Why are we still so scared to talk about grooming gangs?

Last week, in what was hailed by many as a very brave step in the right direction, the BBC aired a three-part drama called “Three Girls”. It told the story of three teenage girls in Rochdale who were befriended by older Pakistani men at a local curry house, who gained their trust with free food and alcohol before raping them and pimping them out to their friends.   When one of the girls tried to report the abuse to the police, one of the men was arrested but was later released without charge, despite the fact that the police had DNA evidence from the girl’s underwear to tie the perpetrator to the abuse. He then threatened to kill her parents and rape her younger sister if she did not continue to have sex with him and his clients.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out, for the benefit of overseas readers who may be unfamiliar with this issue, is that there were far more than three victims of this type of abuse, and that this did not happen only in Rochdale – in fact, it is understood to have been going on for years in towns across the UK, and continues to occur. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not just young girls who are victims of grooming gangs – young boys are affected too. Only in recent years have the police started to prosecute cases – the case depicted in Three Girls, which took place in 2010, was the first successful police prosecution of a grooming gang, and in recent years there have been numerous further prosecutions relating to offences dating back as far as 1997.

What the drama did not shy away from, was in showing just how badly the girls were let down by police, social services and the crown prosecution service. Sara Rowbotham, a local sexual health worker, was the first to notice the abuse and gathered an extraordinary amount of evidence which she handed over to police and social services – but her evidence was ignored and her repeated pleas for action fell on deaf ears. One of the social workers even visited the parents of one of the victims and told them that their daughter was a prostitute, and that the activities she was engaging in were “a lifestyle choice”. As Sara is seen explaining to the stunned parents afterwards – “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute.   What there is, is a child who is being abused”.

It was only when a new investigation was opened by Greater Manchester Police two years later, and the evidence was looked at by a new team, and a new prosecutor, that the decision was taken to prosecute. But even then, it was decided that one of the girls, “Amber” (not her real name), could not be called to give evidence in court as her testimony would not be seen as credible. However, in order to be able to use the evidence against the men who had abused her, the police named her as a co-conspirator on the charge sheet (as the oldest of the girls at the time of the abuse, she had been involved in introducing new girls to the abusers). As she was not actually prosecuted, she was unaware that this had been done until social services tried to take her baby away from her due to concerns that she was an unfit mother.

The police officer, Maggie Oliver, who had spent weeks with Amber, gaining her trust, taking down her evidence and preparing her for trial, was so disgusted at the way Amber was treated – as well as the way in which other victims were treated in other cases – that she resigned from the police force.

Maggie, you see, had been previously let down by her own police force – she had been involved in a major investigation into sexual grooming of children in Hulme and Rusholme, in which 26 teenage girls were alleged to have been abused by up to 208 suspects. She had spent a year and a half gathering evidence and testimony from the girls, but then had to take three months off work as her husband was ill and dying. When she returned to work the entire operation had been shelved. In a recent interview with Manchester Evening News, she stated:

“I was totally incredulous. It just didn’t make sense. It was as if it had never happened. The girls had told me what had happened. I’d gained their trust. I’d given them my word that GMP would take their allegations forward and that they should trust us.

“We’d found locations where the abuse had happened, vehicles used to transport the victims and had identified many serial sex offenders. We also had social workers telling us they’d been trying to get the police to take this problem seriously for years. But not one offender was arrested or charged. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if none of it had ever happened.”

Which leads me to the main point of this blog. The extent to which police and prosecutors have been turning a blind eye to this abuse, and the appalling treatment of anybody who has tried to bring it into the public eye, is quite astounding.

The first public figure to try to bring this type of abuse to light was Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley. She was approached in 2002 by seven mothers who said that their daughters were being abused by young men from the Pakistani community. The mothers had provided the police with the names and addresses of the abusers but the police were refusing to act. When Cryer tried to speak up about what was happening, she was shunned by other Labour party members and was subjected to so much abuse that she had to have a panic button installed in her house.

She had many meetings with police and social services, imploring them to do something, only to be told there was no point in mounting a prosecution. In her words:

“They found constant excuses not to do anything. You would think it would be clear-cut – these girls were too young to consent – but police kept saying it wouldn’t get to trial because these girls wouldn’t give evidence. They thought these lads were their boyfriends. They thought they were going to get married. But no. Most of these lads were already married to a cousin from Pakistan.”

The issue of witness / victim credibility is a common theme that runs through many of the accounts as to why police, social services and the prosecution service failed to act. As Sara Rowbotham is seen explaining in “Three Girls”, the victims of grooming gangs don’t present like usual child abuse victims. They often will have initially believed one of the abusers to be their boyfriend, and may even have “consented” to have sex with other men in order to please the “boyfriend”.   Nazir Afzal, the prosecutor who finally made the decision to prosecute the “Three Girls” case in Rochdale, was reportedly disturbed by the number of times cases were dropped because police were concerned that they would be too difficult to prosecute because the victim had a chaotic lifestyle which damaged her credibility – she may even have criminal convictions herself. In his words,

“My view is that this is exactly what you would expect with a victim. That she has been led astray and manipulated by the abuser. He’s not going to look for the young girl who has never been in trouble. They deliberately target the ones who have the most chaotic backgrounds, the most troubled lives.”

But it’s not just police, social services and the prosecution service that were slow to act – it’s the media, too. The first journalist to expose what was going on was Julie Bindel, in 2007 – she tells a familiar story of how, despite the fact that mothers she had spoken to had amassed a huge amount of information, including names and telephone numbers of pimps and clients, and number plates of cars driven by the pimps, the police and social services just didn’t want to know. Bindel was constantly fobbed off by newspaper editors who refused to allow her to expose her findings.

The reason, of course, for the reticence on the part of police, social services, politicians and the media, to expose the scale of this abuse, is the racial element. It simply cannot be ignored – despite the fact that the majority of perpetrators of sexual abuse in the UK are white males, in the case of this particular type of abuse, involving grooming and pimping of young, vulnerable children, the perpetrators are almost exclusively men of Pakistani origin. But try to point that out, and you will be met with a howl of outrage from the Pakistani community, who quite rightly don’t feel that they should be tarred with the same brush as a small number of abusers. And liberal lefties who will call you a racist for even daring to suggest that the abuse is taking place.

I do understand the sensitivity of the issue. But just as it is unfair to imply that all Pakistanis are paedophiles, so it is equally unfair to suggest that anybody who expresses concern at this phenomenon is a racist. A common refrain that is heard whenever the subject of grooming gangs is raised, is “But most abusers are white men – look at Jimmy Saville!”

Yes, let’s look at Jimmy Saville.   In the wake of the allegations against Saville, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Yewtree – a nationwide operation investigating historic sexual abuse of children by Saville and other celebrities and public figures. It was front-page news in every publication in the UK almost every day for the first few months after the investigation was launched, and we continued to read reports of investigations for years afterwards.  Over 1400 people were investigated but only 19 were actually arrested and of those, only 7 of those arrests led to convictions.

Now let’s contrast that to the grooming gangs scandal. Firstly, there is no nationwide operation. Each police force mounts its own operation – which makes sense logistically as each force will be investigating claims in their own local communities, but it makes it very difficult to get an overall view of the number of investigations and prosecutions. However, Peter McLaughlin has compiled a list of convictions in his book “Easy Meat” – he lists 265 convictions between 2002 and the present date, with cases still ongoing.   Operation Tendersea, in Huddersfield, is currently ongoing with 29 people facing over 170 charges over sexual exploitation of 18 children between 2004 and 2011. The youngest was 11 at the time.

So 265 – and counting – convictions for grooming but only 7 for Operation Yewtree.   And yet grooming cases that come to court and that lead to convictions get only brief mention in the media, with only certain tabloids choosing to report them as front-page news. Quickly swept under the carpet.

But it’s when you look at the victim statistics that it gets really alarming. The Jay Report, which was commissioned to investigate allegations of grooming in Rotherham, determined that there had been over 1400 victims in Rotherham alone between 1997 and 2013.

Jay reportedly found examples of “children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone”. She found that girls as young as 11 had been raped by large numbers of men.

Police chiefs are now apparently saying that there are over 10,000 victims per year, across the UK.  A truly horrifying statistic.

The common refrain is that we have to tread carefully in discussing this issue for fear of giving ammunition to far-right groups such as the English Defence League or the British National Party.   And that is a fair point. But the flip-side of the argument is that many people who join those parties, do so because they feel that they are being let down by the authorities – it is the very failure to openly speak about this type of abuse that is fuelling these groups.

The other crucial point is that it is not just white girls who are the victims of this type of abuse.  Girls from the Sikh community are also commonly targeted, and it is believed that this type of abuse also impacts underage Muslim girls – but they are usually too afraid to report it.  And no, not all of the abusers are Pakistani, nor are they all Muslims – in fact, just recently four men and one woman were convicted in Sheffield of 18 offences including child prostitution and sexual abuse, relating to five female victims.  All five abusers were white.  In fact it is impossible to know the exact ethnic proportion of perpetrators and victims as ethnicity is not recorded by the police.  But we can see from convictions in recent years that the majority of the perpetrators have been Muslim men, of mostly Pakistani origin, and that the majority of the victims who have come forward have been white girls.

In the wake of the “Three Girls” airing, a video clip was shared on Twitter, showing Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, trying to speak to Jeremy Paxman in 2011 about grooming gangs. Paxman absolutely did not want to know – Robinson repeatedly agreed that he was not talking about all muslims, but kept trying to make the point that certain muslim men were grooming young girls for sex, pimping them to their friends. He was trying to explain how on a recent episode of “Question Time” on which the issue had been discussed, the focus had been on trying to whitewash the issue and “dress it up a bit better”. In his words,

“…talking about these girls like they’re statistics. They’re not statistics, these girls are….whose daughters do you think these are, whose sisters? – they’re ours. In working class towns and communities – and people are fed-up of what’s going on, and it is being ignored. For 20 years, our councillors and the leaders of the Islamic community have conspired with the police to not deal with muslim pimping gangs. They’ve allowed systematic rape of our youth”

Robinson has now left the English Defence League and, together with Anne-Marie Waters, continues to speak out against grooming gangs. They both have huge numbers of followers on Twitter, who regularly commend them for their bravery and urge them to continue to speak out.

But why, when we already know so much about this problem, are so many people still afraid to speak out? Why does it still fall to a select, brave few?

Ann Cryer, a number of years ago, told the Guardian that male colleagues in parliament would privately congratulate her on her courage. She said,

“What male MPs from similar areas to Bradford and Keighley would say to me from time to time was, ‘Oh, you’re so brave taking up these issues’ – either forced marriages or grooming of girls. I would think, ‘Well, it wouldn’t need so much bravery if people like you would support me.’ ”

I believe it’s time for all of us to support those who are speaking up about abuse in their communities. It should not fall to groups such as the British National Party, the English Defence League or Pegida to raise these issues – we should all be able to trust our own government, press, police, social services and public prosecutors to protect our children, and it should outrage each and every one of us when they fail to do so.  It’s time to stop this shameful cover-up.

Sources / further background:

“Three Girls” – episode 1, YouTube

“Three Girls”, episode 2- YouTube

“Three Girls”, episode 3 – YouTube

Manchester Evening News – Maggie Oliver interview

Guardian interview with Nazir Afzal

Guardian interview with Ann Cryer

Julie Bindel interview with the Independent

Julie Bindel article about gangs and grooming

Julie Bindel report about Charlene Downes murder

Anne-Marie Waters account of investigation into grooming gangs


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