Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 15:44 UK

Spotlight on disability hate crime

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Fiona Pilkington (l) and daughter Francecca Hardwick
Leicestershire police failed to treat the Pilkingtons' case as hate crime

It has been suggested the case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her 18-year-old disabled daughter Francecca after being hounded by local youths, could mark a turning point in society's reaction to disability hate crime.

The Guardian newspaper asks if this is a "Stephen Lawrence moment" - referring to how the murder of the London teenager in 1993 precipitated a root-and-branch review of the police's response to racial attacks.

And where the Lawrence investigation coined the term "institutional racism" some disability rights campaigners now talk of "institutional disablism" - which, according to the charity Scope, "creates the conditions where disability hate crime can flourish".

'Horrifying incidents'

But - appalling though the Pilkington case is - it is by no means exceptional, being only the latest in a number of truly horrific incidents.

When I investigated disability hate crime for the BBC last year, I looked in detail at three of the worst cases.

In 2007, Christine Lakinski, a woman in her 50s with learning and physical disabilities, was taunted, urinated upon and sprayed with shaving foam as she lay dying in the street.

Her brother told me that because of disabilities, she had been picked on for most of her life.

Graph showing UK disability hate crime

The police could find no evidence to pursue the case as a hate crime against a disabled person.

The same year, Brent Martin, a young man with learning disabilities, was kicked and beaten to death by a gang on the estate where he lived in north-east England.

The senior investigating officer in the case told me that this was a crime committed against a vulnerable person. But it, too, was not investigated as a hate crime.

In her home in the Forest of Dean, Elizabeth James told me about her son, Kevin Davies, who had been preyed upon by three people, confined to a shed and systematically tortured until he died in 2006.

Again, specific provisions in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act - which allow for harsher sentences when a crime is motivated by hatred based upon a person's disability - were not used.

'Lacklustre response'

In January of this year, three young men were jailed for gang-raping a 16 year-old girl with learning disabilities. The filmed their attack on mobile phones.

In order to destroy any forensic evidence, she was doused with caustic soda which left her in a coma and permanently disfigured.

Those sentences are now under review to decide if they were unduly lenient.

Disability rights campaigners say such cases amount to a collective refusal by the authorities to name these offences for what they really are - crimes of hatred motivated by a loathing of someone because of a disability or perceived difference.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson has criticised the lacklustre response by police and local councils to Fiona Pilkington's repeated calls for help.

But it will take some time for his assertion - that consistent standards be applied across the UK - to trickle down to every police station in the land.

It is our duty to give effect to the law which supports the struggle for disabled people to live as full and valued members of society - these offences represent a crude assault on their human rights.
Sir Ken Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions

It will also take time for prosecutors to insist upon using section 146 of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act so that crimes like these - crimes that it seems contributed to driving a woman to burn herself and her daughter to death - are identified as hate crimes in open court.

When I went to see the then director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, I half expected hand-wringing and platitudes.

The man I encountered was contrite and determined to do something before his term of office came to an end.

Indeed, just three months after our conversation, he addressed the issue in a speech to the Bar Council of England and Wales.

He said the problem was widespread and urged police and prosecutors to make sure that sentences reflected the seriousness of the crime.

He described these offences as "a scar on the conscience of criminal justice".

Crucially, Sir Ken said that it was not always necessary for hostility to be expressed in clear language.

"Each apparently minor incident of name-calling and harassment on the street may seem relatively unimportant but, taken together, a pattern of hostility could be traced."

Sir Ken concluded by telling his audience: "It is our duty to give effect to the law which supports the struggle for disabled people to live as full and valued members of society - these offences represent a crude assault on their human rights."

All of these cases shock all but the most uncivilised elements in society.

But already there seems to be an insistence upon tackling anti-social behaviour.

Once again, disability hate crime does not seem to be the focus for public and official outrage.

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