The Guardian view on the Rotherham child abuse scandal: no excuse
Shaun Wright, Labour’s South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner, who was Rotherham’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services from 2005 until 2010, is refusing to resign. He apologises unreservedly for the grotesque abuse that 1,400 children or more may have endured on his watch, but he says the scale of the abuse has come as a surprise to him. The chorus of voices raised against him, which includes the leadership of his own party, is, rightly, swelling. He should have gone at once. His lack of leadership, his reluctance to ask difficult questions or to intervene proactively, allowed the exploitation itemised in Professor Alexis Jay’s grim report on Tuesday to grow from what an earlier investigator called gang abuse for personal gratification into “financial and career opportunities” for young, mainly Asian, men. His failure to take responsibility now, in the face of the evidence, suggests a dangerous reluctance to address what went so damagingly wrong for so many vulnerable young women. No wonder some of them have now launched a class action against the council.
Rotherham is not alone in experiencing colossal institutional failure in child protection. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and a pattern of abuse that has now resulted in convictions in towns from Torbay to Rochdale is very likely to be happening in other places not yet identified. But its experience should offer at least a checklist for behaviour that should trigger alarm. In particular, councils should examine just how – in the words of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner – they see and hear children who may be in trouble. As so often, many of those in Rotherham who should have been on the victims’ side saw these vulnerable children as authors of their own misfortunes and failed, cruelly, to listen to their accounts. Then there was a misguided reluctance to consider whether there was an issue of race involved. Finally, they lacked any kind of institutional data-sharing that might have allowed police, schools, hospitals and social workers to understand what was happening.
The question of ethnicity is particularly contentious. Rotherham is a very white, poor, working-class town with a growing but still small – less than 10% – black and minority ethnic population of which less than a third is Muslim. In last May’s local elections, Ukip won most votes and became the official opposition on the council. A march by the English Defence League during the campaign drew 500 supporters. On Tuesday, one of the first on Twitter with a gloating tweet was Nick Griffin of the BNP. In that context it is understandable that the Labour council was sensitive to the reputation of its Muslim community. But it led to a terrible misjudgment: the subordination of the safeguarding of abused and exploited children – who were mainly, but not only, white – to the protection of the standing of one particular community. When the then Labour MP Ann Cryer, the anti-forced-marriage campaigner, began reporting accounts of young Pakistani-heritage men hanging about school gates in 2003, she was bitterly criticised. So, more recently, was the Times reporter Andrew Norfolk, whose painstaking investigation has done so much to bring the exploitation to light. Ethnicity did play a part in the Rotherham abuse, not because this particular pattern of abuse is restricted to a particular group (the behaviour is typical of many gangs) but because many of those who might have taken action feared the wider, societal, consequences if they did.
Like all sexual abuse, this was an example of the exploitation of the weak, and it is teaching some hard lessons. The CPS recognises that prosecutions can go ahead even when victims give confused accounts of abuse, reported long after the event. The value of gathering and sharing data between agencies is now widely understood. But the clearest lesson is that nothing, at all, must come before the need to protect the vulnerable, and those who fail must be held to account.