Authorities were “inexcusably slow” to realise the widespread, organised sexual abuse of children taking place on their doorstep, a damning report into grooming today lays bare.
Rotherham Council has been slammed for its “woeful lack of professional curiosity” about the problem by MPs, who also accuse it of “suppressing criticisms” of its involvement with victims.
Senior leadership failed in their duty of care towards abused youngsters, many of whom were treated in an “appalling manner”, the Home Affairs Select Committee has concluded.
Today’s report, which focuses mainly on the grooming of white girls by gangs of Asian men, follows a year-long inquiry into child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming across the country.
Chairman Keith Vaz said it had revealed “catastrophic failures” by agencies that should have protected the vulnerable young victims, many of whom were in care.
“We were shocked to learn that it is still happening, in every part of the country. The quality of the response to the abuse depends on where you live and that is inexcusable,” he said.
The report highlights an “unacceptable postcode lottery” when it comes to justice, noting a very low level of prosecutions for grooming in South Yorkshire compared with Lancashire, where 100 cases were successfully prosecuted last year.
No cases have been brought to court in South Yorkshire since 2010, when five men from Rotherham were jailed for abusing girls as young as 12, despite evidence grooming is still a problem.
Particular criticism is levelled at the attitude of Rotherham’s director of children’s services, Joyce Thacker, who said prosecutions were “the icing on the cake” when she appeared before the panel.
MPs said: “While we agree prevention is key to tackling sexual exploitation, the view that, because convictions are difficult to achieve, they should not be a focus of child protection work, is unhelpful. The fact senior council officers see the prosecution of child sex offenders as being of secondary importance might, in part, explain why so few prosecutions have taken place in Rotherham.”
The report also criticises South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright, Rotherham’s cabinet member for children and young people from 2005 to 2010, for his “reluctance to engage with victims”. Asked whether he had met with any in either role, he told the panel he did not believe it would have been appropriate.
“Considering the lack of prosecutions in South Yorkshire, despite evidence it is still occurring, we suggest Mr Wright may wish to take more of an interest in the victims,” MPs said.
The committee said it also expected South Yorkshire Police to be “striving to redeem its reputation” after hearing how the force had “let down” victims in the past.
Differences in the number of offenders in South Yorkshire and Lancashire could not explain the gulf in prosecution rates, it added.
“Such a postcode lottery is unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the Chief Constable to ensure investigations lead to prosecutions,” MPs said.
The panel said it expected extra funding recently allocated to recruit 10 new officers to tackle the issue would drive improvements.
The report also accuses the council of suppressing criticism of its involvement with murdered teenager Laura Wilson, 17, who was “on the periphery” of a grooming ring when she was stabbed to death and dumped in a canal by Ashtiaq Asghar, with whom she had had a sexual relationship, in 2010.
A serious case review uncovered numerous missed opportunities to help her, but the report was published with redactions that whitewashed the link between her murder and grooming.
The committee said Rotherham’s safeguarding children board appeared to have been “protecting rather than scrutinising its members” in doing so.
Members said they were “surprised” the council’s notice to improve from Ofsted was lifted in 2011 and called for the watchdog to carry out further reviews over the next two years to ensure changes “are not just cosmetic”.
The report, which also examines grooming in Rochdale, Derby and Oxford, concludes: “Both Rochdale and Rotherham Councils were inexcusably slow to realise that the widespread, organised sexual abuse of children, many of them in the care of the local authority, was taking place on their doorstep. This is due in large part to a woeful lack of professional curiosity or indifference.”
It goes on: “That it took so long for anybody, at any level, from the chief executive downward, to look at reports of young girls with multiple, middle-aged ‘boyfriends’, hanging around take- aways, drinking and taking drugs, and to think that it might be worth investigating further, is shocking.”
It is “no excuse” for managers to say they had no knowledge of what was taking place, it adds.
“They are ultimately responsible and must be held accountable for the appalling consequences of their lack of curiosity.”
Jane Booth, Independent Chair of the Calderdale Safeguarding Children Board said: “We have been working hard with partners to ensure the crime of child sexual abuse is tackled. A clear message is needed that those committing these crimes against children and young people will be brought to justice.
“The Board will continue this important work supporting the Police and other agencies to stop the sexual exploitation of young people and protect those who are vulnerable.
“As a Board, we offer training so that staff are aware of the problem, can spot the warning signs and know where to find support for victims and their families.
“We also need the continued support of parents, carers, schools and local communities to take responsibility for vulnerable young people and inform the Police or Calderdale Council if they have any concerns for a person’s safety, so that we can tackle this crime.”