Bardon Road in Barwell, Leicestershire is not syringe city. Yesterday morning, one of Fiona Pilkington’s former neighbours was taking advantage of the autumn sunshine to paint his garage door a tasteful shade of sage green, while mothers pushed well-dressed children past front gardens adorned with statuary, water features and hanging baskets.
The suburban serenity of the scene makes it all the more shocking that, almost exactly two years ago, Pilkington reached such a pitch of despair about the torment she was subjected to by neighbouring youths that she gave her 18-year-old daughter, Frankie, the family rabbit to hold, drove to a lay-by on the nearby A47 and set fire to their car. With the nights closing in, she believed death was the only way they could find peace.
Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes’ night were for her not just a passing nuisance, but the low point in a year-round cycle of horror that she had endured for a decade. Using trick-or-treating and fireworks as an excuse, yobs would post lighted bangers through her door and light fires on the ground in front of her three-bedroom semi. Fiona Pilkington, 38, had complained to the police no fewer than 33 times about such incidents, as well as several vicious attacks on her son, Anthony, and mockery of Frankie, who had severe learning difficulties.
Neither the police, nor any of the agencies who should have been supporting a vulnerable family, had responded to her cries for help. After a decade of being ignored, she had become resigned to the authorities being “too busy” to deal with what they considered low-level nuisance behaviour.
Almost the most shocking thing about this case is that we might not know about this failure to help her if it weren’t for Olivia Davison. The assistant deputy coroner for north Leicestershire fought police attempts to impose reporting restrictions on the inquest and, despite the police lawyer’s protest about her “robust, challenging and judgmental approach”, she asked the questions that all of us would want answered.
Had she not done so, we might not know how easy it is for the weakest in society to get the rawest of deals. Fiona Pilkington had learning difficulties herself and was suffering from depression. She was facing the moment when Francecca was about to leave the special-needs school where she had been happy for 14 years, and start life as an adult. With little support and nothing to look forward to, Pilkington despaired.
This case is being hailed as the Stephen Lawrence moment for disability hate crime. But it also marks a turning point in our tolerance of anti-social behaviour, on which Britain has a worse record than other European countries. “That could be because the public are less willing to intervene,” says Rick Muir of the Institute of Public Policy Research, “and children spend less time with their parents.”
Yesterday, in his speech to the Labour Party conference, Gordon Brown dared to talk of “mums and dads. . . . who let their kids run riot”. Labour is now wooing all those who are sick of seeing parents absolved from blame for their children’s behaviour.
He could not take any other line because commentators of every political hue are shocked that a gang of youths were able to make this family’s life such a misery–especially in an apparently comfortable street like Bardon Road. One of Pilkington’s neighbours, sitting in a neat living room decorated with pictures of his young children, defends the neighbourhood.
“My girlfriend is not afraid to walk around here at night, as we would be in some areas of Birmingham, London or Leicester,” he says. “The families concerned are not as bad as have been portrayed: at least you can talk to them. One of the boys held responsible once stole a bike from us; when I told the parents, it was returned.”
If the teenage tormentors weren’t hardened criminals, it is even more extraordianry that they weren’t stopped, but this man knows why he and others didn’t take a stand. They thought it was futile. “These days you can’t touch kids, and they know it. If you have a go at them, they will try to intimidate you. The laws have become so technical that instead of protecting people, they have made the world more unstable.”
To illustrate his point, he says: “My nephew was bullied on his first day at school, but when I talked to the bully, the police came to see me.” His experience echoes last week’s news that a dinner lady was sacked for telling parents that a pupil at the school where she worked was tied up and whipped with a skipping rope.
It is a skewed world when the police are quicker to take action against well-meaning adults than they ever were in response to Pilkington’s complaints. “There have always been unruly kids,” says David Green, director of the think tank Civitas, “but other parents don’t stop them now because they can’t say ‘I’ll call the police’.
“They know, and the kids know, that the police either won’t turn up or won’t do anything about it. If they do, they will be told off by their superiors for taking an action that cannot be measured against a target for crime reduction.”
In that case, what point is there in Gordon Brown announcing yesterday that: “Wherever there is disruptive behaviour, we will be there to fight it”? A public grown cynical about the effectiveness of parenting orders and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders will shrug despairingly at the thought of more families getting the Family Intervention treatment that Brown claims has an 80 per cent success rate. But Honor Rhodes, development director of the Family and Parenting Institute, believes that Brown is right in seeing it as an effective tool for tackling problem families.
What works well, she believes, is a whole-family approach (such as social services no longer use). It must involve a range of agencies from housing to health, schools to social services, the police, even parking enforcement, “We’ve got to let these families experience the consequences of the life they lead, one of the most effective being to demote their tenancy of their home if they don’t comply with parenting skills training. These people are scary and you have to show them that you mean business. They need to know that it’s not OK, for example, for teenagers to wander around until 11 at night, they should be in by nine, and that if they aren’t, the parents risk losing their home.”
She used to sit on the Nuisance Neighbour Expert Panel to which the worst cases were referred from all over the country. “Often these very troubled families frighten housing officers and social workers, so the people who end up working with them are the least qualified, such as Police Support Officers.
“When the right people take action together, you get results. One family reported to us ended up not being allowed to look out of their windows because people were walking an extra mile and a half just to avoid going past their house.”
Before such action can be taken, the authorities need to be alerted to the trouble-makers. The Home Office’s Respect website, which puts a price tag of £3.4 billion on anti-social behaviour, begs us all to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to disruptive neighbours. Just dial 101, it says, to reach the 24-hour complaints service. Sadly, that only exists in Hampshire, Cardiff, Northumberland, Sheffield and Leicester City (but not nearby Barwell). Elsewhere, you will struggle to find someone within the local authority or police to take an interest.
Extending that service, and freeing the police to take action would be two useful outcomes to the soul-searching prompted by this sad case. But it isn’t only the authorities who need to be more vigilant.
The death of these two women diminishes us all. Without getting sentimental about the imaginary days when everyone lived around the village green and popped into houses to borrow sugar, it is a reminder that we are all so busy getting and spending that we ignore what is going on under our noses. As Pilkington’s neighbour says, “Lots of people were worried, but which of us did something?”
Perhaps we could all start by thinking about one of the coroner’s most pertinent questions: “Why did no one sit and chat to her over a cup of tea about her problems?”
Alex Simmons, 17, led the harrassment.
Could there be a more desperately sad story than the tale of Fiona Pilkington, the mother driven by the action of bullies apparently to kill herself and her daughter in a burning car? What made it worse was the utter failure of the police to protect this family despite their pleas for help. The mother contacted her local constabulary more than 20 times over a seven-year period but officers failed to respond because there were “not enough resources”. No doubt had she told them she had bought a gun to protect her home and family, dozens of armed officers would have been there in no time–to arrest her.
Her house was routinely surrounded by baying yobs. Her son was locked in a shed at knifepoint and beaten with a metal bar, and her daughter, who had severe learning difficulties, endured the sound of stones thrown at her bedroom window as she went to bed, accompanied by shouts demanding that she lift up her nightdress.
Police said that Miss Pilkington feared reprisals and did not want prosecutions. At the inquest in Loughborough, which continues tomorrow, one officer said it was impossible to bring charges if the victim did not wish to proceed. Were this to become a universal approach to prosecution it would mean murderers were never brought to justice. As the coroner observed, there are supposed to be a dozen laws to deal with this sort of behaviour–or so we keep being told by the Government.
If the mother herself did not want to give evidence, was it beyond the wit of the police to observe what was going on and provide it themselves? They might have done–except that they seem to have done little to find out, dismissing Miss Pilkington’s concerns as exaggerated. Chris Tew, the former Assistant Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police, told the coroner that by the end of this year 2,000 officers would have been trained to spot vulnerable victims of crime who were either physically or mentally disabled.
Excuse me? What training is required to spot a terrified family cowering from a bunch of thugs? The gang’s leader used to shout at the house: “We can do anything we like and you can’t do anything about it.” That could be the epitaph for a lost world when the police were supposed to protect the vulnerable. That world did exist and can be found in a new book, The Great British Bobby, a history of the police, from the foundation of the London Metropolitan force in 1829 by Robert Peel until the present day. What comes across is that for the first 150 years, the police changed little and, apart from some uniform adjustments, the bobby of 1980 was recognisably the bobby of 1830.
The big transformation is a recent one. As the author, Clive Emsley, writes: “The policing institution has shifted gradually, and significantly, from having its primary relationship directly with the local community to becoming an instrument of the state, with targets set and regulated centrally for the good of what politicians and policing professionals consider as the national community.”
The police are no longer drawn from the communities they purport to serve. They once lived in them, often in houses provided for the purpose (which have now virtually all been sold) but are now as likely as not to live somewhere else and commute in. This is why it is laughable to hear, as we did last week, senior officers attacking Tory plans to make police more politically accountable through the direct election of commissioners. Ian Johnston, president of the Superintendent’s Association, said: “I have real personal fears that political interference is growing and that it will ultimately result in our fine reputation being damaged beyond repair.”
The police have always jealously guarded their operational autonomy and are viscerally resistant to political interference. Yet they are themselves political in a way they never used to be. It is not unusual to be sent a press release from the Home Office about yet another criminal justice initiative and find supportive quotes from senior officers already attached. How is that being independent? The police may want operational autonomy. But if they are no longer carrying out the sort of policing that the rest of us (who pay for it) want to see, rather than what ticks a Whitehall box, then who is to speak up for the Fiona Pilkingtons of this world?
In his speech, Mr Johnston said a future Tory government should not “recklessly abandon the British model of policing that is admired and respected across the world”. But even if that were still true, it is being steadily undermined.
The police need to reconnect with their local communities. They are becoming ever more distant because specialist, cross-force units are drawing officers away from their local constabularies. Many chief officers and Labour ministers favour the creation of large, strategic forces, which will exacerbate this trend. What we have seen over the past 30 years is the emergence of a form of policing that suits the police, not the public. If, by applying local political pressure on police chiefs, this can be turned around, then that must be a good thing. It might even mean that families like the Pilkingtons are not let down so badly in future.