Why is incompetence not a criminal offence? Tom Richmond poses the question after the failings behind the Rotherham child sex grooming scandal were so ruthlessly exposed by MPs.
THE message to South Yorkshire’s disgraced crime commissioner Shaun Wright could not have been more succinct or more blunt: Resign and resign now.
Keith Vaz, Parliament’s magistrate-in-chief and chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was unable to mask his incredulity at the end of the extraordinary evidence into Rotherham’s sex grooming scandal.
“It is the unanimous view of the committee that you should resign,” Mr Vaz told his witness as he struggled to conceal his anger. He did not even have to confer with his colleagues.
They had reached the same conclusion minutes earlier when veteran backbencher Paul Flynn described the commissioner as “the least credible witness” that he had ever come across in 26 years on Parliamentary committees before likening him to a “charlatan” in love with his office and salary.
Most cutting of all, Mr Flynn – one of the most independent-minded MPs at Westminster – said he was “rather ashamed of the fact” that he shared Mr Wright’s political affiliation before the commissioner resigned from Labour two weeks after Professor Alexis Jay’s report revealed how 1,400 youngsters had been betrayed by Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police.
This shameless commissioner was not the only person to feel Mr Vaz’s venom – the evidence of former chief constable Meredydd Hughes was described as “unconvincing” while Joyce Thacker, the children’s services director in Rotherham, was ordered to stand down with immediate effect.
They, too, will find it virtually impossible to rebuild their shattered reputations.
Yet it was the feebleness of Mr Wright’s excuses that was so disturbing. He did not recall the harrowing account given to him by an abuse victim. And then he had the temerity to imply that the number of people demanding his resignation was balanced by a similar number of calls for him to remain in his £85,000-a-year post.
“I have received messages of support from MPs,” claimed Mr Wright, who had been reminded, minutes earlier, that his evidence was on oath and that his mobile phone records and text messages could be checked.
“How many?” asked an exasperated Paul Flynn.
“I haven’t had any MPs ask me to continue in office,” replied Mr Wright as he took semantics to a new low.
“There is no support for you,” countered Mr Flynn.
It was an exchange that was, frankly, indicative of the extent to which the five chief witnesses were totally in denial about their failures to act more decisively over one of the most serious child abuse scandals ever recorded in this country.
Wright’s bluster was preceded by equally unconvincing explanations from South Yorkshire’s past and present chief constables which did no favours to the constabulary’s already tarnished reputation.
First up was Meredydd Hughes, the chief constable from 2004-2011 who claimed – to audible gasps of astonishment – that he had no idea about the “scale and scope” of the abuse taking place under his force’s nose. His evidence could not have been more unconvincing. “We find it impossible to believe,” said Mr Vaz. “I’m not an idle person,” retorted an irritable Mr Hughes who then recalled how he went out on patrol in Rotherham.
Bully for him.
It was not long before the tetchy former chief constable was admonished, rightly so, for not treating proceedings with sufficient respect when questioned about his well-documented pursuit of speeding motorists. Asked to name who was responsible for child sex exploitation, he said he had four assistant chief constables and could not recall the divisions of responsibility.
Seriously? I’m not sure police officers would have been so lenient towards a suspected criminal. I’m sure I was not the only person to wonder if Mr Hughes has been living in a parallel universe.
When his memory was further tested, he spoke of being under a “degree of tension”. Really? Try telling that to all those under-age girls let down by his force. Perhaps the committee should have tested his recall of speeding laws.
No wonder Mr Vaz said sarcastically “you do know something?” when a minor piece of factual information was finally volunteered by Mr Hughes.
When he was rebuked, once again, for refusing to answer a specific question, it was tantamount to one of Britain’s most senior police officers being accused of the obstruction the pursuit of justice, as Med Hughes’s reputation became even more diminished with every utterance.
His successor David Crompton fared little better after accepting, begrudgingly, that “things should have been done differently in the past”.
Instead of saying that his officers will support the 25 new victims who have come forward since the Jay report was published, perhaps Mr Crompton should have assured the committee that he was taking personal charge of these investigations so the law can be upheld? What has happened to common sense in policing?
I suppose it requires a chief constable in South Yorkshire to accept a degree of responsibility – and that is clearly a big ask in the current climate.
Those watching the proceedings have every right to question how these two men were promoted to the level of chief constable.
It came as no surprise when Mr Vaz said the evidence of Mr Hughes was “unconvincing” – the ultimate rebuke to any police officer’s credibility.
The same applied when Rotherham Council’s outgoing chief executive Martin Kimber and Joyce Thacker, the town’s strategic director for children, young people and families, gave their evidence.
At least Mr Kimber chose to bow to the inevitable on Monday and resign from his £160,000-a-year job two weeks after Rotherham Council’s longstanding leader Roger Stone fell on his sword. Unsurprisingly, the committee was not impressed that such a well-remunerated official had not suspended or disciplined a single official since 2009.
Again, the obfuscation was disturbing as Mr Kimber tried – and failed – to justify his inaction against Ms Thacker who, it was claimed, did have detailed reports “in her possession” about child sex grooming and the scale of the abuse being committed in the troubled borough. The Jay report, he claimed, only provided “base material” and he would now make further investigations. I’m afraid “base material” is bureaucratic shorthand for delay and dither.
If this was unsatisfactory, proceedings reached a new low when Ms Thacker started to give her long-awaited evidence.
“If you knew about this, what have you been doing about it when you had an enormous lot of power?” pondered Mr Vaz before asking why the director was still in post.
Evidently, Ms Thacker had given this a lot of thought before concluding that she had “worked extremely hard to improve services in Rotherham”.
Let me reiterate the meaning of this. More than 1,400 young girls were abused and Ms Thacker is adding her name to the ever growing list of officials to sign up to this woeful “not me guv” line of defence. No wonder Mr Vaz ordered Ms Thacker to resign “as a matter of conscience”.
As committee member Mark Reckless pondered, how could a director of children’s services be “so ineffective” in raising the abuse scandal with her superiors and the police?
“We are all collectively at fault,” replied Ms Thacker before accepting that “the public are very angry now and right to be so”.
I’ll tell Joyce Thacker and her colleagues why they’re angry.
Listening to the Home Affairs Select Committee, it’s staggering anyone connected with this shambles can even consider staying in post.
If incompetence and buck-passing were criminal offences, Shaun Wright, Meredydd Hughes, David Crompton, Martin Kimber and Joyce Thacker would – on the basis of yesterday’s evidence – be guilty of letting down hundreds of vulnerable youngsters.
The case for the introduction of a new law of accountability to ensure failed public servants are held to account for such ineptitude is now overwhelming. Anything less will be an even greater betrayal of the 1,400 young people in Rotherham who face a life sentence of mental anguish because of an unforgivable dereliction of duty that will never be forgiven or forgotten.