When charities warn that abuse of disabled people is getting worse, it’s worth remembering how low the starting point was. In 2007, Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her severely disabled 18-year-old daughter Francesca Hardwick: it was the end of seven years of harassment, inflicted on a vulnerable family and never adequately addressed by the police or social services. Flour, eggs and stones were thrown at their house. Insults were yelled at them. The family didn’t dare to use their own garden.
It’s hard to imagine how awful it must be to live under constant attack, cut off from a community that only shows itself to you as a baying gang pissing against your walls, ignored by the organisations that should protect you. Still, it might help us understand the horror of it if we remember that Fiona Pilkington chose to burn herself alive in a petrol-soaked car rather than continue to suffer those things. Death by fire is a hideous thing. Reports suggest that she killed her daughter first, although the condition of the bodies seems to have made it impossible to say how. One detail, though, hints at maternal concern to the end: the family’s pet rabbit was probably in the car, brought along to comfort Francesca.
The right-wing press knew exactly what to make of the case. The Pilkingtons had been sacrificed to Broken Britain. Their tormentors were a “thug family” (The Sun), a “feral family” (The Mail), terrorising a whole street. For Melanie Philips in 2009 (responding to the coroner’s report), it was an indictment of political correctness – apparently, improbably, she judges that the police in Leicestershire were too distracted by dealing with hate crimes to deal with something that was manifestly a hate crime. In 2011, when the EHRC published a report in response to the case, Peter Hitchens used the occasion to blast “hopelessly wrong policies on family, education and justice”.
It’s interesting that, although Hitchens regularly blames broken families for national moral decay, the family held responsible for tormenting Fiona (a single mother) and Francesca appears to have been an intact nuclear unit: mother, father and four sons living together. I say interesting, when of course I mean typically hypocritical and self-serving. The Pilkingtons were just one more bit of evidence to stick to the great collage of liberal malaise that the right has diligently assembled. The commentary says nothing about how they could have been helped. It says nothing about how other people could be saved from similar attacks. All it says is: We were right. Diversity did it. The welfare state did it. The feral poor did it. Instead of inspiring calls for more protections, the deaths of Fiona and Francesca were turned into an argument for undermining the scant support that should have been available to them.
A little while ago, I heard a radio interview with David Gillon, a disabled man from Kent, who discussed the kind of abuse he has suffered – including fake reports of fraud to the DWP, the stress of which caused a flare-up in his symptoms lasting three months. (There’s a beautiful example of government working hand-in-hand with society to victimise the vulnerable.) [Updated – see below.] “It gets to the point,” he says, “where you think, do I really need to go out today?” As it did for the Pilkingtons, abuse begins to constrict his life to the inside of his home.
And the source of the abuse isn’t some monstrous family lurking on his estate. The thugs are sitting in parliament and the feral element is filing copy to national newspapers. It’s stories in the press claiming that disabled people are scamming free cars out of the state and insinuating that it’s somehow wrong for people to receive the non-means-tested benefits they’re entitled to; it’s government ministers smearing benefit claimants as scroungers and fraudsters, and an opposition that doesn’t seek to challenge the cruelty and lies, only to seem tougher still; and it’s people who, hearing all this from such authoritative sources, decide that disabled people are something apart and contemptible to be maltreated and insulted until…
Well, until what? There is an endgame to this sort of abuse, and it’s to make people disappear. It’s about identifying the individual who seems different to the rest of the group, the one who’s suspected of using up extra resources, and harassing them until they vanish. Vanish how? In a petrol-drenched car or some less dramatic way – hatred isn’t very particular about its ends. The government could probably claim that it never intended to incite the harassment of disabled people. More likely, it will try to pretend that it hasn’t caused any such thing, and continue cutting the services needed by disabled people, while finding ways to blame the afflicted for the predicament being forced on them. Before our politicians are done, they’ll have created many, many more Fionas and Francescas.
Update 6 February 2012: I originally said Mr Gillon’s benefits were suspended following the false complaint against him. This was incorrect, as he pointed out in the comments, and I’ve edited the post accordingly.