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.