to rely on a personal friend.
Providing this support, along with improved joint working, will be crucial in ensuring better outcomes for people like Smith and preventing tragedies such as the Pilkington case.
More on the Pilkington case
HATE CRIME FACTS
A disability hate crime is a criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person's disability or perceived disability. It is an aggravating factor in sentencing.
A report last year by Scope, the United Kingdom Disabled People's Council and Disability Now magazine found that in 2007-8 there were:
6,689 race hate crime incidents prosecuted
778 homophobic hate crime incidents prosecuted
141 disability hate crime incidents prosecuted
The low level of prosecutions for disability hate crime is related to under reporting. Figures from Southampton Council, which monitors incidents of hate crime, show that 1,090 race hate crimes were reported in the 2008-9 financial year, compared with only 51 cases of disability hate crime.
Fiona Pilkington SCR questions safeguarding adults policy
Voice UK to use hate crime funds to extend helpline
Government issues proposals to tackle disability hate crime
This article is published in the 22 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline "Partners against hate crime"