Disabled activists have linked the conviction of a man who called his disabled neighbour a “benefit scrounger” to hostile stories and comments that have come from the media and the government.
Magistrates used disability hate crime laws to increase the sentence imposed on David McGregor, who had waged a three-month hate campaign against Peter Greener.
South Tyneside magistrates heard that McGregor accused Greener of being a “benefit scrounger”, encouraged his own and other local children to hurl abuse at him, sprayed graffiti on Greener’s fence, and threw rocks at his window, much of it caught on CCTV that had been installed by the Greener family.
Greener has a fluctuating condition, which means sometimes he can walk and sometimes he uses a wheelchair, but McGregor claimed he was exaggerating his impairment.
McGregor, of Johnston Avenue, Hebburn, pleaded guilty to harassment, criminal damage and attempted criminal damage.
He was handed a 10-week prison sentence, suspended for 12 months, and must carry out 80 hours of unpaid work. He was also given a restraining order and told not to harass or intimidate the Greener family for 12 months.
Magistrates had been intending to impose a community order, but because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) drew their attention to the disability hate crime aspects of the case, they instead imposed a more serious suspended prison sentence.
The case was mentioned by Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow disabled people’s minister, in a Commons debate on disability hate crime this week.
She linked Greener’s ordeal to the government’s treatment of welfare reform and its use of statistics on disability benefits, and to the “dramatic increase in the number of media articles related to disability fraud”.
She said that the “daily feeding to the media of press releases and distortion of figures, and the calling into question whether people really are disabled, has changed the landscape for disabled people”.
McGuire called on Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, to “challenge some of the more outrageous and outlandish comments” by some of her senior ministerial colleagues, because she said they were causing “fear and uncertainty” among disabled people.
Kaliya Franklin, the disabled blogger and activist who co-founded The Broken of Britain, said the court case showed signs of improved “understanding, classification and management” of disability hate crime by the criminal justice system.
But she said the number of anecdotal reports of disability hate crime had increased rapidly in the last year, and also raised concerns that many were linked to hostile reports appearing in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, and public comments from government ministers.
She said: “Disabled people are afraid, not just of the impact of the cuts, but that we are becoming targets for the wider community as a direct result of the demonisation of benefit recipients coming from the government and media.”
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, was behind a statement issued last week by the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) disabled members council, which urged journalists to “support and sustain fair and balanced reporting of matters relating to disabled people”.
The NUJ said the “continuous drip-feed” of stories promoting a “range of inaccurate and generalised accusations against disabled people” had led to them being “demonized” in the press as “work shy” and “scroungers” and caused hostility, discrimination and physical attacks.
Brookes, joint chair of the disabled members council, said cases such as the hostility experienced by Peter Greener were “the exact reason why I wanted that statement”.
A CPS spokesman welcomed Northumbria police’s action in treating the offences as motivated by hostility towards a disabled person.
He said the way the police, CPS and magistrates had dealt with the case “demonstrates that the messages around disability hate crime and other hate crime are being received and understood and people are acting on that”.
Campaigners have repeatedly highlighted the failure of the courts, police and prosecutors to take advantage of section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, which allows courts to impose harsher sentences for disability hate crimes, although not for murders.
But earlier this month, police, prosecutors and magistrates in Bristol won praise for using section 146 to increase the sentence imposed on a hairdresser who shaved an offensive word into the hair of a man with learning difficulties.