THE FORMER Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police admitted today he has “regrets” following the latest report into child abuse in Rotherham.
Retired Michael Hedges spent 11 years in the force and held the position of both deputy Chief Constable and Chief Constable.
Mr Hedges said he regretted the force had not been able to put a stop to the atrocity after the report revealed abuse of more than 1,400 children within the force area.
Speaking from his home in Farrington Gurney, near Bristol, he said he had been replaying his time in charge over as he was worried he’d “fallen asleep on the job.”
He said: “It would be wrong to say I have no regrets because whether I like it or not, I was there as chief constable from 1998 - 2004 and things were going on of which I was not aware.
“Had I have been aware of them, then I would have had action taken, which may have prevented some of these people becoming victims.
“But on the otherhand, in the unjoined up way things went in those days, it may have made no difference at all. So I’m left with this uncertainty.
“My regret is that it wasn’t something that we as a force could get hold of, run with and push through to make sure there was action.
“Obviously, I’ve been looking back and thinking ‘have I missed anything? Have I fallen asleep on the job?’
“But I’m certain that the issue was never raised as something of high priority, or at all.”
The father-of-one said that on reflection the issue had managed to slip through the net during his time at the force.
He suggested that due to the fact complaints were dealt with on an individual basis, officers failed to spot patterns and pick up on larger issue.
Mr Hedges said: “I think there’s a reason for the fact it was not an issue that was raised.
“We’re talking about 2008. I think that’s the period that the start of this report that was commissioned started looking.
“Very much in those days this issue of grooming and wholesale abuse of young, vulnerable people, hadn’t been an issue.
“It doesn’t mean it hadn’t been there, but it hadn’t been an issue that had come to the notice of the agencies.
“The police service have traditionally looked at complaints on a complaint by complaint basis,unless there is an obvious pattern.
“When you’d get complaints come in for let’s say indecent assault, you’d look at it and if the evidence was there you’d take action and it was dealt with.
“Very often the people who made these complaints, or went missing from home, were young people from troubled backgrounds in care.
“Often they were repeat complainants, often running away, so the issue would be dealt with, they’d be returned to care and we’d move on.
“In those days there was no history of organised grooming and abusing.
“That was the way it was dealt with and I think for those reasons it didn’t come on to the radar as an issue of strategic importance.
“It has to be something of strategic importance to drag the likes of myself and other divisional commanders into it, otherwise it’s an operational issue and it was dealt with on a one on one basis.”
Hedges admitted that he was surprised when he saw the latest report hit the headlines, as he had been unaware of the investigations.
Mr Hedges added that lessons needed to be taken from the report and changes needed to be made.
He said:”I wasn’t even aware there were issues being reviewed - I don’t follow things closely from up there.
“When I saw the news item on it I thought ‘what on earth is this all about?’
“To my recollection it is nothing that raised it’s head at all during the time I was in the force.
“Obviously you have individual cases of allegations of assault, indecent or otherwise and domestic abuse, but there was never any awareness of organised gangs of individuals or people grooming and preying on young people.
“I found it particularly surprising as from the time I was appointed in 1998 the crime and disorder act was passed which required us to set up crime reduction committees in all four of our boroughs, including Rotherham.
“That involved very close working with our opposite numbers in local authorities, ie the local council, and chief executive and chief officer level, working with the probation service and the youth service.
“In my time there it was never raised as an issue in any of those meetings or agendas.
“What we’ve seen over the more recent years, certainly from about 2004, 2005, onwards is, what I would describe as the ‘lowering of the water on the iceberg’.
“The complaints started to become more evidence of pattern, and more reason to have become a concern to the various agencies.
“I think the key message, if there’s anything coming out of this, is that unless all of the organisations get a lot smarter at working together then there’s a very real danger this will just happen again.
“The vital issue is recognition that there is a problem, which I think has now happened.
“Secondly, it’s a very clear understanding of how the problem can be tackled by the agencies working together. The key amongst that is sharing information.”
He acknowledged that there was popular demand for the current Police and Crime Commissioner, Mr Wright, to step down.
Mr Hedges said that ultimately it was up to Wright to make the decision.
He said: “What Mr Wright decides to do now is really up to him. He has got to examine his own position.”