Serious concerns have been raised again about the way the police deal with disability hate crime, after members of a family were sentenced for the brutal murder of a disabled man they had beaten and tortured for years.
Michael Gilbert was held captive by the Watt family in Luton for about 10 years and was regularly beaten, stabbed, tormented, treated “like a slave” and had his benefits money stolen.
Four members of the Watt family, and two of their girlfriends, were sentenced to a total of 93 years in prison for offences connected with Gilbert’s death in January 2009, including causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult.
Three of them – James Watt, the ringleader, Natasha Oldfield and Nichola Roberts – were found guilty of murder. Watt will serve a minimum of 36 years in prison, Oldfield 18 years and Roberts at least 15 years.
But court documents make it clear that Bedfordshire police were told on at least three occasions – twice by Gilbert himself and once by his then girlfriend – that he had been abducted.
Lancashire police were also told of similar allegations after Gilbert had escaped to Blackburn but was abducted and brought back to Luton by the Watts.
Other agencies in contact with Gilbert also saw evidence that he was being assaulted.
Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the National Disability Hate Crime Network, said he was pleased at the “fairly substantial” sentences imposed in the case.
But he said a police force had yet again failed to treat serious violent offences against a disabled person as disability hate crime.
He said: “The police described him as vulnerable. They should have said he was a disabled person who was targeted and brutalised by this mob of thugs.
“What it does prove yet again is that various police forces need to get their act together and work at a common standard level.”
He said it also appeared clear that various agencies had yet again failed to communicate with each other over a disability hate crime.
Paul Fawcett, head of marketing and communications for the charity Victim Support, said that dealing with the justice system “can be a difficult and alien experience for anybody” and that for people with “additional challenges” such as some disabled people “it can be particularly bewildering and difficult”.
He said: “This would appear to be a case, without singling anyone out, where there was a collective failure of the system to identify that somebody was at risk and to intervene and deal with it.”
Bedfordshire police said at a media briefing during the trial that Gilbert had refused police help and so there was “nothing that any authorities could have done”.
It has also emerged that following the latest annual assessment of Luton council’s adult social care department by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the council had to draw up an action plan to “address issues highlighted by the commission relating to safeguarding”.
A CQC spokeswoman said they would be “reviewing what action has been taken when we carry out a full assessment of the service later this year”.
The Luton Safeguarding of Vulnerable Adults Board has launched a serious case review “to establish whether there are any lessons to be learned” from the Michael Gilbert case and “if anything could have been done differently by the local professionals and agencies who work to safeguard vulnerable adults”.
Luton council said it could not comment further because of the review, as did Bedfordshire police.
29 April 2010