At a time when the word “austerity” is on the lips of every politician, there is nothing more chilling than a local councillor weighing up the life of a disabled child against the cost of maintaining a coastal footpath.
Despite his subsequent protestations, that is exactly what Cornish councillor Collin Brewer was doing during my telephone interview with him two months ago.
And it wasn’t just a throwaway comment. He made it clear several times during our 45 minute conversation that he believed there was an argument for ending the life of a severely disabled baby because of the cost of supporting that person throughout their life.
“When you are talking about having to close toilets,” he told me, “facilities for everyone and perhaps the coastal footpath for everyone, then I have got to question individual [care and support] budgets to individual people.”
He added: “The fact is that I think to keep 10 toilets open would cost about £250,000. That’s a service to the whole of the community. This is my concern. It is a balance which has to be made.”
And then the interview became truly chilling as he attempted to justify the comments he made a couple of years ago, that led to him resigning from Cornwall council, only to stand again for re-election in May, and win his seat back.
“A farmer didn’t see a lot wrong with what I said because it is something they do every day,” he told me. “If they have a misshapen lamb they get rid of it, they get rid of it. Bang!”
Did that make you feel that you were right to have said what you said? I asked. “We are just animals,” he replied. “He’s obviously got a point.”
So there is not much difference between putting down a disabled child and a disabled animal? “I think the cost has got to be evaluated. It is not something I would like to do, but there is only so much in the bucket.”
And, finally, he came out and said it. I asked him if he felt that there was indeed an argument for “putting down” some disabled children with high support needs. “Yes,” he said. “That is why I keep as far away from health in the council as I can.”
This is not a man who made a throwaway comment for “a wind-up”, or to provoke discussion, as he has suggested. It is a man who believes that, in a time of austerity, there is a good argument for killing some babies with high support needs. Just to save money.
His comments would be disturbing for anyone to say in a conversation. But for a councillor to say such things in an interview with a journalist, surely knowing they would be published, it was unforgivable. It was a flashback to the kind of views that allowed the Nazi’s eugenics programme to flourish, views that led to the murder of at least 200,000 disabled people, and possibly many thousands more. “Useless eaters,” we were called in the early 1930s, when the world was in the grip of recession. The Nazis talked a lot about the “burden” of supporting disabled children.
I don’t like the idea – although of course I accept it – of Brewer having the right to vote. But the idea that he was going to be working as an elected representative of the people of Wadebridge East chilled my blood.
Even more disturbing, though, was the evidence that he does have some support for his nauseating views, both from some of the voters in Wadebridge and wider afield.
So what about democracy? The people of Wadebridge East made their choice in May. They chose Collin Brewer.
No. He won the election under false pretences. He told the voters that his comments in 2011 had just been a “wind-up”, that he was trying to provoke discussion, and that he had just been in a bad mood that day.
In fact, he did believe what he was saying, as he proved in my interview with him a few days after he was re-elected.
I am still not sure whether I would like to see him prosecuted for what he told me. The argument for free speech is a powerful one. But I do think the decision by Devon and Cornwall police not to charge Brewer over his comments – probably the correct one with legislation as it stands – does at least highlight how weak our disability hate crime laws still are.
This week’s report about the interview, by Cornwall council, was detailed, accurate, and approached the limits of the local authority’s legal powers, by banning Brewer from any committees that might make decisions about disabled children, and restricting his access to council premises where services for disabled children are provided.
But it had no powers to take any further action. As long as Brewer committed no criminal offence, he could not be either suspended or expelled from the council.
And because he was an independent councillor, he could not even be kicked out of his own party.
Thanks to the government’s decision to scrap the standards board last year, and revoke powers to disqualify or suspend council members, Cornwall council had no choice but to slap him lightly on his wrist.
Fortunately, he has now resigned. We can only hope that he does not make yet another comeback at the upcoming by-election.
And assuming he does not, I hope also that campaigners now leave him alone. They should not intrude on his private life. My concerns were about the comments he made in his public role as a councillor. He and his family should not be harassed or bullied. They have a right to privacy.
But I do hope Brewer uses the free time he now has to think about some of the things he said to me.
He told me during our interview: “If you are talking about giving services to the community or services to the individual, the balance has got to be struck.”
What he failed to understand was that there is no community without individuals. And disabled people are just as much of an asset to society as non-disabled people. It feels odd having to say that out loud, but sadly he has proved that necessary. I could of course provide him with a long, long list of disabled people with high support needs who have strengthened and enriched our society, but I’m sure he wouldn’t pay any attention.
I hope Collin Brewer will eventually gain some insight into his words, and what they mean. I am glad he resigned as a councillor. I also hope the government will look at what happened here, and see why it shows the need to both widen the powers of councils to act in such cases, and to strengthen the laws on disability hate crime.
The reason I wanted to interview Collin Brewer after his election was that I didn’t feel that any journalist had teased out of him what he really thought about disabled people, about the cost of supporting children with high support needs. I wanted to expose those views to public attention, so that they would wither in the light and die. I hope that that is now what happens.
John Pring is editor of Disability News Service