Careless talk around grooming gangs doesn’t help tackle the problem - Dr Alan Billings

Last week the Prime Minister and Home Secretary announced new plans to tackle the ‘horrific grooming gangs’ who exploit children sexually.They will create a task force of officers who will go into police forces to strengthen their investigations into child sexual exploitation (CSE). They will introduce new law to make being a leader of a gang, or a gang member, an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing, so that judges will be able to hand down tougher sentences.And they will stop ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural sensitivities’ standing in the way of investigations.

As they were interviewed about all this by the media, they constantly referenced Rotherham (as well as Rochdale and Telford). I would just make two comments.

I have no objection to strengthening the law around CSE. But I do think there was some very careless talk last week about grooming and gangs that helped nobody.

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Listening to the politicians, you would think that we were back in 2014 when Professor Alexis Jay produced her report on child abuse in Rotherham, and nothing had happened since.

'Last week the Home Secretary announced new plans to tackle the ‘horrific grooming gangs’ who exploit children sexually'. PIC: Leon Neal/Getty Images'Last week the Home Secretary announced new plans to tackle the ‘horrific grooming gangs’ who exploit children sexually'. PIC: Leon Neal/Getty Images
'Last week the Home Secretary announced new plans to tackle the ‘horrific grooming gangs’ who exploit children sexually'. PIC: Leon Neal/Getty Images

But this is not true.

The lessons that needed to be taken from the Jay report were taken; and I have spent the last eight years holding South Yorkshire police to account in the light of them. We ensured there was no denial here about past mistakes and the teams involved in protecting children understood grooming, helped our communities to spot the signs of it and protected the vulnerable.

The officers here who have devoted themselves to safeguarding our children are utterly dedicated to that work and have been praised for the quality of what they do. Their knowledge and expertise is widely recognised and has been acknowledged in key reports and inspections.

To suggest that, whatever happened in the past, they would allow ‘cultural sensitivities’ or ‘political correctness’ to get in the way of their investigations, is wrong and grossly unfair.

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Moreover, officers in this line of work, whom I meet regularly, are pursuing investigations that are harrowing and difficult enough without having these unsubstantiated allegations made against them. If the Home Secretary had chosen to speak to me as PCC when she came here, we could have told her.

I wonder too where the task force officers are going to come from with expertise, knowledge and experience, if it is not from forces like South Yorkshire.

The second observation relates directly to the suggestion that ‘political correctness’ was still inhibiting the work of officers because they were not acknowledging that the grooming gangs were from a particular ethnic group, namely those of Pakistani heritage.

The suggestion was dangerous because if it led officers to focus on people who fitted that description, it would narrow the field of vision with the risk that perpetrators with other ethnic backgrounds would be missed.

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Having a narrow vision, not looking around, was part of Jay’s criticism of what happened in the period 1997-2013. It seems quite perverse, therefore, to use the findings of that report in a way that would lead police forces now to repeat the mistakes of the past,

The Home Office know all this perfectly well because their own research, published in 2020, cautioned against thinking that the grooming of children for sexual purposes was predominantly about gangs of men from a particular ethnic background. But the politicians were in electioneering mode last week and such considerations were not going to stand in the way.

Even so, the point about not stereotyping was dramatically illustrated later in the week when the trial of a gang that sexually abused children in Walsall finally came to an end. Twenty one people were convicted in the biggest child sexual abuse investigation ever undertaken by West Midlands police. It was called Operation Satchell.

The children abused were aged 12 and under and the crimes, which were horrific, had been committed over a ten year period of time. This could not be reported before last week because it was only then that the third and final trial was concluded.

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The gang of abusers were aged between 22 and 71. All were jailed and one was sentenced to life. Only one of the accused admitted their crime and showed any remorse for what they had done. But the offenders were 14 males and 7 females, and all were white. This gang could not have been more different from the grooming gangs in Rotherham and Rochdale.

The point about ethnicity that the politicians should have made is not that the grooming gangs are invariably Asian men – that stereotype would have seriously misled the West Midlands police – but they can be of any ethnicity and any gender.

That lesson is well understood here.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.