THE bosses of a Yorkshire council have been forced to apologise after being savaged by MPs for their “dismal failure” dealing with the sexual exploitation of hundreds of young girls over the past decade.
Members of Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee yesterday launched a series of attacks on senior executives at Rotherham Council for the authority’s failure to better protect children across the borough from grooming gangs, and for the lack of prosecutions of the “horrifying characters” responsible.
A series of reports over recent years have revealed Rotherham to have deep problems of child exploitation – but only a single successful prosecution has been achieved during the past 10 years.
Speaking before the committee met yesterday, Rotherham Council chief executive Martin Kimber apologised for the “systemic failures” that have let down vulnerable children over the past decade.
“It’s widely acknowledged that sexual exploitation of young people wasn’t handled anywhere near as well even six or seven years ago as it is today,” Mr Kimber said.
“I would certainly apologise to young people and families where they have been let down. I don’t think that is ever a consequence generally of individual failure – it’s nearly always systemic failure.”
Committee chairman Keith Vaz said 600 child victims of sexual exploitation in Rotherham have been identified by the council over the past decade, but that only eight men had ever been arrested – for offences against just four children. Only a single successful prosecution has taken place.
“We’re talking about hundreds of victims, of vulnerable young girls who have not been protected,” Mr Vaz said. “Why has Rotherham failed so dismally to deal with the issue of child grooming?”
Labour MP David Winnick said “the general impression” is that those alleged to be involved with child abuse in Rotherham “have been able to get away with their vile activity, without sufficient pressure from the authorities”.
But Rotherham’s director of children’s and young people’s services, Joyce Thacker, said securing convictions in exploitation cases was notoriously difficult, and that disrupting the activities of the criminals was more important in protecting potential victims.
“Prosecution is the icing on the cake,” she said. “Prevention is actually the key issue for me. Prosecutions are very hard to achieve in child sex exploitation.”
She said the council “spends lots of time” trying to disrupt the activities of potential sex offenders.
But Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood said she was “concerned” by this response, and that the prosecution of criminals was also hugely important.
She demanded to know why the authorities in Rotherham have managed only a single prosecution, when in Lancashire – another area perceived to have a serious grooming problem – 100 prosecutions took place in 2011 alone.
“Other areas are managing to overcome these problems,” the Tory MP said. “This does not seem to be happening in Rotherham.
“You still seem to have a lot of victims, and you still don’t have any prosecutions.
“What is more difficult in Rotherham than in Lancashire, or in Oxford, or in anywhere else with exactly the same problems that you are experiencing?”
Mrs Thacker said she was “delighted” if other authorities are succeeding in prosecuting child sex offenders, and that “it frustrates me when we don’t get that level of convictions”.
But she denied Mr Vaz’s charge that the council had “failed dismally” to deal with the problem.
“I don’t think I fully accept that we’ve failed dismally to deal with the issue,” she said. “I think there some historical issues here which we have managed over time to actually have an improved service.
“When you look back at practice from, say, a decade ago, things have improved substantially in that time.”
Mr Winnick said an Ofsted report from last year showed the council’s practices had improved significantly over recent years.
But Mr Vaz said: “The committee is very concerned about the record of Rotherham as far as child grooming is concerned. We’re very disappointed to have heard some of the evidence we have today.”
Last year senior officers from South Yorkshire Police were treated to a similar mauling over child sex grooming by the Home Affairs committee.
At that hearing in October, Mr Vaz told South Yorkshire chief constable David Crompton: “I must say I am very disappointed, because I do not think South Yorkshire has got a grip on this very, very, serious issue.”