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Is the government’s grooming task force about fighting crime or a culture war?

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman’s focus on race is curious, and at odds with the evidence on child sex abuse.

By Zoë Grünewald

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a new grooming gangs task force that will be “parachuted in” to assist police forces in dealing with group-based child sexual exploitation.

Between 1997 and 2013, at least 1,400 girls as young as 11 were subjected to sexual abuse in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, alone. An inquiry concluded in 2014 that officials had failed to deal with allegations in an adequate way, and that for several years local leaders and police had been aware that these crimes were mostly being committed by men from an Asian background. Similar gangs operated in Rochdale, Greater Manchester and in a number of other towns across the UK. Announcing the plans, Rishi Sunak said, “For too long, political correctness has stopped us from weeding out vile criminals who prey on children and young women.”

The move is part of a crime arms race between Sunak and the Labour leader Keir Starmer. As the issue moves up the list of voter priorities, both leaders have announced a series of reforms, including crackdowns on antisocial behaviour, in an attempt to woo voters.

Yesterday’s announcement follows the publication in October last year of an Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse commissioned in 2014 by Theresa May, who was then home secretary. The report cites one “conservative” estimate that around 500,000 children are sexually abused every year in England and Wales, and as many as one in six girls are sexually abused before the age of 16. The report warns that because of a culture of silence around child sex abuse (CSA) the scale of exploitation is likely to be “considerably greater than is currently recorded”. 

The government’s focus on race has left many concerned. When trailing the plans on Sunday (2 April), Suella Braverman referenced reports about “the predominance of certain ethnic groups – and I say British Pakistani males – who hold cultural values totally at odds with British values, who see women in a demeaned and illegitimate way”. This is despite a 2020 report from the Home Office finding that group-based child sexual exploitation in England, Scotland and Wales was mainly committed by young white men.

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The 2022 inquiry also found that almost half of the victims surveyed said their perpetrator was a family member and that the most common location for incidents was in the family home. Though the government has yet to respond to the report in its entirety, its decision to begin with a focus on the ethnicity of grooming gangs – as opposed to a widespread public information campaign to dispel myths around CSA, or with safeguarding reforms, or investment to improve data-sharing between institutions –  is curious. As a result, Sunak’s announcement looks more like an attempt to stoke culture wars than a well-thought-out policy response to a widespread and complex problem.

[See also: Britain’s original culture wars]

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