A new Yougov poll and online petition reveals that British people are in favour of extending existing hate speech laws to protect people with disabilities.
In a Yougov survey of just over 2,000 British adults, 65% thought it should be against the law to use threatening words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred against other people on grounds of their mental or physical disabilities. This was higher even than the 63% who supported existing laws which already cover race, religion, and sexual orientation.
The government has been thinking about extending laws on stirring up hatred for years without making a firm decision. It's nine years since the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 introduced offences of stirring up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation and eleven years since the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 did the same for religion. And it's been over 40 years since it became an offence to stir up hatred on grounds of race. So why are people with disabilities being made to wait?
Having been asked by the government to conduct a review of hate crime and hate speech laws, in 2014 the Law Commission came out against extending incitement to hatred law to cover (trans-)gender identity and disability. It took the view that there was insufficient evidence that the kind of conduct that would be caught by any such new offences is actually occurring.
The Law Commission failed to consider the possibility that the lack of evidence reflected a lack of funding for research into the phenomenon, itself part of the wider problem faced by people with disabilities (all too often being ignored).
Nor did it give sufficient weight to the point that sending a clear message that people with disabilities are not second-class citizens could help to make them harder targets for all kinds of mistreatment, not just incitement to hatred.
In July 2016 the government published its long awaited plan for addressing the problem of hate crime. In response to recommendations from some pressure groups, academics including myself, and the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee that stirring up hatred offences should be extended to cover gender identity and disability, the government's new plan of action was to take no action. It said only that it will consider the recommendations.
The YouGov poll is evidence that the British people want the government to act. Indeed, levels of support for an extension of hate speech laws was strong irrespective of the political party allegiances of the people polled, with one exception. Among people who voted for UKIP in 2015, only 53% thought it should be against the law to use threatening words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred against other people on grounds of disability. Indeed, only 38% affirmed that such laws should cover gender identity.
These results might suggest that among UKIP voters there is a special concern for free speech or a special disdain for what is seen as political correctness. It may also reflect the fact that during the election some UKIP candidates were accused of engaging in hate speech. UKIP voters could feel that incitement to hatred laws are being used illegitimately to silence their political viewpoint.
Nevertheless, further evidence of British support for an extension of current hate speech laws comes by way of a recent online petition, which attracted 11,526 signatures in six months. It too called on the government to extend the stirring up hatred offences to include disability. The petition was large enough to trigger a response from the government. But, once again, its response displayed hesitancy -- "the Ministry of Justice is currently considering the options".
Frustratingly, the response ended with the following platitude:
We must work together to protect that diversity, defeat hate crime and uphold the values that underpin the British way of life, and we will continue to ensure that all those who seek to spread hatred and division in our communities are dealt with robustly by the police and the courts.
But, at present, people who use threatening words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred against people with disabilities can do so without fear of prosecution.
No doubt the government is focused on Brexit at the moment. It has indicated that it won't make a decision on how to replace European human rights laws with British versions until after Brexit. If there is to be a British bill of rights, it will need to include a constitutional guarantee of the right to freedom of expression but it will equally need a qualification of that right in order to safeguard diversity, community cohesion and democratic values.
But while plans for Brexit take up everyone's time, people with disabilities continue to be overlooked -- once again.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,017 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 26th - 27th February 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
This article was originally published on The Conversation.