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Here's What Officials in the British Town of Rotherham Knew About Pedophile Gangs

Shaun Wright, the police commissioner criticised over his handling of child sex abuse cases, has finally stepped down. But he is not the only official accused of failing to protect the area's children.

by Ann Czernik
Sep 17 2014, 4:33pm

Images via Parliamentlive.tv

This article originally appeared on VICE.com

On Wednesday, Shaun Wright, the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner who oversaw years of child abuse in Rotherham, finally stood down. He held onto his post for almost a month after the release of an explosive report detailing the sexual abuse of 1,400 young girls in the area, which, as head of children's services in Rotherham from 2005 to 2010, he didn't do a lot to stop. Previously he had insisted that he "genuinely believed" that it was in the victims' "best interest" that he stayed in his post. Yet when he finally resigned, it was, he said, "for the sake of those victims."

Before he stepped down, the UK Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee got the chance to grill him over his failings. Reading back the transcripts of that committee, as well as other statements to the media, the officials tried to convince everyone that they knew little or nothing about the scale or extent of child sexual exploitation (CSE). The truth is that they either did know, or definitely should have known.

Let's start with Shaun Wright. He was apparently clueless about scale of the horror unfolding on his watch. Referring to the independent report, commissioned by Rotherham Council and led by Professor Alexis Jay, he said, "I've been aware of CSE for many years, I wasn't aware of the industrial scale that Professor Jay identified in her report." The committee didn't believe him.

Perhaps Wright should have paid more attention when the HASC report into localised grooming, published nearly 18 months ago, suggested that he take more notice of the victims. Wright also received regular reports detailing the scale of CSE in Rotherham from Risky Business - a local project supporting victims, social services and the Children's Safeguarding Board which listed the number of referrals received for each service. One report from Risky Business in March 2008 linked three members of a family to 61 girls. Of those 61 girls, 43 were said to be ex-girlfriends of one or more family members and 13 were said to have been raped, sexually assaulted, or threatened by one or more members of this family.

Home Affairs Select Committee Chairman Keith Vaz. Image via Parliamentlive.tv

Wright said: "In 2008, a funding pressure was identified. I took action to double its [Risky Business's] funding allocation. Throughout the period there was an increasing awareness of Child Sexual Exploitation among professionals, parents, young people and other members of the community." Which suggests that he did know that something was going on - so why say he didn't?

He also claimed not to have met any of the victims. Before the committee convened last Tuesday, a hearing was held in private with a young woman who described her ordeal at the hands of the men identified in the 2008 report. She told parliamentarians that she met Wright at the council offices when he visited Risky Business in 2006. She said, "I told Shaun Wright what I'd been forced to do to three Pakistanis in the back of a car. He looked shocked. Names were named and we never saw him again". Wright told the committee that he "didn't recall the meeting".

Wright wasn't the only official who was blissfully ignorant of the scale of what was happening. Paul Lakin was the cabinet member for children's services from 2010 until last week when he succeeded Roger Stone as leader of the council. When the scandal broke, Lakin told the BBC that he, like Wright, was "not aware of the depth and breadth of CSE". But in fact, in December 2010, Lakin was told about a staggering 302 children who were at risk, referred to Children's Services between March 2009 and September 2010. That's nearly three times more than in the previous year and 21 percent of the total 1,400 victims identified in the Jay Report. When Lakin took over Children's Services in May 2010, the children's minister, Dawn Primarolo had already served a notice of improvement when the failing department was under Wright's direction.

There were three major police investigations going on into CSE in Rotherham - Operation Central, Czar and Chard. Lakin told me: "That was the first time I got any real insight into CSE. The first thing I did was to set priorities. The first year, it was CSE. The intervention was up, and CSE was at the forefront of all that. I've followed through on each of the police investigations."

Meredydd Hughes. Image via Parliamentlive.tv

The fact that the police achieved a historic conviction in 2010, and had massive resources deployed in the three operations makes it weird that Meredydd Hughes, South Yorkshire chief constable from 2004 to 2011, also said that he had no idea of the seriousness of CSE on his patch. With uncanny similarity to the others, he told the Home Affairs Select Committee: "I had no understanding of the scale and scope of CSE". He claims that he never saw numerous reports produced by South Yorkshire police about exploitation in the region, nor the extensive guidance from the Home Office about tackling CSE as a priority.

In fact he should have understood, but he didn't turn up to the relevant meetings. The lead member for Children's Services, director of Children's Services, and the police chief are required to attend local Children's Safeguarding Board meetings. CSE appeared regularly on the agenda of these meetings from 2003 onwards, along with updates from Risky Business. According to the minutes of these meetings, Wright and Hughes failed to attend. Instead, Peter Horner, the manager of Rotherham's Public Protection Unit attended. Occasionally. Eventually, the Children's Safeguarding Board wrote to the police requesting that they provide an officer, and report regularly.

The Children's Safeguarding Board minutes from 2005 to 2010 recorded that hundreds of children were at risk year on year. As early as 2003, a sexual exploitation forum was organised, and police and social services had lead officers who were designated the task of addressing CSE within Rotherham. In 2010, South Yorkshire Police produced a profile report detailing extensive CSE across the region and linked it to drugs, gun running and exploitation. So how come Hughes didn't know what was up?

Well, Hughes told the committee that he wasn't briefed on any of these major operations into CSE, didn't meet any of the victims and he didn't remember there being a serious problem. The Home Affairs Select Committee called bullshit, telling Hughes that it didn't accept that he didn't know.

That's not surprising given that they heard "disturbing" evidence from a Home Office funded researcher who had uncovered an organised network of exploitation in Rotherham. Her findings were reported to the Home Office in 2002 - when Hughes was deputy chief constable. The researcher was employed by the Coalition for Removal of Pimping, a charity which supported the families of victims of exploitation. Her offices were raided and the projects data removed. The theft was allegedly reported to police but no investigation followed. She claimed that clients were intimidated by police and threatened by perpetrators after she persuaded them to make statements to police about their abuse and the men who were exploiting them. She claimed that she had been threatened in her car at night by two police officers, who told her: "Wouldn't it be a bad thing if the men who are doing this found your address?" The researcher felt her life was at risk and now wants her complaint fully investigated.

All which led parliamentarian Ian Austin to say to David Crompton, the current South Yorkshire chief constable, "I'd assumed this was [police] incompetence but what we have heard about the break-in, files stolen and no record. That sounds more like an active conspiracy. How do you go about looking into that? I'm sure you're as worried as we are that police officers were involved in covering this up." Crompton told the Austin that he is "committed to getting to the bottom of it" but was unable to locate any record of the original complaint. The police chief has asked that the National Crime Agency hold an inquiry.

Wright has finally resigned, but he's certainly not the only official who should have done more to protect the 1,400 victims of sexual exploitation.