Editor-At-Large: Harassed to death – why did no one listen?

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 27 September 2009 00:00

Her story is so distressing that it makes me wonder what kind of neighbours lived in her street. Couldn't anyone have saved her from herself? Why didn't a single person of authority – a social worker or a police officer – simply act kindly, as the coroner put it, sympathetically and "sit down and have a cup of tea" with Fiona Pilkington to find out what was going on in her head?

Consider the list of abuse she carefully wrote up in a "harassment diary" found incomplete after her death – it would make most of us terrified – and, on top of everything else, she had two teenagers with their own problems. With an 18-year-old daughter with a mental age of four, and a son with severe dyslexia, this distraught woman sat in the dark until 2.30am night after night, too scared to put the lights on for fear of attracting the bullies who routinely made her existence a total misery. She endured shouting and verbal abuse outside her home until the early hours. Stones chucked at the windows. Fences set on fire. Fireworks pushed through the letterbox. Eggs and flour regularly thrown at her front door. She felt under siege – wouldn't anyone? And yet it appears this antisocial behaviour was never deemed serious enough for effective preventative action to be taken against her tormentors.

After making 33 complaints to Leicestershire police, to no avail, Fiona Pilkington took drastic action – setting fire to herself and her daughter in the family car, with just their pet rabbit for company, ending their lives in the most horrific way imaginable. That was two years ago, and no one has ever been arrested or charged with any crime. Well done, everyone concerned. Doesn't this story sound awfully familiar? Life in 21st-century Britain.

The case of baby Peter shocked us, with social workers, doctors and the local council all passing the buck. Sure, they apologised. But most people, having seen the pictures of the dreadful squalor in which that child lived would have stepped in and removed him to a cleaner and safer place long before he died from multiple injuries. Amazingly, it seems that social workers were reluctant to intervene. In the case of Fiona Pilkington, they didn't even know about her plight, because the police failed to notify social services of her situation.

She eventually sank into a serious depression without ever receiving any counselling or support. In spite of receiving endless phone calls and pleas for help, the police apparently failed to note her daughter's learning difficulties (and that Fiona herself struggled) and also that her son was dyslexic. If they had been more perceptive, they would have realised this family unit was being picked on for being different, and the bullies lived within yards of their front door. And the police still don't seem to accept blame; they stated at the inquest that dealing with yobs "was the job of the local council". Complaints against the police in Leicestershire rose 11 per cent last year. Failure to act on complaints was a key concern.

Incredibly, the ringleaders in the gang of about 16 youths who tormented Fiona and her kids still live in the same road and wreak havoc in the neighbourhood, although now a "problem family" has been belatedly identified and an injunction issued. That's two years too late for Fiona. Between April and December 2007 – the period leading up to her death – the police recorded 313 incidents of antisocial behaviour on her estate. The local council's community safety manager said that, with the resources available, he thought he "did a good job". Doesn't that sound just like smug Sharon Shoesmith, former director of child services for baby Peter's local council, Haringey, who claimed that her team had done nothing wrong?

The coroner is in the final stages of the inquest into Fiona's death, two years after her death. Leicester council instituted a serious case review and concluded that their social services "should have done more". Their findings include the need to "pay more attention to the needs of families" and the need to "pay more attention to anti-social behaviour". Surely these are fundamental requirements of the job. How can a woman with learning difficulties, with two severely challenged children, remain unsupported by social services? Statements documenting 18 months of abuse were given to the local council the day before Fiona killed herself and her daughter. Someone must take the blame. As the coroner said, "I don't understand how it got to this point."

That's quite an understatement.

Oh, Mandy! How nice to have the time to hang about at Burberry

What was Peter Mandelson, whose job title now stretches to no fewer than 39 words, doing at the Burberry fashion show last week? Presumably he was there to support British business – and he was proudly wearing a dapper Burberry suit. I wonder, if like many of the models on show, he received it as a freebie. Or perhaps he gets a generous discount. Anyway, he looked a little out of place in the front row along with Anna Wintour, Donna Air, Emily Watson and Agyness Deyn.

The clothes were delightful and Christopher Bailey is undoubtedly a talented designer. But I wondered how Peter had managed to schedule the 30 minutes of waiting time before the show started into his notoriously hectic diary.

After the show Mandy got a friendly hug from David Walliams, although the next night he got a frostier reception at the British Retail Consortium's annual dinner, telling retailers he wouldn't alter the date when VAT goes back up to 17.5 per cent – 1 January, in the middle of the busiest trading period. I don't suppose he'll have any spare time to help out with re-ticketing garments and altering tills. Retailers such as Sir Philip Green claim it's "an administrative nightmare" – and they should know.

Where no man has bared to go

Germany is bravely leading the world in one recreational activity – nude hiking! With over 50,000 naturists, there's clearly a strong demand, and now an 11-mile trail has opened specifically for nude hikers, complete with warning signs to deter those who might be offended. Nude hiking is increasingly popular in some alpine regions of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and it seems chilly weather is no deterrent as there are reports of nude tobogganing. I haven't encountered any nude hikers on my walks in the UK, although I could suggest a few remote spots they might enjoy. Could this be the answer for our ailing tourist industry? Instead of designating any more areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, perhaps we should campaign for nude hiking zones in rural spots that could do with an economic boost.

Euston Arch's falls from grace

As a child, the highlight of holiday trips to Wales was starting the long train journey with the wonderful arch at London's Euston station. This fabulous structure, modelled on the Acropolis in Athens, exuded style – something sadly lacking from the present concourse, a featureless windy space inhabited by Big Issue sellers. Years ago, Dan Cruickshank presented a BBC programme that set out to discover what had happened to the arch when it was demolished, and discovered it had been dumped in the river Lea in east London. Now, campaigners are optimistic it will be restored and re-erected as part of the redevelopment of the station, only this time it will contain a nightclub in the basement and a banqueting hall at the top. What a shame that the only use we can come up with for an architectural gem is a nightclub – somewhere people sit in the dark and get drunk.

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