Question: When is a decrease in disability hate crime not a decrease in disability Hate crime?
The answer to that question is: When it's a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
In September this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released a follow up report on crime conducted towards disabled people, a report based upon the annual Crime Survey for England and Wales. The report follows on from one previously released, where an average of 77,000 hate crimes were estimated to have occurred during the period 2007-08 to 2009-10.
The report states that the total incidence of hate crime in England and Wales has declined at a time when the overall crime rate has also fallen. However, despite the decrease in the incidence of crime overall, crime remains higher for disabled people compared with non-disabled people of the same age. In England and Wales, more disabled than non-disabled people in every age group had experienced crime in the previous 12 months before the study. Similarly, in Scotland more disabled people than non-disabled people aged 16-44 or 65-74 had experienced crime in the previous 12 months.
So, no real surprises there. However, what was a surprise was to see a number of disability organisations actually reporting a huge decrease in disability hate crime between 2011 and 2014. Information apparently contained in the EHRC report, but Information not issued via the bog-standard press release. Here's an example taken from DisabledGo, dated 14th September 2016:
"Levels of disability hate crime in England and Wales have fallen in the years between 2007 and 2014, figures contained in a new report by the equality watchdog suggest... One table in the report shows that the number of incidents of disability hate crime affecting adults in England and Wales fell from an average of 77,000 per year during the period 2007-08 to 2009-10 to an average of 56,000 per year during the period 2011-12 to 2013-14...The commission did not mention this fall in disability hate crime in a press release issued alongside the report, which is likely to be due to concerns over the "statistical significance" of the figures."
"The commission points out in the report that this fall is not statistically significant at the level of 95 per cent confidence, but it has confirmed to DNS (Disability News Service) that it is statistically significant at the level of 89 per cent confidence. This means that EHRC can be 89 per cent certain that there was a real fall in disability hate crime rather than a drop showing up in the figures by chance".
Emmmmmmmmm... the commission did not mention this fall in disability hate crime in a press release, due to concerns over the "statistical significance" of the figures?
I love a good mystery and this potential shaggy dog story certainly sounds more than a little mysterious. Especially when considering that the period under question is the one where many disabled people where reporting increased incidents of abuse, harassment and violence argued to be motivated primarily by the 'scroungers' and 'fakers' rhetoric of Britain's political elite and their media comrades. Incidents that I have no valid reason to believe where made up or exaggerated. However, as disability hate crime is as old as the hills, nobody (including me) is going to argue that the benefit fraud brigade have motivated all cases of hate crime towards disability. But clearly, it motivated some and we should not allow that to be ignored or forgotten.
At best, many of us would have imagined that the new figures released from the EHRC to have been somewhat similar to those reported during 2007-8 to 2009-10, particularly as little has seemingly changed for the better for disabled people since 2009-10. Official figures show that the number of disability hate crimes recorded by police has risen every year since 2011-12, increasing from 2,006 in 2013-14 to 2,508 in 2014-15 alone. Certainly, more disabled people are inclined to report incidents to the authorities these days, often due to the splendid work undertaken by groups such as the Disability Hate Crime Network. But, an average drop of 21,000 estimated crimes per year seems a little far-fetched. That does not really make much sense, nor does it tie in with the number of surveys and polls undertaken with disabled people and groups over the past few years.
I may be a cynical old fool, but because of the opportunistic nature of our political leaders in Britain, such a dramatic drop in an estimate of the number incidents motivated by bias or prejudice towards disability, would surely have also been eagerly accompanied by the blowing of trumpets and bugles from those on high. But no. No press release from the EHRC nor any triumphant trumpeting from our Government or their PR department. Just a very low-key whisper upon the disability grapevine, an approach that almost has an apologetic and embarrassed air about it. So, let's take a closer look at the 'statistical significance' of this rather curious 'crime' story.
I hate statistics.
Just like the rendering on my humble, crumbling house, they often hide a multiple of sins. First off, statistics are used primarily as a source of proof that what you are saying is likely to be true, but they are also notorious for making false and misleading arguments. Having an 89% level of confidence in something certainly sounds good enough for most things in life. However, what it really means in the statistical world is that for every 100 cases that show the phenomena you are interested in, 11 will be due purely to chance or an error of some type. Similarly, for every 100,000 cases that show the phenomena, 11,000 will be due purely to chance or error.
By using such methods, statisticians are indeed revealing just how confident they are that the results they obtained are actually due to the phenomena under investigation and not simply due to chance or an error in the method's used. For something to be 'statistically significant' (i.e., not due to chance or error) the confidence level is normally set on or below 5%. In the EHRC study, the results fell way outside this standard at 11%, so for all intent and purposes, it's a result that nobody would normally have any faith or confidence in at all. In most research situations, it would arguably send us back to the drawing board to think again.
Secondly, if we take a closer look at the EHRC study, it's remarkably high error rate becomes even more important when we translate it to the actual numbers of disability hate crime that they have estimated. The EHRC reports there were an average of 56,000 incidents of disability hate crime committed per year, a drop from 77,000 in 2009-10. However, the margin of error in the study is reported as being around 13,000 cases either way. So, rather than giving the one estimate at 56,000 cases per year, the EHRC has effectively has given us three estimates of 43,000, 56,000 and 69,000. And the high-end figure pretty much ties in with its previous study on crime towards disabled people, and the many surveys and polls of disabled people that have taken place over the past number of years.
So, is the EHRC basically sticking its finger in the air and whistling Dixie. Well, yes in my opinion, as no statistician worth his salt would be happy with a statistical error rate of 11%, and it's my suspicion that is one reason the EHRC is actually downplaying its own report, at least to the media. Certainly, the report arguably contains errors in the sampling method, an error that therefore gives us the estimated range of disabled hate crime to between 43,000 cases and 69,000 cases per year. Additionally, the Crime Survey for England & Wales is simply a government survey of 50,000 people, and because of such sampling error, there is no guarantee that its results will always be truly reflective of what is really happening out there in England and Wales. So, we should always be wary of anything connected with the CSE&W. The only real way we will get to know the true extent of disability hate crime, is when all the victims of those crimes actually start to report them, and when the police actually start to record them all.
The EHRC is often described as an 'equality watchdog', a body that also describes itself as being 'independent', but a body that has obviously worked tirelessly to promote true equality across the UK (and it would be churlish to say otherwise). However and in reality, how can any organisation be totally independent from those who fund it (the UK Government) and around the tune of £17 Million? And it's a government who froze the EHRC's budget for this year and a government that has continually been hacking away at its annual budget since coming into power - which was as high as £62 million in 2010.
The EHRC is also at the heart of the UN's continuing enquires into the UK's violation of the human rights of disabled people. So, it is not difficult to argue that the EHRC may be coming under increasing pressure from the British Government to 'say' the right things about disability hate crime, particularly about a period of the UK's history that blatantly targeted disabled people for propaganda purposes. It would therefore be rather useful for the UK's government to see a massive fall in any estimate of crime committed towards disability, and precisely during the period when Britain's government was acting at its most extreme. A drop in disability hate crime? A shaggy dog story indeed?