A senior Labour politician has spoken of her heartbreak that action was not taken more than a decade ago to protect vulnerable children in a Yorkshire district from sexual exploitation.
Ann Cryer, the chairwoman of the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum, was widely vilified in 2003 when she first tried to bring a staggering circle of crime to light.
Ridiculed, branded a racist, a liar and a fantasist, the then-Keighley MP was forced to install a panic button in her own home as she became a target herself.
Now, as new figures uncovered by The Yorkshire Post show an unprecedented level of abuse emerging in the Bradford district, her fears have been justified.
But, she says, she feels no measure of satisfaction.
“Girls are coming forward,” she said. “That’s good news. I just wish it wasn’t happening.”
Mrs Cryer’s fight for justice all those years ago has been well documented.
Approached in the summer of 2003 by a group of seven Keighley mothers, she was to hear a horrifying story of abuse – and of a desperate plea for help as these mums were getting nowhere in asking for action. Their young daughters, they said, were being abused at the hands of their Asian ‘boyfriends’. And, drawing up a list, there were 65 names.
Mrs Cryer was horrified at what she heard that day. But she had no idea, as she took on the protest presented by those fearful mothers, what challenges it would bring.
Of the fruitless battles against social services and police who “failed” to see it as a crime, or of the drag from politicians who simply did not understand what was happening.
“I almost bust a gut, trying to get action from Bradford Council and police,” said the 76-year-old, who is also a JP. “It was terribly difficult. I just felt at one point that nothing was ever going to happen. I could only assume, rightly or wrongly, that there was too much hesitation about it. It was seen as being racist.
“They just kept saying ‘there’s no way we can ask CPS to conduct a prosecution – it’s just not going to happen’. These girls regarded these boys as their boyfriends. Regardless of that, it’s a criminal offence. At 12 and 13 they were definitely minors.”
Today, the issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE) is top of the agenda for police and social services in Bradford. Great strides have been made in tackling the problem, and both organisations have been publicly commended for their recent efforts to effect change with the establishment of a CSE hub.
But, said Mrs Cryer, there is still a refusal to accept what is happening within some parts of the Asian Pakistani community.
Of those suspects in Bradford whose ethnicity is known, 55 per cent are Asian, a significant number given that the Asian community makes up around a quarter of the district’s population.
“What’s going on in Bradford is terrible. But at the end of the day, the perpetrators are the ones behind all of this. Let’s look at what’s going on at grassroots level and why,” said Mrs Cryer.
“There is a culture of misogyny present. Not across the Asian community, certainly. But I would say there is misogyny there. I’ve spent 13 years fighting it.
“Let’s look at the people that are causing this and ask questions of the community from whence it’s coming.”
Bradford West MP Naz Shah believes key conversations are now being had within the Asian community, and people are not shying away from it. And what is happening here, she says, is indicative of what is occurring across the country.
A Muslim community group, set up in West Yorkshire to target street grooming, says there is still a lack of knowledge within the Muslim community. What is needed, said Together Against Grooming spokesman Ansar Ali, is engaging with these communities to increase understanding.
“There is a lack of awareness still,” said Mr Ali. “It’s going to take a while.
“This is a priority. But getting the community on board rather than apportioning blame is really important.”
Comment: Page 10.