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Assessing the UK Government's Plan for Tackling Hate Crime in the Wake of the Japan Knife Attack

28/07/2016 15:48 | Updated 28 July 2016

On Tuesday, 26 July, the government published its long awaited plan for addressing the problem of hate crime, Action Against Hate: The UK Government's Plan for Tackling Hate Crime. And, once again, disability hate speech has been put to the back of queue.

In response to recommendations from disability rights groups, academics like myself, and the Women and Equalities Select Committee for the government to extend existing offences of stirring up hatred (on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation) to cover disability and transgender identity, the government's new plan of action is to take no action. That is, 'Government will consider these [recommendations].'

The government has already been considering these recommendations since the Law Commission recommended against extending the stirring up offences back in 2014. Further consideration is not a bad thing per se, so long as it leads to the right action. But in the meantime the stirring up of hatred against people with disabilities carries on unabated.

The government's action plan was published on the same day that Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee at a facility for people with disabilities in Japan, killed 19 innocent people ostensibly for no other reason than that they were disabled.

Earlier in the year Uematsu had written a letter to the government claiming that people with disabilities 'can only create misery', arguing for the legalisation of euthanasia for people with disabilities, and declaring that he would be willing and able to euthanise people himself.

Of course, the authorities in Japan acted on this threat to commit murder, based on parts of the letter, by ordering Uematsu to undergo psychological assessment. But they did not punish him for stirring up hatred against people with disabilities, based on other parts of the letter.

Setting aside words that threaten violence and words that directly incite violence or discrimination, if someone like Uematsu today writes an open letter to the government in the UK stirring up hatred against people with disabilities, using threatening language with intent to stir up hatred, but no more, he or she will face no legal action.

Uematsu, it seems, was suffering from at least one psychological illness or disorder. Ironically, it would also be perfectly legal at present for someone to publish an article that stirs up hatred against people on grounds of mental disability.

What I am calling for is for the government to extend existing stirring up offences to cover disability. Amongst many other reasons for this extension (consistency, prevention of a climate of hatred, symbolic value), there is the reason that the legislation might help the police to tackle disability hate speech that can act either as a gateway to or as an early indicator of more violent hate crimes.

Just because the stirring up of hatred is not done by an organised 'hate group' − think of neo-Nazi groups − it does not mean it can be ignored. There can be lone wolf cases. Indeed, laws may be justified in making sure that we never again see the rise of an organised hate group committed to the involuntary euthanasia of people with disabilities, as was the case in Nazi Germany.

Nowadays, a great deal of stirring up of hatred takes place online through Internet messaging services, social networking websites, file sharing sites, Internet forums and chat rooms. One possible explanation for the rise in the number of reported incidents of hate crime, both before and after Brexit, is increased use of social media technology, which often provokes our darkest and least considered responses to events and to other people. Another is that the Internet itself has played an important in enabling disability rights groups and the police to educate people about their rights and what legal measures are available to report and seek redress for hate crimes. Disability rights groups and the Police have used the Internet to get their message across almost as adeptly as hate speech use it to circulate theirs.

However, at present the police figures on reported hate crimes do not reflect instances of people stirring up hatred against people on grounds of disability; because this is not currently an offence. I believe that the government should extend the existing stirring up offences. But in the meantime, if it needs yet more time to consider, it should at least fund national research and data collection on the full extent of the problem of people stirring up of hatred on grounds of disability. There are numerous non-governmental organisations with the wherewithal to carry out this research and data collection if only they were assured the funds from central government.

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