Mary Dejevsky: Do we really need to remind the police what crime is?

What’s shocking about the Pilkington tragedy is officialdom’s casualness

So now they are sounding contrite, and saying it should never have happened and promising that in the future they will respond differently. Yesterday, in the wake of the jury verdict of the Loughborough inquest – verdicts of suicide and unlawful killing – the powers that be were jostling for microphones to offer public apologies: the Prime Minister at his party conference, the Home Secretary on the BBC Today programme, the temporary chief constable of Leicestershire.

And so they absolutely should.

The history of the Pilkington family – Fiona Pilkington, her disabled daughter, Francecca and her severely dyslexic son – emerged piece by distressing piece out of a coroner's court in the provinces and forced itself on the national conscience. There was something about the experience of this beleaguered mother, driven to immolate herself and her daughter in their car in a lay-by after 10 years of torment by local youths, that touched a nerve.

Even those long inured to recitations of suffering and official indifference felt more than indignation at what happened to the Pilkingtons. Personally, I felt not only despairing, but affronted by the unremitting sequence of banal casualness exemplified in their plight. That a pattern of aggravation was allowed to escalate, over the best part of 10 years – not days, not months, but years – to the point where an unassuming woman, whose life was already hard enough, found no other solution than to end it all, perhaps in the one way that was guaranteed to be final, is something that should never have been allowed to happen.

And to anyone who says, well, she didn't ask for help, she didn't ask for a respite break from looking after her daughter, she gave no indication that she was so close to the edge – that is not the point. No one in her situation should have to know the byways of local social services departments; nor should they have to beg. These are services that should be willingly offered, not painstakingly winkled out of a reluctant bureaucracy. But that is not the point either. Mrs Pilkington asked for much more basic help from the one source of support she assumed could do something – the police – and the more she asked, the more her pleas were dismissed as over-reacting.

You can almost imagine the police joshing around in their office when the phone rings: it's that trouble-maker from the Barwell estate again. Says the lads are throwing things, insulting her daughter. Says she can't get out. Yes, OK, more of the same is it? We'll be around ... some time. Complaint recorded, box ticked. Back to the form-filling and the tea and biscuits.

If there is any one reason why this family's tragedy has struck such a chord it is that so many people have experienced, in a micro-way, one or other aspect of what Ms Pilkington went through: whether the anti-social behaviour or the dilatory and unconcerned response of authority.

What the police and civil servants, in their wisdom, call "low-level nuisance" is only low-level if they are looking at a list that starts with spray-painting graffiti and ends with murder. It is not low level if it is happening at your front door every interminable night of the year. Nor is it more of the same. It might look like that to the police, but if you are living in that house, it is inexorably escalating persecution. And so long as it goes unpunished, it is lawlessness.

The coroner, rightly, had sharp words for the police in her summing up. She also lamented the absence of communication and cooperation between the many branches of the public services that were, or should have been, in contact with the family over the years. And non-communication, as successive child abuse cases have shown, makes a regular appearance when things go wrong in such a dramatic way as was summed up in Fiona Pilkington's burnt-out car.

But non-communication in this case, while significant and blameworthy, was not the decisive element. What was decisive was the response, or non-response of the police. Nor, judging by the Home Secretary's appropriately indignant words, has the Government and its multiple branches really "got it".

There were, Alan Johnson said yesterday, "no excuses". Quite so. But his specific criticisms and remedies should not go without challenge. First, there is the matter of anti-social behaviour. Mr Johnson said the agencies were wrong to regard such anti-social behaviour as the Pilkington's experienced as "low-level crime". But what, pray, does the description "anti-social behaviour" denote? By separating this sort of persistent petty crime from "real" crime, the Government has invited the police to treat it differently.

And this was surely the purpose. The Blair government correctly identified this sort of persistent and neglected offending as something voters were worried about, especially in deprived areas. But the effect of classifying it as "anti-social behaviour" and slapping "Asbos" on offenders was that it was no longer treated as a crime. It was a nuisance to be tackled by cut-price "community" officers, not the fully paid-up variety. Mr Johnson regrets that perhaps ministers "coasted" on anti-social behaviour. But this is a direct consequence of separating it from crime.

Mr Johnson also had something to say about liaison between the different public agencies. "It is the police's job," he said, "along with the local authority and social services and housing and all the rest of it, to ensure that people are not driven to the kind of despair Fiona Pilkington was driven to." Maybe. But the police did not need to liaise with anyone to stop the goings-on outside her front door. They just needed to come when they were called and to be a visible presence on the street. That is basic policing; it should not be too much for those who pay them to ask.

There undoubtedly was more that social services and other agencies could have done to help the Pilkington family and/or their persecutors. But to lump the police together with "local authority and social services and housing and all the rest of it", is to diffuse the responsibility and invite buck-passing. At root this was a question of law and order and, as such, the responsibility of the police.

And there is a third development that may seem to bode well, but could have the very opposite effect. The police and lobby groups have hailed the addition of disabled people to those who can be victims of "hate crimes". Today, it seems, Fiona Pilkington's difficulties with the local lads would have sped up the priority list the moment she mentioned a disabled daughter. Of course vulnerable people must be protected. But it is not just disabled people, or ethnic minorities, or any other defined groups who are entitled to proper protection. It is everyone. Special categories provide just another box for the police to tick.

It seems almost too obvious to say, but the job of the police is to uphold law and order for everyone in the land, regardless of their race, colour, creed or circumstances. Fiona Pilkington was everyone who has ever been let down by the force that many no longer see as firm, fair and a fount of common sense. That is why her case spoke to us all.