The police station in Rotherham. Photo: Getty
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How have MPs dealt with cases like the Rotherham child abuse scandal in the past?

An investigation has found that at least 1,400 children in Rotherham were sexually exploited for 16 years. Blame is flying everywhere, so how have MPs dealt with similar cases in the past?

The news that South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright has resigned from the Labour party, but insists on remaining a PCC independently, has raised important questions about the reaction to the Rotherham child abuse scandal. 

A report, released this week, has found that at least 1,400 children in Rotherham were sexually exploited over a period of nearly a decade between 1997 and 2013. The council leader Roger Stone has already stepped down, and the former chief executive of the council Mike Cuff has said he takes a share of the responsibility for the council’s failure to prevent the crimes. The Home Secretary Theresa May and Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, among other MPs, have called for Wright to resign his position as PCC.

In child abuse cases, there are always sharp questions raised about who should be blamed for failing to protect the victims.

“The case for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse is now overwhelming,” the former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer told the BBC’s Today programme this morning, during a discussion about the Rotherham revelations. He suggested that the law – as well as individuals – should come under scrutiny.

But how have MPs dealt with similar situations to Rotherham in the past? Here are two examples:

 

Rochdale child sex ring

It’s important to look at the Rochdale child sex grooming ring, the crimes of which were exposed during the trial of perpetrators in 2012. I went up to Rochdale to interview its Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, a while after the revelations, and he revealed to me how he had approached such a horrific situation in his constituency. First, he told me about the importance of raising the sensitive subject of the ethnicity of the perpetrators. In the Rochdale case, most of them were of Pakistani origin. In the Rotherham case, it was a similar situation.

Danczuk told me:

“I’ve only ever said a very small minority of people in the Asian community have a very unhealthy view of women . . . It’s a complex jigsaw, and ethnicity is just one of the pieces. Class is a major factor, night-time economy is a factor, in terms of this type of on-street grooming, not sexual abuse per se.

“One reason to raise it is so we know how to combat it. The political reason is because it takes the wind out of the sails of the extreme right, because you’ve got a mainstream politician talking about it; you don’t rely on the EDL or the BNP talking about it.”

On the subject of the child sex ring, Danczuk also told me later this year about the acute failure of authorities to protect vulnerable children, and how progress on protecting the young has been intensely slow:

“One of the reasons Cyril Smith [the late former Rochdale MP and child abuser] wasn’t prosecuted in the Sixties was that the Director of Public Prosecutions said ‘they were unreliable witnesses’. What he meant by that was that these poor, white, working-class, vulnerable boys would make unreliable witnesses.

“And you fast-forward 30 or 40 years to the Rochdale grooming scandal and initially the CPS decided not to prosecute, the police weren’t pushing it, social services didn’t really care, and that was because they were poor, white, working-class, vulnerable girls. It upsets me actually. Why haven’t we moved in that 40 years?”

 

Oxford child grooming case

Another similar recent case was the child grooming ring in Oxford; seven men were jailed in 2013 for offences including child rape and trafficking committed between 2004 and 2012.

The MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Nicola Blackwood, who came to parliament in 2010, told me at the beginning of the summer: “We just didn’t believe that such a thing could happen in Oxford, which is so beautiful, in those surroundings it seemed so alien, that victims have been denied justice too long and just weren’t believed.” My interview with her can be read here.

She added: “The problem with these kinds of allegations is the level of trust in public bodies has plummeted, when it comes to child protection, and if there is any area in which we need to have confidence in public bodies and in one’s state bodies, it is in the protection of children from sexual abuse.”

Blackwood set up the Childhood Lost campaign for the protection of vulnerable children in a response to Oxford’s harrowing “Operation Bullfinch” child exploitation case and other cases like it, and has interesting views about the need to reform the law.

She suggested to me a change in abduction orders to erase a “ludicrous and unacceptable” quirk in the law. Currently, if a child goes missing regularly, and the police know who with, they can issue an abduction order for that person with the permission of the child’s guardian. However, if the child’s in care, they could issue the abduction order up to the age of 18, but if they live at home, they’re only protected up to 16. She also calls for a penalty for those in breach of the order: “if you’re taking a child missing and the police are involved and concerned, it’s clearly a very serious issue, so it should carry a penalty.”

Blackwood would also like to see “serious reforms in our court system”, including raising the age to 24 that one can give pre-recorded evidence (it’s currently 16), and “mandatory sexual offences training, not only the CPS, but also for defence barristers and judges in all cases involving vulnerable witnesses in sexual offence cases”. She also advocates a compulsory “ground rules hearing”, which means judges can lay down their ground rules for the court, such as disallowing barristers on both sides saying or doing certain things, like calling the victim a prostitute, asking them the same question one after the other, and even taking their wigs off.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution