Johnson attacks police over suicide mother

As the inquest closes into the death of two women bullied by gangs, the Home Secretary says officials failed them

Brian Brady,Jane Merrick
Sunday 27 September 2009 00:00 BST

In a remarkable intervention, the Home Secretary will this week attack the police over the lack of help offered to a mother who killed herself and her disabled daughter after they suffered years of bullying.

A "dismayed" Alan Johnson will tell the Labour Party conference that the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and 18-year-old Francecca Hardwick "should never have happened". He will also insist that police and local authorities have – and use – powers to stop people from being hounded to distraction by antisocial behaviour.

The unprecedented criticism comes after a coroner said the deaths, two years ago, could have been prevented if the authorities had taken complaints from the family seriously. The comments by Mr Johnson are likely to be seen as highly controversial, coming as the the jury in the inquest prepares to return its verdict.

An inquest into the deaths was told that Ms Pilkington, of Barwell, Leicestershire, set fire to her car as she and her daughter sat inside, after police ignored reports of abuse over several years. The inquest was also told that a 16-strong gang of youths would often pelt her house with eggs and stones. Ms Pilkington's son, Anthony, was attacked with an iron bar and locked in a shed at knife-point.

Mr Johnson is said to be "at pains to understand" how the family's calls for help were not taken seriously, how some of the problems were dismissed as low level and "how the family could sustain more than a decade of abuse without the right steps being taken to solve the problems faced by the family". The Home Office maintains the Government has put in place measures such as parenting orders and antisocial behaviour contracts to tackle similar problems – and these can be ratcheted up if they are not solving specific problems.

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Johnson will make it clear that it is not an option for the police not to use these powers, as "they are there to protect communities, to provide them with relief from the corrosive effects of intimidation and harassment". He will say: "This is about core policing values, which is also core Labour business of looking after communities. It is about responding to people's needs at a time when they most need the police to be there. The Pilkingtons' is an exceptional case, but one that should never have happened."

In a speech designed to underline the Government's hard-line policy on nuisance neighbours, he will insist that antisocial behaviour has to be "tackled, not tolerated" by the police. Mr Johnson has also made it known that he is considering further action to tackle the issues raised by the Pilkington case.

"It is not a question of money, but of mindset," he will tell Labour delegates in Brighton. "We also need local authorities, agencies and police working more closely in areas that do have problems."

An inquest jury in Loughborough last week heard that failings by police and councils meant Ms Pilkington was never assessed by social workers, though they were aware she had "suicidal thoughts". After she died with Francecca, who had severe learning difficulties, Leicestershire County Council began a serious case review. It found Leicestershire County Council, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and Leicestershire Police failed to share information about the family, their disabilities and the abuse. The review made five recommendations. These included an investigation into the impact of antisocial behaviour, the sharing of information between authorities and the need to "read the situation from the victims' point of view".

"If somebody had sat this woman down with a cup of tea they could have perhaps helped her," said coroner Olivia Davison. "You need to sit down with people to get information from them and I wonder why that wasn't something that occurred here."

Statements documenting 18 months of abuse and bullying were given to Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council on 22 October 2007 – a day before Ms Pilkington and her daughter died – in an effort to stop the antisocial behaviour of a "problem family", who cannot be identified to protect other victims. Weeks after the deaths an injunction was taken out against the family after attempts by police to control the family failed and the parents "refused to accept that their children had done anything wrong", the inquest was told.

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