The number of victims in the Rotherham sex exploitation scandal may be even more than the 1,400 children identified in a damning report, according to the town’s MP and a project which tried to tackle the problem.
Professor Alexis Jay’s report provoked shock and controversy last summer when it described how hundreds of children had been subjected to rape, violence and trafficking by gangs of mainly Asian men in the South Yorkshire town between 1997 and 2013.
Today, Rotherham’s Labour MP, Sarah Champion, told a Sky News investigation she now thinks the figures in the Jay Report may be an underestimate.
Ms Champion, who was elected in a November 2012 by-election, said: “The Jay Report said 1,400, but I’m getting new victims coming to me on a weekly basis.
“So I would say it’s closer to a couple of thousand people who have been groomed or have been sexually exploited in this little town.”
The investigation also said it had obtained information from the Risky Business community project in Rotherham which said it identified 1,700 victims between 1999 and 2011.
Risky Business was one of the few organisations praised by Prof Jay, but it was largely ignored and even harassed.
In her first interview, Risky Business’s former manager Jayne Senior told Sky News: “I was accused of saying too much, sharing too much information, reporting too much intelligence.
“Risky business didn’t make all this up. It was accused of making it all up, and Alexis Jay exonerated all of that, but we didn’t just get up and think: ‘What shall we do today? Let’s make up that...’”
The programme also talked to a victim - identified as “Gemma” - who said her abusers are still driving around Rotherham’s streets.
She said: “I’m still seeing my abusers, driving young girls in the car.
“They’re untouchable. Six months on we’ve had no arrests, no charges, evidence is still being lost. They’re just giving them - ‘do what you want’.”
Asked about what happened to Risky Business, Gemma said: “I think it was shut down because they were trying to tackle the problem.” She said this amounted to a cover-up.
In an interview with The Yorkshire Post last year, Professor Jay said the figure of 1,400 quoted in her report was a “conservative estimate”.
She said five years of missing council data and failures by police to record cases of child sexual exploitation meant it was difficult to know how many children were dealt with by local authorities.
She said: “No-one knows the true extent of child sexual exploitation in our communities because it is a huge issue and we don’t think Rotherham is unique.”
The National Crime Agency has taken over the investigation into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and is in the preliminary stage of its inquiry.
The senior investigating officer, Steve Baldwin, was previously the agency’s Head of Investigations for Northern England. He started his career with Greater Manchester Police and worked up to being Detective Chief Inspector before moving to the National Crime Squad in 2000.
In the wake of the Jay Report a number of high profile figures resigned, including South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, Shaun Wright, who had been a councillor in the town and responsible for children’s services.
Other resignations included those of the council leader, Roger Stone, the chief executive, Martin Kimber and its director of children’s services, Joyce Thacker.
Child protection campaigner Sara Payne said the events in Rotherham show that abuse victims and survivors “are still not receiving the level of support and advocacy that they need to ensure that they now have a far better experience of the criminal justice system than they have had previously”.
Dr Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter Sarah was murdered in 2000, said: “Government really need to ensure resources are put into the area of independently supporting and advocating for child sexual abuse survivors and victims as quickly as possible.
“If this doesn’t happen we will continue to fail those who have been affected by and those who continue to be affected by this serious crime type. Possibly worst still, we will continue to see children become victims of child sexual abuse.”
She said: “It is clear that establishing the independent child sexual abuse inquiry has taken longer than anyone wanted it to. We hope that announcements due to be made soon by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, will give us all a much clearer vision of what the inquiry will look like as it moves forward.”
The new leader of Rotherham Council, Paul Lakin, said: “We are dealing with every single case that we know about. We have set up a helpline for victims which is staffed every hour of every day.
“If anyone has any contact with CSE (child sexual exploitation) victims, then they need to point them in the direction of where they can get help and support. We are here to help - and we will.
“Two things matter here. First, that victims, past and present, are supported. Second, that the perpetrators are brought to justice. The council will do all we can to achieve both, working with the police and other agencies.”
Mr Lakin said he has written to Ms Champion to ask for her help in encouraging victims to come forward to access support services.
“I know that Sarah Champion is committed to helping victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation, as are we,” the councillor said.
“I have asked her to encourage victims, past and present, to come forward and seek help. There are people on standby ready to help. These are highly trained professionals.”
Mr Lakin urged anyone affected by sexual exploitation to contact the helpline the council has set up on 0800 7319 256.