Phil Bennion MEP writes… Anti-Bullying Week: The EU has a duty to share best practice on Autism-related bullying

This week is Anti-Bullying Week, now an annual UK event. It aims to raise awareness of bullying of children and young people and people with conditions such as autistic spectrum disorders which make them particularly vulnerable to abuse. Organised by the Anti Bullying Alliance (ABA) in England, which is made up of sixty member organisations, the week is an important opportunity for policy-makers to take stock of efforts to stamp out this social evil and evaluate new approaches.

As MEP for the West Midlands region, I have always believed that the European Union has an important role to play in sharing experience and best practice in tackling the common social problems which afflict our societies. With this in mind, I have launched a cross-party call in the European Parliament for action to promote the most effective approaches to bullying, especially autism-related bullying, where victims can be of any age but are particularly vulnerable.

Working with leading autism campaigner Kevin Healey, who chairs Staffordshire Adults Autistic Society (SAAS) in my constituency, I have put forward a Written Parliamentary Declaration (similar to an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons) highlighting the issue. As well as Lib Dem colleagues, my draft Written Declaration on protection of people with autism from bullying has won support from co-sponsor MEPs in different parties and is now being assessed by the Presidency, before being opened for support from MEPs across the Parliament.

Kevin, who suffers from Autism and has faced cyber-bullying, stalking and even death threats, has been campaigning on the problem for over ten years. He has gained over 130,000 twitter followers for his calls for effective legislation and much tougher action to stop bullying. He is especially concerned with problems online where many autistic people spend much of their social life. A recent survey by the National Autistic Society (NAS) found 81% of autistic people report being the victims of abusive behaviour, 47% have suffered a physical assault while 24% report being bullied online.

All forms of bullying are unacceptable but exploitation of people with autism is particularly damaging and shocking. Left unchecked, abuse can escalate into serious assaults. But current laws, Kevin says, ‘simply don’t work.’

Beyond Facebook and Twitter, new social media sites are springing up all the time and sadly each are possible arenas for bullying and abuse. As perpetrators can be anywhere, and sites registered or managed anywhere, we clearly need an international approach which balances freedom of expression with the needs of the vulnerable.

Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, is also backing the Written Declaration. He points to an ‘alarming number’ of people living with autism and other disabilities now subject to bullying and hate crimes. He said: “Due to the social difficulties people with autism experience, it can leave them vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the unscrupulous. People with autism have the same rights as the rest of society to lead lives free from fear and violence.”

The Declaration should go ‘live’ and be open for signatures before the next Strasbourg plenary session in December. If after three months a majority of MEPs sign up in support, it will be forwarded to the relevant EU institutions to investigate and/or take further action, which may include legislation. The more MEPs who can be persuaded to sign, the more effective we can be in pushing this issue up the agenda for action.

* Phil Bennion is the Chair of the Party's Federal International Relations Committee and former MEP for the West Midlands.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 24th Nov '13 - 6:08pm

    Personally I wish to thank Phil Bennion MEP for highlighting this for as a former police officer who was and remains involved in tackling Hate Crime bullying is sadly an all too common experience for people with autism and other disabilities, that can have tragic results, but always scars the victim.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) – Vice Chair
    Liberal Democrat South Central Region Executive – Diversity Officer

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