Ukip activists are aggressively defensive about their party's attitude to the disabled. Photo: Getty
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Ukip should examine its own record over a disability “tirade”

There’s a lot of intellectualising about Ukip at present, but a simple truth is that they’re not very nice people.

A toad, a lying piece of excrement, vile, thick, a “dick”, dangerous, supporting “paedos, gang and child rape”, a “dog,” hateful, a “vile excuse for a human being”.

These are just some of the more polite (and hence printable) insults thrown at me by some 500 Ukip representatives and supporters in an apparently organised attack through social media this week.

I’m either Trotskyite or fascist, they say (difficult to comprehend how those two go together).

Although I regard it as pathetic, many people would find sinister their messages to me saying they are “looking forward to my demise”, “the sooner extinct, the better” and I’ve got “nowhere to hide”.

What has generated all this manufactured fury?

It seems they’ve noticed a two-week-old comment in which I drew attention to a blog by the protest group Disabled People Against The Cuts (DPAC), who are by two-thirds victims of the iniquitous bedroom tax, which lambasted unsavoury and offensive statements about disabled people made by Ukip candidates or in Ukip policy.

The article showed how Ukip defended the right of one of their local candidates who they described as “excellent” to argue for forced abortion of disabled foetuses; how their 2010 manifesto contained proposals for learning disabled people to be put in segregated communities, and how Ukip’s leader personally said another local candidate could not stand for the party because of his physical disability.

DPAC carefully referenced these claims, and I saw that each was based on reporting by independent journalists in national media, where Ukip had been given a right of reply and to correct any factual inaccuracy.

Nevertheless, the blanket denials and torrent of abuse from Ukip against me for simply drawing attention to the article continues unabated.

Although those sending the messages profess to care about disabled people, without a jot of irony or self-awareness, one declares me to be a “loony”.

But that’s hardly surprising when one of their MEPs who’s bothered to ask me directly about this, is the very same one who the parliamentary record shows used the word “autistic” in a pejorative way to attack a political opponent.

So what does all this say about Ukip and its supporters?

That too many of them appear to hold offensive and discriminatory views against disabled people.

That they embrace an unbelievable hypocrisy by repeatedly defending their own statements as “free speech”, while denouncing the right of those of us who disagree with them to do the same.

That they have been cushioned by the free ride they have enjoyed for too long in the British media, and are totally unused to being held to public account for their views and conduct, in a way other parties standing for election always have.

Ukip members should be angry if they really cared about disabled people. They should share the rage of disabled people who are by two-thirds of the victims of the iniquitous bedroom tax, have suffered the indignity of Atos “fit-for-work” tests unfit for a civilised society and that families with disabled members have been made five times worse off than others by this government’s spending and benefit cuts which the Hardest Hit coalition calculated has taken £9bn out of the pockets of Britain’s disabled people.

The newly-elected cohort of Ukip MEPs could share my own anger about Britain’s record, when comparing it to the increases in disability benefits in France and Belgium despite austerity measures, in a laudable attempt to protect disabled people from the worst ravages of the economic crisis.

But instead all we see is a mock anger from Ukip, defending the indefensible within their own party, and attacking a group like Disabled People Against The Cuts who – by the way – have robust criticisms of all parties, including Labour.

To make my own position clear.

I worked with a disability charity for nine years before being elected to the European Parliament and am unapologetically a lifelong campaigner for disability rights.

As either chair or vice-chair of Europe’s all-party Disability Rights Group of MEPs continuously since first being elected, I have and will always hold out the hand of friendship to other parties who sincerely want to work together to improve the rights of disabled people.

But like any other equalities campaigners, if I see or hear discriminatory actions or behaviour, then there is an obligation to challenge them.

Richard Howitt is the Labour MEP for the East of England and vice-chair of the European Parliament All-Party Disability Rights Group of MEPs

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.