Leading article: The scandal of invisible harassment

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The deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter Francecca, in a blazing car in 2007, appalled the nation. They had been harassed by a gang of youths on the estate in Barwell, Leicestershire where they lived – and the authorities had done nothing to protect them.

What was truly shocking about what happened, however, has only penetrated the national consciousness since. It is that harassment of this sort is common, not rare, yet largely invisible. The charity Scope collected details of 50 cases, most of which involved physical violence, where people were targeted because of their disability, but which the courts declined to prosecute as hate crimes. One of these, people may remember – the case of Steven Hoskins, a 39-year old man with severe learning difficulties pushed over St Austell's railway viaduct in 2006, murdered by "friends" who often burned him with cigarettes while hauling him around his bedsit wearing a dog collar. But what of the other 49?

Today's announcement by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that it is to investigate the scale of disability related harassment is therefore welcome, though it might reasonably be asked why it has taken so long. Scope and Mencap have argued for years that, while racism and homophobia are rapidly picked up and stamped on, the harassment of disabled people is ignored.

Since 2005, disability hate crimes have been recognised within the criminal justice system. Although it is not a separate offence, a "sentencing provision" was created which required the courts to increase the sentence for any offence aggravated by hostility towards the victim based on their disability. Despite this, while hate crimes based on race or sexuality are regularly prosecuted, those against disabled people are not. People with disabilities are not believed and regarded as unreliable witnesses, especially if they have mental health problems. Their plight has been ignored by those with a duty to protect them – the police, education authorities, social services and housing departments.

That there is an urgent need for better protection for disabled people is not in doubt. Local authorities are rightly to be placed in the spotlight and the efforts they are taking to prevent harassment placed under scrutiny. As the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has already warned, those found not to be doing enough should face legal action. We cannot tolerate another tragedy like that of the Pilkingtons.

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