Last week the Prime Minister and Home Secretary announced new plans to tackle the ‘horrific grooming gangs’ who exploit children sexually.
They will create a task force of officers who will go into police forces to strengthen their investigations into child sexual exploitation (CSE). They will introduce new law to make being a leader of a gang, or a gang member, an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing, so that judges will be able to hand down tougher sentences. And they will stop ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural sensitivities’ standing in the way of investigations.
As they were interviewed about all this by the media, they constantly referenced Rotherham (as well as Rochdale and Telford).
I would just make two comments.
I have no objection to strengthening the law around CSE. But I do think there was some very careless talk last week about grooming and gangs that helped nobody.
Listening to the politicians, you would think that we were back in 2014 when Professor Alexis Jay produced her report on child abuse in Rotherham, and nothing had happened since.
But this is not true. The lessons that needed to be taken from the Jay report were taken; and I have spent the last eight years holding South Yorkshire police to account in the light of them. We ensured there was no denial here about past mistakes and the teams involved in protecting children understood grooming, helped our communities to spot the signs of it and protected the vulnerable.
The officers here who have devoted themselves to safeguarding our children are utterly dedicated to that work and have been praised for the quality of what they do. Their knowledge and expertise is widely recognised and has been acknowledged in key reports and inspections. To suggest that, whatever happened in the past, they would allow ‘cultural sensitivities’ or ‘political correctness’ to get in the way of their investigations, is wrong and grossly unfair. Moreover, officers in this line of work, whom I meet regularly, are pursuing investigations that are harrowing and difficult enough without having these unsubstantiated allegations made against them. If the Home Secretary had chosen to speak to me as PCC when she came here, we could have told her.
I wonder too where the taskforce officers are going to come from with expertise, knowledge and experience, if it is not from forces like South Yorkshire.
The second observation relates directly to the suggestion that ‘political correctness’ was still inhibiting the work of officers because they were not acknowledging that the grooming gangs were from a particular ethnic group, namely those of Pakistani heritage. The suggestion was dangerous because if it led officers to focus on people who fitted that description, it would narrow the field of vision with the risk that perpetrators with other ethnic backgrounds would be missed. Having a narrow vision, not looking around, was part of Jay’s criticism of what happened in the period 1997-2013. It seems quite perverse, therefore, to use the findings of that report in a way that would lead police forces now to repeat the mistakes of the past,
The Home Office know all this perfectly well because their own research, published in 2020, cautioned against thinking that the grooming of children for sexual purposes was predominantly about gangs of men from a particular ethnic background. But the politicians were in electioneering mode last week and such considerations were not going to stand in the way.
Even so, the point about not stereotyping was dramatically illustrated later in the week when the trial of a gang that sexually abused children in Walsall finally came to an end. Twenty one people were convicted in the biggest child sexual abuse investigation ever undertaken by West Midlands police. It was called Operation Satchell. The children abused were aged 12 and under and the crimes, which were horrific, had been committed over a ten year period of time. This could not be reported before last week because it was only then that the third and final trial was concluded. The gang of abusers were aged between 22 and 71. All were jailed and one was sentenced to life. Only one of the accused admitted their crime and showed any remorse for what they had done.
But the offenders were 14 males and 7 females, and all were white. This gang could not have been more different from the grooming gangs in Rotherham and Rochdale.
The point about ethnicity that the politicians should have made is not that the grooming gangs are invariably Asian men – that stereotype would have seriously misled the West Midlands police – but they can be of any ethnicity and any gender.
That lesson is well understood here.
Not in my name
Of course, the issue of grooming gangs was not the only piece of electioneering happening around crime and justice last week. Both the major parties were guilty of saying things that, in my view, brought little credit to those who said them and did the cause of justice little good. I was equally dismayed by my own party issuing so-called attack ads on social media which suggested that the Prime Minister does not believe that adults convicted of child abuse should go to prison.
The ad showed a photograph of the Prime Minister and these words: ‘Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.’ Then in small print the explanation: ‘Under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time. Labour will lock up dangerous child abusers.’
I agree with my friend Lord Blunkett who said the ads had left him ‘close to despair’ and were ‘gutter’ politics. It was a slur – like the allegations around current police investigations into grooming and gangs. And if crime is to be a major issue as we approach the general election, the parties will be guilty of more of this unless they stop now.
The tragedy of all this is that there are serious matters that we do need to recognise and address in policy terms. It is true that many offenders who should be locked up have not been. It is true that many rapists have not been brought to trial let alone convicted. We need to understand why – and what, therefore, must be done to improve criminal justice outcomes.
These are the right issues, but personalised attacks of this kind will not take us to the right answers.
You will know that I have tried many times now to persuade National Highways and the Department of Transport to abandon smart motorways – those where what would be a hard shoulder is turned into a live lane. I regard them as inherently dangerous. From time to time, Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed in a road traffic collision on a smart motorway and who now campaigns against them, gets in touch. She often ends her emails with a cry of despair: ‘How many more have to die before action is taken?’
Last week, another inquest was held following further fatalities on a smart motorway stretch of the M1. Derek Jacobs’ van suffered a burst tyre and came to a halt in a live lane. A Ford KA ran into the van killing Mr Jacobs. It then flipped over and was hit by a coach. The passenger in the car, Charles Scripps, also died.
The assistant coroner, Susan Evans, told the court: ‘It is immediately apparent that, had there been a hard shoulder, this incident would not have occurred because Mr Jacobs would have been able to pull off the live lane entirely.’
The collision investigator, Sergeant Paul Moorcroft, said: ‘It is highly unlikely that this collision would have taken place had there been a hard shoulder.’
Why the car driver did not see the van in time is not understood, but the comments of the assistant coroner and the police officer could not be clearer: a hard shoulder would have made the difference between life and death.
Claire Mercer asked: ‘How many more have to die before action is taken?’ There is no answer to that because these deaths, and the comments by the coroner, seem to count for little when decisions are being made at national level.
Breaking the cycle
Last week was a bad week for levels of violence in South Yorkshire, especially violent deaths. We saw the arrest of a twelve-year-old for murder earlier in the week and the shooting of a young man over Easter weekend.
Every death produces circles of grieving and fear that ripple outwards to family, friends, neighbours, colleagues – even whole communities are disturbed and troubled.
And this is the point. No incidence of violence ever has one victim. No incidence of violence is ever so contained that others, including those who are at a more remote distance, are not made anxious by it. And the ripples extend through time even as they extend through space.
Those who were keeping Easter as a religious festival this weekend will understand that: the one who was raised still bore the marks of the nails. Violence may be overcome but it cannot be erased.