Online abuse and the experience of disabled people Contents

3Does the law work for disabled people?


87.The UK Parliament, Government and the Law Commission have looked at the laws covering online abuse and the arguments for and against greater regulation. Despite various suggestions and repeated calls for action, few practical steps have been taken to ensure that the Government’s oft repeated line “What is illegal online, is illegal offline” is true in practice. The petition asked for a change in the law to make online abuse a specific criminal offence. This inquiry looked specifically at disabled people’s experience of online abuse, which includes disability hate crime. In the course of the inquiry, we heard that the law covering online abuse is fragmented and that the law covering hate crime is inequitable.

88.Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides the legal framework for prosecuting disability hate crime. It gives courts the power to treat hostility towards disability as an aggravating factor, meaning that the sentence can be increased if someone is prosecuted. Unlike race and religion, there are no specific disability-related criminal offences. There is only that potential increase in sentencing. However, it is more likely that a suspect will be prosecuted for an offence if it is motivated by prejudice against the victim’s actual or presumed disability, or if the suspect targeted or exploited the victim based on their actual or presumed disability.84

89.A range of offences can cover online abuse, including fraud, sexual offences and stalking and harassment, as well as specific communications offences under the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988. The Malicious Communications Act and the Communications Act cover communications that are menacing, grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false. We heard that defining “grossly offensive” is difficult and often depends on context.85

90.Deciding whether a communication is a crime also involves looking at the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights. To be criminal, a communication or comment must “go beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in an open and diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression”.

Online abuse

91.The petition argues that the current law on online abuse is not fit for purpose. Much of what we heard during our inquiry supports that view. The Law Commission, in its scoping report published 1 November 2018, found that that the criminal law needs reform to protect victims from online and social media-based abuse:86

although criminal offences do exist, in many cases these could be improved so they are clearer and more effectively target serious harm and criminality.

92.In July 2014, the House of Lords Communications Committee report on Social Media and Criminal Offences stated that, although much of the law predated social media, it was still generally appropriate.87 We heard in our inquiry that current legislation already covers online incidents. We don’t doubt the truth of those statements, but we also heard that the current law is too fragmented to work in practice. In written evidence, Chara Bakalis, Principal Lecturer in Law, Oxford Brookes University, told us:

There are up to thirty different statutes which could potentially be used to punish online behaviour. [ … ] none of it is aimed specifically at tackling online hate.

93.From those we met, we found confusion over what should be a police matter, disagreements over how the law should apply in practice and a belief that abuse against disabled people was not taken seriously. There is clear confusion among the public and the police about how the law applies to online behaviour. That alone is an argument for reform.

94.The phrase “What is illegal offline, is illegal online” has been oft repeated by Ministers, and was included in the response to the Home Affairs Committee report Hate crime: abuse, hate and extremism online. At our consultation events, the phrase was met with confusion, anger or simply mocked. Apart from being untrue in the experience of those disabled people we spoke to, some forms of abuse, such as instigating “pile-ons” and the misuse of private images, simply cannot occur in the same way offline. The Law Commission’s Scoping Report on Abusive and Offensive Online Communications, published 1 November 2018, agreed.88

95.We heard that the lack of specific legislation to cover online abuse, and the belief that only the terms and conditions of social media companies apply to such abuse, leads to the perception that behaviour that is unacceptable offline is somehow acceptable online. People told us over and over again that many of those who created abusive content or were abusive or threatening towards them, “wouldn’t do it to my face” or “wouldn’t do it if they could meet me”.

Box 24: Participant at Royal Mencap Society’s digital champions roundtable

I don’t think they realise that there’s a person on the other end.

96.The police, the public and social media companies need a criminal law that is fit for purpose and draws a line between behaviour that can be tackled by private companies and behaviour that requires a criminal justice approach. Karim Palant from Facebook told us:

Our experience of working with law enforcement and prosecutors in the UK is that there is this sense that potentially a great deal of speech could be illegal under some definitions, but it is unclear in a great many cases and there is a sense that greater clarity would help both law enforcement and companies such as ours to respond to specific cases.89

97.Chara Bakalis, Principal Lecturer in Law, told us in written evidence:

The legislation is too fragmented and does not properly capture the harm caused by hate on the internet. As such, it is too difficult for the police and prosecutors to use, hence the low number of prosecutions in this area.

She went on to say that the current criminal law “gives internet service providers a huge amount of power to decide what can and cannot be said on the internet.” In oral evidence, Superintendent De La Rue, Brighton and Hove Division, Sussex Police, stated that “an area that I think is problematic is that not all the pieces of the jigsaw join up legislatively.” As discussed in the previous chapter, social media companies also have a role in ensuring that their users can understand the difference between a breach of terms and conditions and a potential criminal offence. To fulfil that role, social media companies need to be able to understand their responsibilities under clearly drafted legislation.

Box 25: Respondent to online survey

There needs to be a deterrent and punishment and the government needs to ensure police have guidelines to punish online offenders. There should be no grey area.

98.We heard concerns about freedom of speech, particularly on the Facebook thread where we asked users whether online abuse should be a specific criminal offence. The principal concerns raised were about censorship of legitimate debate. Typical comments from those against specific legislation were “Free Speech comes with the good and the bad, people can decide what and when to read and listen.” and “Definitely not. Online abuse has an easy cure, the off button. You don’t have to be online. Real crime doesn’t have an off switch.”

99.The idea that people can “block” or “mute” content or simply not use social media was put forward as the primary solution by those who were against online abuse becoming a specific offence. These comments mirror what disabled people told us they were regularly advised to do when they spoke up about online abuse and harassment. Disabled people are already marginalised. Asking them to become more disengaged from the world for their own protection is not a suitable solution to online abuse.90 As discussed in chapter 1, we do not believe that staying offline or people removing themselves from parts of the internet are acceptable solutions, any more than asking someone to remove themselves from their place of work or town centre would be.

100.Many of those who rejected the idea of a specific criminal offence still supported the idea that “What is illegal online, is illegal offline.” There were concerns about new laws suppressing freedom of speech, but even those with concerns seemed to believe that abusive behaviour should be covered by law—“I think this would be a very slippery slope? I mean, what constitutes abuse? If it’s outright nasty comments and making fun of someone’s disability then yes, definitely.” The disabled people we spoke to were clear that they wanted disabled people to have the same protections from hate crime as victims of racist abuse and for the Government’s statement “What is illegal offline, is illegal online” to be true in practice.

101.It is worth also reiterating that the petition that led to this inquiry was in part prompted by relentless abusive behaviour towards a disabled child, which the police could not bring criminal charges to prevent. Among the many examples we have seen, that abuse included faking and sharing an explicit pornographic film that claimed to show a disabled child having sex.

102.If the criminal law cannot deal with distributing fake child pornography to mock a disabled child and his family, then the law is inadequate. We agree with the petitioner, Katie Price, and the Law Commission that the current law on online abuse is not fit for purpose. The disabled people we spoke to were clear that they wanted disabled people to have the same protections from hate crime as victims of racist abuse and for the Government’s statement “What is illegal offline, is illegal online” to be true in practice. Disabled people are already marginalised. Asking them to become more disengaged from the world for their own protection is not a suitable solution to online abuse. Although we welcome the Law Commission review into offensive online communications and its statement that the criminal law needs reform to protect people from online abuse, we have concerns that the Government may again fail to act in a way that works for disabled people.

103.The police, the public and social media companies need a criminal law that is fit for purpose and draws a line between behaviour that can be tackled by private companies and behaviour that requires a criminal justice approach. It is not enough to repeat “What is illegal online, is illegal offline” as an excuse for inaction. We note that the Law Commission is reviewing abusive and offensive online communications, but we recommend that the Government brings forward legislation to clarify the law as soon as possible. We recommend that Ministers set out a timetable for doing so in the Government response to this report. Any delay must be justified to Parliament. To ensure that new legislation takes into account the needs of disabled people, we recommend that the Government consult disabled people directly. Such a consultation must be accessible to all disabled people, including those who are currently not using the internet due to their fear or experience of abuse.

Hate crime

104.Hate crimes are acts of violence or hostility directed at people because of who they are. The police and Crown Prosecution Service record hate crimes for five protected characteristics:

105.However, not all characteristics are treated equally in law. For example, a suspect who commits a racist assault can be tried for a specific hate crime offence, but a suspect who assaults someone because of their disability cannot. There is only a potential sentencing uplift. It is a crime to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their race, religion or sexual orientation, but not their disability. Disability hate crime is not a distinct part of the criminal law. As we were told by one event participant, “It’s only a disability hate crime if someone remembers at sentencing. No one is investigating people for disability hate crime.” Anne Novis told us in oral evidence

We do not have parity in law. Around race, which has good law that has been thoroughly researched and put together, every other aspect of hate crime has been an add-on to race hate crime, but none of them are equal. So around LGBT and disabled people we do not have equal rights in law around hate crime as those around race. For instance, around incitement to commit hostility, disabled people and LGBT are totally excluded and the legislation is different. You can be charged with hate crime in and of itself around race if someone targets you online as well as offline, but you cannot around disability. That is the difference and we desperately need the Government to take on board that we need an equal and fair hate crime law.

Box 26: Respondent to online survey

Disability Hate Crime has particular characteristics that mean it is often misreported as anti-social behaviour or non-priority incidents that in some cases have led to a Disabled person being victimised over a long period of time and loss of life. A Disabled person can be labelled as a paedophile by a local community, which does not appear to happen with other types of hate crime.

106.The topic of the inquiry is relatively limited. It was not intended to be a review of hate crime legislation, but the inequality in the legislation is impossible to ignore. All the disabled people we spoke to wanted legal parity between the protected characteristics. The lack of parity between disability hate crime and offences towards people on grounds of race and religion was brought up time and again by the disabled people we spoke to. They felt very strongly that the criminal justice system did not take crimes against disabled people seriously. Until disability is treated equally before the law, disabled people and the wider population will continue to hold that belief.

Box 27: Respondent to online survey

If you [are] a female and physically disabled in this country anyone can do anything to you and you have no legal right of complaint and that is my experience of the last twenty years. [ … ]The government is responsible because it does not place any value whatsoever on disabled people’s lives [ … ] You talk about disabled people in government as though we are bad people, lazy people, scroungers etc which is not true and insulting, without having a clue as to what it means to be disabled and treated this way everywhere you try to go.

107.The perception of inequality under the law was not the only concern. We were told that the different status afforded to different protected characteristics leads to confusion over how much protection people can expect under the law. The lack of clarity was brought up by Paul Gainnasi, cross-government hate crime programme manager:

I refer back to the stirring up hatred offence and the aggravated offences. Maybe in themselves they would not solve the problem, but one of the issues that we have to get over is about people understanding their rights, which is certainly a barrier that the victim groups have talked to us about.

108.In 2014, the Law Commission recommended a “wide-ranging review into hate crime”.91 In April 2017, the Home Affairs Committee’s report on hate crime called for a review of the entire legislative framework around online hate speech, harassment and extremism.92 The Law Commission recently announced that such a review would begin in 2019.93

109.Both the CPS and Detective Inspector John Donovan cited the work of the University of Sussex on disability hate crime.94 The University of Sussex study concluded that the way the law is currently framed is partly responsible for the under-reporting and under-prosecution of disability hate crime. In written evidence, Professor Mark Walters, Criminal Law and Criminology, University of Sussex, told us that only 0.02% of an estimated 34,840 disability hate crime cases reported to police in 2015–16 resulted in a conviction and an uplift in sentencing. The gap between reported hate crime and convictions that result in a sentencing uplift is particularly big for disability hate crime, when compared to other hate crimes.95 Those figures match what disabled people themselves and those who work at third-party reporting centres told us.96 Multiple reasons have been given for this enormous gap, including police attitudes and training, the status of disability hate crime in the criminal law and the complexity of navigating the criminal justice system for disabled people.97

110.One major reason cited by Professor Walters for the gap between reported hate crime and convictions is the need to prove that a crime was committed due to “hostility” towards someone due to their disability.98 The Metropolitan Police describe hate crime as “when someone commits a crime against you because of your disability, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other perceived difference.”99 However, the current law requires a court to be convinced that a crime is motivated by or demonstrates “hostility” towards someone due to their disability, not simply “by reason of” their disability.100 We heard that hate crimes against disabled people are often committed because prejudice against disabled people means that they are seen as an easy target.101 Our police witnesses spoke about the difficulties of identifying “hostility” in disability hate crime:

In 2007, when we came together as a Government programme, one of the first jobs was to find a common definition of hate crime. At that time, disability was really in focus, and it was clear to us that it was a significant challenge. A number of attacks led to tragic deaths, of Brent Martin, Steven Hoskin and Fiona Pilkington. What we did not see was evidence that there was a common hostility, as with white supremacy, against disabled people. But there were many similar characteristics in those horrible deaths—there was a behavioural trait of humbling, abuse, financial abuse, dehumanisation and, ultimately, extreme violence in all those cases. We have grappled long and hard with that.102

111.Evidence that someone has been targeted because of their disability is not enough in itself to prove “hostility” and so a crime may be reported as a hate crime, but not sentenced as one. We have heard that evidence of “hostility” is often not found in disability hate crime. Professor Walters told us that the “motivation of hostility” test should be replaced with a “by reason of” test. If a victim has been selected “by reason of” their disability, that should be enough to demonstrate a hate crime.103

112.Disabled people do not feel adequately protected or valued by the law. Many of the disabled people we spoke to felt that the UK Government has the information it needs to change the legislation now, and commissioning another Law Commission review into hate crime was simply avoiding the issue. We recommend that the Government amend hate crime legislation to ensure disability hate crime has parity with other hate crime offences. To ensure that the law applies where a victim had been selected because they were disabled, we recommend that it abolish the need to prove that hate crime against disabled people is motivated by hostility. It should be enough to prove that an offence was committed by “by reason of” their disability.

Disability, hostility and vulnerability

113.We heard that proving that someone was attacked due to hostility is complicated by the “vulnerability” designation. Evidence that a victim is “vulnerable” makes an offence more serious for sentencing purposes. In hate crime against disabled people, hostility and perception of vulnerability often go hand in hand. Crown Prosecution Service Disability Hate Crime and other crimes against Disabled people—prosecution guidance describes the following situation:

For example, theft of a wallet from a blind person. The equally obvious reason for selection of the particular disabled victim is that it renders the commission of the substantive offence easier, and lessens the likelihood of being apprehended by the victim. In other words, offenders tend to pick easy targets, such as the smallest or drunkest or least mobile person to rob or steal from.

If both inferences—hostility / easy target—are equally consistent conclusions from the facts, the inference relating to hostility is unlikely to be proved. For this reason, many offences against disabled persons, even when characterised by exploitative behaviour, or taking advantage of the person, or contempt for the person, may not amount to a hate crime for the purposes of s146.104

114.Detective Inspector John Donovan, Online Hate Crime Hub, Metropolitan Police Service, told us:

The conflation of vulnerability and hate is a complex issue. It should be easier online, because it should be explicit. The question boils down to why the person was targeted. Were they targeted because they were vulnerable and therefore easy prey, or were they targeted because of a real hatred of disabled people? That is the complexity of the issue.

There is no easy way through that, other than to say that it is no more explicit online than it is offline. I have heard that argument long and hard for two years from all the advocacy groups for the disabled that sit on our advisory groups, and as yet I have found no way of cutting that complex knot. There is a considerable body of work by Sussex University that looks into it all the way through the criminal justice system, and its recommendations are excellent.105

115.The interaction between vulnerability, disability and hate is complex, and provides a clear a reason to look at disability hate crime differently. Professor Walters told us in written evidence that the vulnerability designation prevents disability hate crime from being fully recognised and perpetrators appropriately punished. His research has shown that courts have preferred to declare that an attack happened due to the “vulnerability” of the disabled person than due to hostility against the victim on grounds of disability.106

116.The “vulnerability” designation was not well understood by many of the disabled people we spoke to. Those who had some knowledge of it were hostile to its use, feeling that it led to under-recording of hate crime and labelled disabled people as weak.107 Disabled people are not inherently weak or vulnerable and it was made very clear to us that it is offensive to imply otherwise. Professor Walters told us that its use only adds to the prejudice against and misrepresentation of disabled people, which in turn may reinforce the beliefs and attitudes that lead to disabled people being marginalised and abused.108 We heard that court decisions labelling people as vulnerable purely on grounds of disability are highly problematic. This happens despite the Crown Prosecution Service Disability Hate Crime and other crimes against Disabled people—prosecution guidance being clear that:

The social model of disability recognises that many people with disabilities do not consider themselves to be “vulnerable” and may be offended by the use of that word to describe their position. … Where the guidance refers to a “vulnerable” victim, witness or person, it does so in the context of the person being vulnerable to a particular criminal offence in particular circumstances.109

117.As Professor Walters told us in written evidence, the vulnerability designation prevents disability hate crime from being fully recognised and perpetrators appropriately punished. The criminal justice system is too quick to categorise disabled people as “vulnerable”. The vulnerability designation perpetuates damaging stereotypes about disabled people, which in turn may reinforce the beliefs and attitudes that lead to disabled people being marginalised and abused.

118.The CPS and the police can only work within the framework provided by the law. We recommend that the Government work with disabled people to review the use of such designations. The review should have the aim of ensuring hate crimes are properly reported and sentenced as such and that “vulnerability” is only used when appropriate.

A register of offenders?

119.The petition specifically calls for a register of offenders. This idea received a mixed response from attendees at our consultation events. Many thought that an appropriately framed criminal law covering hate crime and online abuse would make such a register unnecessary, as a simple Disclosure and Barring Service check would reveal whether an offence had been committed. However, we heard concerns that employers of care and support workers, or those who come into contact with disabled people, should be able to find out whether a potential or current worker has been convicted of a disability hate crime.

120.We heard in oral evidence from Paul Gainnasi, cross-government hate crime programme manager, that whether a crime has been motivated by hostility towards disability is not recorded on someone’s criminal record:

With any crime, the court is obligated to increase the sentence and say why it has done so, if it is satisfied that the offender demonstrated, or was motivated partly by, hostility. That is currently not recorded on people’s criminal conviction record; the core offence of assault may be, but not the hostility element, so we can look at people’s records and not see that.110

121.The petition calls for a “register of offenders”. We believe that a sensible criminal law, which covered online abuse and included proper recognition of hate crimes against disabled people, will achieve what the petition is looking for from a register, as criminal convictions will show up as part of a Disclosure and Barring Service check.

122.We recommend that the Government ensure that employers of support workers or others working with or for disabled people can check whether an employee has been convicted of a disability hate crime. When the Government reforms hate crime legislation, we recommend that it ensure that it is possible for a conviction for a hate-related offence to show up in a Disclosure and Barring Service check.

Experiences reporting crime

123.In the previous section, we talked about how the way that the law is framed is partly responsible for the under-reporting of disability hate crime and the difficulties prosecuting online abuse. We also heard that police attitudes and training and the complexity of navigating the criminal justice system for disabled people are creating difficulties. We heard that disabled people’s experiences of dealing with the police were mixed and often depended greatly on the force and officer(s) involved.111 Action against Hate: The UK Government’s plan for tackling hate crime—”two years on”112 lists some excellent commitments and promising work, such as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services’s report into the police handling of hate crime.113 It gives examples of encouraging work such as “hate crime champions” and “cyber community support officers”.

124.However, we heard that disabled people felt excluded by the criminal justice system and did not feel taken seriously by the police. We heard that repeated acts of aggression and abuse, which the disabled person themselves felt were motivated by hatred towards them because of their disability, were recorded as simple anti-social behaviour.114

Box 28: Participant at the Royal Mencap Society’s digital champions roundtable

The police use jargon and treat it as anti-social behaviour, not learning disability hate crime.

Box 29: Respondent to online survey

I was assaulted because I’m disabled. I reported it as a hate crime. Nothing was investigated other than checking CCTV images 3 weeks after the assault. I don’t even know if it was logged as a hate crime.

125.In written evidence, Dr Alhaboby, told us that not being taken seriously was a common occurrence for disabled people or those with long-term conditions suffering online harassment.115

Anne Novis told us in oral evidence:

The biggest barrier we face is disbelief by professionals and the belittling of what we experience and the impact of it. I am adviser to the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and British Transport police on hate crime, particularly against disabled people. The reason I took those roles, which are all voluntary, is because of my knowledge that we are not believed and that the issue is not treated as seriously as it should be.116

126.We welcome the work that police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service and Ministry of Justice have done to try to improve the experiences of disabled people when reporting crime or acting as witnesses. For example, to improve the experiences of victims and witnesses, the CPS has a national scrutiny panel on disability hate crime, made up of experts and academics, including the National Autistic Society, Lemos and Crane, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Dimensions, MIND and Stop Hate UK.117 Dimensions’ written evidence submission in response to our draft recommendations states:

We are aware that some police forces are automatically recording crimes against disabled victims as hate crimes, so that officers are essentially perceiving any crime against a disabled person to be a hate crime. This ensures that the initial investigation explores all possible motivations for the crime, even when the victim has not perceived the crime to have been a hate crime and the perpetrator may have been subtle in the prejudice or hostility they have shown towards the victim.118

127.The Met Police’s National Online Hate Crime Hub provides specialist officers to improve the way police and partners identify and investigate incidents of online hate and support victims. However, Inclusion London told us, “The pilot has been successful but needs ongoing funding to enable the work to continue.”

128.The good work we heard about was not reflected in what people told us about their experiences. Many disabled people we spoke to were angered by the statement in our special report on the draft recommendations that “It is easier now for people with disabilities to report hate crime or be a witness.” That level of anger is a clear indication that something still isn’t working.

Box 30: Participant at consultation event Newcastle

If you’ve got a learning disability, you’re not taken seriously. You’re treated with suspicion unless your disability is obvious.

129.Rob Holland from Mencap told us that:

[ … ] while there are some examples of good practice, it is very much about how we make sure that every police force in the country takes this very seriously and has accessible ways of reporting, with people being supported through the process.119

130.Third-party reporting centres attempt to overcome the barriers to reporting hate crime by providing an alternative to reporting directly to the police. Local deaf and disabled people’s organisations support victims of hate crime as well as act as third-party reporting centres. Disabled people we spoke to were very supportive of the role that they played, but those who worked in such centres told us that they knew of a lot more hate crime than was being reported.120

131.We heard that, “Support services across the board are restricted by lack of funding”, that national co-ordination is “fragmented” and that police forces handle hate crime against disabled people inconsistently. Those we spoke to in Belfast also brought up the difficulties of having police officers visiting their homes in sectarian areas.

132.The effects of this fragmentation and inconsistency were raised at our events. People who have been abused or exploited online are understandably suspicious of unofficial non-government sites and organisations. People need to be able to trust the source of advice and know that what they are told represents best practice and will not put them at risk. If part of educating people to stay safe online is about being able to trust the source of the information they require, the Government must take responsibility for being that trusted official source for information and ensuring consistency of support across the country.

133.We also spoke to disabled people who found themselves subject to police attention or ignored when trying to report crime because people can interpret aspects of their disability as aggression or obstinacy. In Swansea and Newcastle, we met adults with learning disabilities who had been arrested for being uncooperative because they simply didn’t understand what was being asked of them.121

134.The disabled people we spoke to were very clear that police officers need training in recognising disability and communicating with disabled people. Police officers need to be able to recognise disability and understand that it might mean that their usual approach might not be appropriate. The experience of those we spoke to was that many frontline police officers are simply not equipped to communicate with disabled people.

135.Organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service and individual police forces are reporting excellent work, but too many disabled people told us that their experiences with the criminal justice system were largely or wholly negative. New initiatives are helpful but national co-ordination and long-term funding are lacking. We heard that fragmentation and inconsistency generates mistrust. Many disabled people we spoke to were angered by the statement in our special report on the draft recommendations that “It is easier now for people with disabilities to report hate crime or be a witness.” That level of anger is a clear indication that something still isn’t working.

136.We recommend that the Government conduct a full overarching review into the experience of disabled people reporting crime and giving evidence, covering the work of third-party reporting centres, online initiatives, the police and the courts. In particular, we recommend that it develops an action plan to ensure that the appropriate training and procedures are in place so that disabled people, including adults with learning disabilities or autism, are treated as “reliable witnesses” and appropriately supported from the moment they approach the police.

137.We recommend that the Government ensure that every frontline police officer receives the support necessary to ensure that disabled people have equal access to, and treatment in, the criminal justice system.

Online exploitation

138.All of us can experience exploitative relationships, and disabled people are no different. Disabled people have the same rights as everyone else to make unwise decisions, but we have heard particular concerns about adults with learning disabilities and vulnerable neurodiverse people being befriended online by those intent on using the relationship to exploit them. This so-called “mate crime” can lead to financial, physical and sexual exploitation. Some of this is legal under current legislation, but it can cause immense distress and draw people into criminal activity, either as unwilling perpetrators or victims. For example, we were told about adults with learning disabilities being encouraged to carry or store illegal drugs and others who have been murdered following long-term exploitation.

139.The Association for Real Change, an umbrella body representing providers in the learning disability sector, defines “mate crime” as:

[ … ] when someone ‘makes friends’ with a person and goes on to abuse or exploit that relationship. The founding intention of the relationship, from the point of view of the perpetrator, is likely to be criminal. The relationship is likely to be of some duration and, if unchecked, may lead to a pattern of repeat and worsening abuse.122

140.The term “mate crime” is well, but not universally, understood. It also does not reflect the gravity of the effects of exploitation. Anne Novis, disability campaigner and chair of Inclusion London, told us:

Personally, I—and many organisations run by disabled people—do not like the term “mate crime”, because it’s not recognised in law. It’s not what we’re fighting for. We want hate crime recognised; we don’t want anything less than that.

But deliberate befriending online and offline of disabled people is very, very real, and deliberately to take advantage of them in different ways. It may be not to be hostile; it may be to have their money, their benefits, or to take some advantage of them. That definitely does happen and it’s a type of hostility that needs to be recognised, along with all the other types that lead us into an escalating pattern of abuse that can often end in murder, if not torture beforehand.123

141.The exploitative behaviour towards adults with learning disabilities we were told about by disabled people included:124

142.When we asked one group what their main concerns were online, we were told that it was being targeted on online dating sites and by extremist groups.125 Giving money to a friend or being lied to by someone you are having a sexual relationship with are not covered by the criminal law, and nor should they be. However, these experiences cause extreme distress and can escalate into criminal behaviour. The way that deliberate befriending with the intention of exploitation can escalate should not be under-estimated. The tragic murder of Lee Irving—a vulnerable 24-year-old young man with learning disabilities—demonstrates where these exploitative relationships can lead.126

143.One of the major challenges to tackling such exploitation is striking the balance between supporting those who need it and respecting disabled people’s rights to make decisions, even bad ones. We heard that disabled people often find themselves needing to prove that they have the capacity to make their own decisions, choose sexual partners and live adult lives. Those around them can struggle to recognise disabled people as decisionmakers.127 We heard that disabled people, particularly those who need care, are often infantilised. It is for those reasons that some disabled people we spoke to were very concerned about the unintended consequences of the Government tackling online exploitation.128

144.The adults with learning disabilities and neurodiverse people we met were often keen to be able to identify themselves as in need of extra support to tackle online abuse, identify potential exploitation and seek guidance when a “friendship” made them uncomfortable. Different groups mentioned the possibility of a different reporting pathway for adults with learning disabilities.129

145.From disabled people we also heard that “mate crime is hate crime”. The Government should therefore recognise that befriending adults with the intention of exploitation can be a hate crime. Dimensions told us they expected the Law Commission review of all hate crime legislation to offer solutions to this exploitation.130

146.Disabled people have the same rights as everyone else to make unwise decisions, but that in no way lessens the Government’s responsibility to ensure that people are safe from abuse and exploitation. Social media and online dating sites have increased the exposure of people who are vulnerable to exploitation to those who might target them. This is a difficult issue that the Government must grasp. It leads to real-life consequences, including theft, rape and murder.

147.We heard from disabled people that “mate crime is hate crime”. Dealing with exploitation, online and offline, seems to have been left in the “too difficult” box. We met people who had been sexually and financially exploited by those they met online. We heard of cases where people have been murdered and tortured. It’s time for the Government to act. We recommend that the Government establish a Ministerial review to address befriending with the intention of exploitation on and offline. In doing so, it must bring together all agencies, organisations and people concerned, particularly disabled people, and include social media and online dating companies. It must report to Parliament on its intended actions within six months. We also recommend that the Law Commission consider befriending with the intent of exploitation within its review of hate crime laws.

148.The Government must ensure that disabled people are not unnecessarily caught up in attempts to tackle befriending with the intention of exploitation. We recommend that any review of the current law must include the voices of disabled people and any actions must be co-developed with disabled people, to ensure their capacity to make their own decisions is respected and that they are not further marginalised.

84 CPS (ONL0016)

85 CPS (ONL0016)

87 House of Lords Communications Committee, First Report of Session 2014–15, Social Media and Criminal Offences, HL Paper 37

90Why disabled people can’t afford to #deletefacebook”, The Guardian, 4 April 2018

91 Law Commission, “Hate Crime: Should the Current Offences be Extended?”, 2 June 2014

92 Home Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2016–17, Hate crime: abuse, hate and extremism online, HC 609

93Law Commission review into hate crime announced”, Law Commission press release, 18 October 2018

94 CPS (ONL0016)

95 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)

96 Summary of consultation events

97 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)
Chara Bakalis (ONL0002)
Inclusion London (ONL0005)
Dr Loretta Trickett and Nottingham Civic Exchange (ONL0007)

98 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)

99 Metropolitan Police, What is hate crime?

100 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)

101 Dr Loretta Trickett and Nottingham Civic Exchange (ONL0007)

103 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)

104 Crown Prosecution Service, Disability Hate Crime and other crimes against Disabled people—prosecution guidance, How to distinguish s146 cases from other crimes committed against disabled people

106 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)

107 Summary of consultation events

108 Professor Mark Walters (ONL0008)

109 Crown Prosecution Service, Disability Hate Crime and other crimes against Disabled people—prosecution guidance, What we mean by “Vulnerable” victims and witnesses

111 Summary of consultation events

112 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Home Office, and Ministry of Justice, Hate crime action plan 2016 to 2020, 26 July 2016

113 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Understanding the difference: the initial police response to hate crime, July 2018

114 Summary of online engagement and consultation events

115 Dr Zhraa A. Alhaboby (ONL0003)

117 CPS (ONL0016)

118 Dimensions (ONL0015)

120 Summary of consultation events

121 Summary of consultation events

124 Summary of consultation events

125 Summary of London informal evidence session

126 Lee Irving murder: Risks known years before death, BBC Tyne & Wear, 15 June 2017
HC Deb, 17 October 2017, Col 244WH [Westminster Hall]

127 Summary of consultation events

128 Summary of consultation events

129 Summary of consultation events and summary of Mencap digital champions roundtable

130 Dimensions (ONL0001)

Published: 22 January 2019