The case of Fiona Pilkington, the 38-year old woman who killed herself and her 18-year-old disabled daughter, Frankie, after years of abuse from local youths in Leicestershire, has shocked the nation—and so naturally, once the story broke, politicians were swift to respond. The home secretary, Alan Johnson, in a speech at the Labour party conference, said that he would use the case to “force” the police to do more to tackle anti-social behaviour. Gordon Brown echoed this in his speech later the same day, assuring “the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.” Johnson also said that the case showed that tackling anti-social behaviour should be prioritised by police—as it clearly was not in this case: many of Fiona’s pleas to the police for help were not treated with the level of seriousness they deserved.
Clearly anti-social behaviour and the “respect agenda” are popular topics for politicians of all parties, and we should expect to hear more from all of them on the case.
But that’s not enough. Fiona Pilkington and her daughter were targeted, day after day, because Frankie happened to have a learning impairment. The family were taunted and called names, like “disabled bitch,” as well as being pelted with eggs and stones. Neighbours tried to help, but Fiona became so depressed she sat in the dark, fearful of the youths outside. Eventually she drove to a layby, with Frankie next to her, and set her car on fire.
The Pilkington case was one of the many that I examined when I was researching disability hate crime two years ago. I collected a dossier of 50 crimes against disabled people, few of which were treated as hate crimes. They ranged from the nasty—pushing wheelchair users out of their chairs—to torture and murder.
One of the most horrifying was the case of Christine Lakinski, a disabled woman, like Frankie, who was harassed by neighbours. In 2007, after collapsing in the street on her way home one day, a crowd gathered around her. As she lay dying, instead of helping her, one man covered her in shaving foam and urinated on her.
I subsequently highlighted this case, and a disturbingly high number of others, in a report called Getting Away with Murder, which was published last year. None of the cases in the report, however, were treated as disability hate crimes by the police. Yet if these crimes, and those committed against the Pilkington family had been committed against people from ethnic minority groups, I am sure they would have, quite rightly, been investigated and prosecuted as the hate crimes they undoubtedly were.
So while politicians should rightly be shocked by the Pilkington case, they should see beyond the easy label of “anti-social behaviour” and name and treat these crimes for what they really are: hate crimes against disabled people.