THE head of the government's children's protection agency today attempted to play down the row over alleged child exploitation by British Pakistani men as he launched an investigation into so-called "street grooming".
Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) said the sexual exploitation of children could not be "simplified along ethnic lines".
The inquiry was launched after former home secretary Jack Straw accused some Pakistani men in Britain of seeing white girls as "easy meat" for sexual abuse.
Keighley Tory MP Kris Hopkins backed Mr Straw's controversial remarks, saying that although he had used a "sledgehammer approach" it was an issue "that needed to be debated and discussed".
Mr Hopkins said it was important to recognise it only involved a minority but added: "There is an issue with some young men from that particular community who don't respect women, I think that's what it fundamentally starts off with.
"This involves the second and third generation (British Pakistani men) – there has been a lack of a challenge over behaviour towards women. There needs to be a broad debate and not just among politicians but among community leaders, individuals, families – we need to address this."
Mr Davies' investigation will establish "whether it is accurate to identify any patterns of offending, victimisation or vulnerability within these cases", and will report in three to six months.
He said: "Child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion - it cuts across all communities.
"Neither can it be simplified along ethnic lines where the victims constitute one ethnicity and offenders another.
"We need to continue to build our understanding about the different types of threats faced by children across a range of environments."
Mr Davies said "a number of recent events" prompted him to launch the inquiry into on-street grooming, including Operation Retriever, which prompted Mr Straw to make his comments.
The Blackburn MP said it was a "specific problem" in the Pakistani community which needed to be "more open" about the reasons behind it.
He spoke out after the ringleaders of a gang which subjected a string of vulnerable girls to rapes and sexual assaults were jailed indefinitely.
Mohammed Liaqat, 28, and Abid Saddique, 27, were sentenced to a minimum of eight and 11 years respectively at Nottingham Crown Court for raping and sexually abusing their victims, often after giving them alcohol or drugs.
They were the prime movers in a group of men who befriended girls aged 12 to 18 in the Derby area and groomed them for sex.
Mr Straw's comments, on BBC2's Newsnight, sparked a furious backlash from a senior Labour colleague and charities.
Children's charity Barnardo's, Muslim youth group The Ramadhan Foundation and retired detective chief superintendent Max McLean, who led a previous investigation into sexual exploitation involving young girls in Leeds, all said Mr Straw was wrong to highlight one community.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, described Mr Straw's comments as "pretty dangerous" and insisted the case was not symbolic of any "cultural problem".
But former detective superintendent Mick Gradwell, who retired from Lancashire Constabulary last year, supported Mr Straw's comments.
He said: "From the first time I was posted to East Lancashire it has been a problem.
"What Jack Straw has said so carefully is true: There is a problem with some members of the Pakistani community targeting young women in this way. In recent years we have seen it specifically with victims aged just 14, 15 or 16-years-old who are out on the streets at night and groomed by predatory gangs.
"For people to just come out and call Mr Straw racist is wrong. There must be a debate, not on his right to make the comments but on the issue itself because if we can't do that then we can't be honest about the issues that currently affect our communities."
Mr Gradwell, who has 30 years of experience in major police investigations, said no one was saying the Pakistani community was responsible for the majority of sex crimes.
But this element of sex crimes was a "specific problem within a group of people in a minority community" that needed addressing, he said.
Today, Mr Vaz said Ceop will be asked to give evidence on its inquiry to his committee.
"A thorough and comprehensive national investigation on street grooming is urgently needed," he said.
"A full investigation will give the police the information they need to target the criminals and criminal networks involved in this hideous crime."