Rotherham: The questions that remain three years on

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Three years ago this week, Professor Alexis Jay published her shocking findings that exposed the sickening extent of child abuse by grooming gangs in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham – and how the authorities had utterly failed an estimated 1,400 victims.

One of the key findings was that some senior people in the council and the police had sought to “downplay” the Pakistani heritage of many perpetrators and left frontline staff “confused as to what they were supposed to say and do and what would be interpreted as ‘racist’”.

The report outlined horrifying stories of missed opportunities to catch perpetrators, fathers being arrested for trying to remove their daughters from houses where the girls were being abused and whistle-blowers being silenced.

The ensuing resignations were followed in February 2015 by the Government appointing commissioners to run Rotherham Council after an equally-damning follow-up inspection by Dame Louise Casey.

Facing huge criticism itself, South Yorkshire Police finally prioritised a pre-existing investigation into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. Operation Clover has eventually resulted in the convictions of 13 people, who have been jailed for a total of 199 years.

Those jailed include the Hussain brothers – Arshid, Basharat, Bannaras and Sageer – as well as their uncle and two of their cousins. Two trials heard how the brothers and their associates had raped, tortured and prostituted young girls with impunity for years.

Meanwhile, the National Crime Agency has launched Operation Stovewood looking into historic offences in the town, which has turned into the country’s largest-ever child sexual exploitation investigation. So far, 26 men have been arrested and eight charged.

Yet, while the Government has reinstated the decision-making powers that it stripped from the Labour-run council, many pressing questions remain unanswered:

1. To what extent did police corruption play a part in the scandal?

After South Yorkshire Police came under the microscope through the Jay report, subsequent trials brought to light allegations that some officers had been in league with the most serious offenders, protecting them from prosecution and passing them information.

One detective was even accused in court of having had sex with victims and passing drugs to a member of the grooming ring, while there were also allegations an unnamed detective was being paid to protect violent offender Basharat Hussain from arrest.

The IPCC has said a total of 35 officers are under investigation. The organisation says the majority of the allegations relate to inaction in abuse cases rather than corruption issues.

Yet will those accused of failing victims be held to account? Nine investigations have already been closed with no action taken against officers despite “significant failings” being uncovered.

2. Were councillors involved?

The National Crime Agency confirmed in June 2015 that two “current or former” Rotherham councillors were under investigation over allegations they were involved in child sexual exploitation as part of one strand of Operation Stovewood.

In November of that year, the NCA said that investigation was being prioritised after criminal allegations were referred to it by Dame Louise Casey following her inspection of Rotherham Council.

3. What happen to missing files allegedly stolen from a locked office?

Following the publication of the Jay report, MPs called for an urgent investigation into allegations that key child abuse files were stolen from a locked office in 2002.

Files relating to a Home Office-funded project on child sexual exploitation in the town were allegedly taken from the office of the Risky Business sexual exploitation initiative run by Rotherham Council. The council called in external investigators and the long-delayed report is due to be published next month.

4. Did Shaun Wright commit perjury?

Former South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright is the subject of a perjury investigation by the IPCC in relation to comments he made about the Rotherham scandal to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2014.

It is alleged that he denied having knowledge of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham during his time as cabinet member for children’s services at Rotherham Council between 2005 and 2010.

The IPCC investigation is specifically focused on whether the evidence given, on oath, by Mr Wright, was in any way misleading.

5. Have lessons about ‘political correctness’ really been learned?

Rotherham MP Sarah Champion recently resigned from the shadow cabinet following the furore surrounding an article she wrote for The Sun which began “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”.

The controversy brought into focus the troubling wider question whether the key lessons of the Rotherham scandal – namely, the willingness to look uncomfortable truths in the face – have been absorbed.

One of the tragedies of Rotherham is well-intentioned people made the wrong decisions for what they mistakenly believed were the right reasons.

Tough questions need to keep being asked to prevent such a scandal happening again. The victims let down by the authorities deserve the truth.

Nothing less should suffice.