Ann Cryer was one of the first public figures to expose the issue of child grooming gangs in Yorkshire. Almost 20 years on, she says more can still be done to protect victims. Chris Burn reports.
“You need to be brave to take on this issue because you will be called a racist,” says former MP Ann Cryer as she sits in her back garden in Shipley reflecting on her experiences of trying to highlight the issue of young white girls being abused by grooming gangs from the Pakistani community. “It is unpleasant, to say the least.”
Cryer had been the Labour MP for Keighley for six years when she first heard about what has become known as child sexual exploitation in 2003 from a group of concerned mothers who said their 12 and 13-year-old daughters were being sexually exploited by a group of older Asian men and the police and social services were refusing to act.
The now 79-year-old says she “hadn’t a clue” about the issue despite being closely involved with her area’s Asian community on the issue of forced marriage and was initially wary of engaging with the mothers because of concerns they may be connected with the British National Party.
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“At the time, the BNP were becoming very active in the Keighley area and I said to my assistant, ‘just check none of these mothers have any connections to the BNP.’ You would be amazed the stuff people get up to in politics. I thought if they have any connection with the BNP it puts into question what they tell me. But there was absolutely no record of them being involved and anything other than Labour supporters.”
She says that her assistant met with the mothers and reported back that “what they were saying was not only accurate and believable but horrific”.
Cryer took the matter up with social services in Bradford but says she was told “it is nothing to do with us” as the children weren’t in care. “I said ‘I think it has, you should take an interest in children being abused in this way’,” Cryer recalls. “I did get a bit cross because it just wasn’t good enough – they were 12 and 13 years old, having sex with a gang of Pakistani men in their 20s and 30s.
“I went from that to seeing West Yorkshire Police. I almost lived at the headquarters near my offices. They kept trying to convince me there was no way they could bring charges for this behaviour. They said if it goes to court, the men will say it was with the permission of the girls. I said, ‘Even if that were the case having sex with underage girls is a criminal offence, full stop’.”
Cryer says she was also told another problem was it was the mothers speaking out rather than the girls themselves. She says she faced a difficult dilemma on whether to go public about what was happening after attempting to raise concerns behind the scenes.
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“You are treading on dangerous ground when you raise questions about girls of 12 and 13. If you go public, you may be adding to their problems. I felt the only way I could go public was if I felt sure what I was doing would help rather than hinder their situation.
“I spoke to friends in the Labour party and a couple of them said, ‘Didn’t you know it was going on?’ I said, ‘No, this is the first time I have ever heard of this’. I was told it had been going on for several years. I was thinking, what the heck do I do now? People were telling me it was a ‘well-known fact’ that these Pakistani lads were up to this sort of thing in Keighley. I did go public because I decided that the only way I am going to get anywhere with this was to make a fuss about it.”
Cryer took part in a television interview about the situation and also raised the matter with then-Home Secretary David Blunkett, arranging for him to meet the mothers directly, who by that stage had the names and addresses of 65 men they believed were implicated in their daughters’ abuse.
Blunkett introduced a new offence of grooming in late 2003 which meant that anyone convicted of meeting a child with the intention of committing a sex offence faced up to 10 years in jail. Several convictions in Keighley were to follow as police investigated what the mothers said was happening to their daughters.
But Cryer says the backlash to her public involvement was immediate and came from several different quarters. “It was this idea that I had misunderstood and this couldn’t possibly have happened,” she says.
She says by far the most hurtful accusation was that she was racist and at one point told her husband John Hammersley she was unsure whether she could continue. “It was the most terrible experience of my life,” she says. “There was a certain point when I felt like giving the whole thing up because I was being called a racist.
"Three of my now grown-up grandchildren are half-Indian and now have a younger granddaughter who is half-African. To be called a racist with those aspects of my family was absolutely hideous, very hurtful and it isn’t a situation that I would want to go through again.
“I once said to John, ‘I’m sick to death of this’. John said, ‘You know you are doing the right thing, let them call you what they call you’.”
She says the situation got to the point where police installed a panic alarm in her house after threatening notes and phone calls were made to her constituency office. “I did get a little bit worried. But I didn’t worry all that much. I knew the Pakistani community in Keighley and didn’t get the impression they were behind it.”
She faced a further challenge when BNP leader Nick Griffin ran against her in the 2005 General Election. Cryer retained her seat, with Griffin finishing last after a highly-charged campaign.
Despite the challenges, Cryer says she had a duty to tackle the issue. “I had to speak out to protect the wellbeing of young white girls who were only 12 and 13. I had to think how I would be feeling if it was my daughter who had these terrible things done to her and of course I would have moved heaven and earth to make sure she was safe. That is what I had to do in the cases at Keighley. I had to do whatever I could to protect the wellbeing of the girls in my constituency.”
Cryer says she feels that the police and social services now have a better understanding of CSE and are responding more effectively to it. “When I go back to what it was like in the early days, it has transformed.”
But she adds that it is her experience that some resistance to accepting the scale of the problem remains.
“We must remember at all times it is a tiny minority of the Pakistani community who are involved in these terrible cases. But I do think the Pakistani community could be more active in tracking down what is going on and trying to stop these young men behaving in this totally un-Islamic way.
“They are bringing a lot of problems onto the Pakistani Muslim community. The elders, the mosques, the families, the biraderis should all be doing whatever they can to make sure that this terrible behaviour doesn’t continue.
“I know the reality of the situation from the young girls who went through this situation. We must persist in protecting such girls.”
Awareness of child sexual exploitation has grown greatly in recent years with scandals brought to light across the UK. One of the most shocking examples was revealed five years ago today when the Jay report revealed there had been at least 1,400 victims in the town of Rotherham.
In February 2016 a group of 12 men who committed serious sexual offences against two girls in Keighley and Bradford were jailed for 130 years.
Cryer, who stood down as an MP in 2010, says: “I thought Keighley was the only town in the whole world that had his difficulty. It started coming out that it wasn’t the case. I thought, why didn’t I know about this? But it confirmed my belief that I had done the right thing.”