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4 April 2023

This government doesn’t have a clue about grooming gangs

It’s raising expectations about a system that will end up failing young girls.

By Nazir Afzal

Earlier this week, Rishi Sunak said that his government would create a police task force to tackle gangs that groomed children for sexual abuse, and claimed that victims have been ignored because of political correctness. Suella Braverman’s rhetoric has been even more extreme. Over the weekend the Home Secretary suggested to the BBC that gangs of rapists were “overwhelmingly” made up of British-Pakistani males.

I was the chief prosecutor who led the teams that brought, among others, the Rochdale grooming gang to justice in 2012 for the abuse of up to 47 young girls. I then led the national response on the way that we tackle all such localised grooming and child sexual abuse in England and Wales.

Let me contextualise to the Prime Minister’s announcement first. It’s worth noting that children are, by far, most likely to suffer sexual abuse within the family. The next largest group of victims are online, and then in institutions such as schools, places of worship or sports clubs. The smallest group – which still consists of several thousand victims – will suffer street grooming. Perpetrators of abuse are mostly white males, and the Home Office itself accepts there is no credible evidence that ethnicity plays a part.

One day I was prosecuting a “grooming gang”, the next a “paedophile ring”. For me they were all child sex abusers, but the two terms are often used by others – and it’s notable that the first tends to be used when the perpetrators are disproportionately non-white, while the second is deployed when the abusers are invariably white. 

[See also: Whatever happened to the Conservatives’ “war on cancer”?]

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I personally welcome any meaningful, fully resourced initiative that will deliver justice and keep potential victims safe. But my fear is that Sunak and Braverman’s task force won’t do either of these things. In fact, it’s dangerous for several reasons.

First, their decision to make the reporting of child sexual abuse mandatory for those who work with children. I called for mandatory duty of reporting a decade ago, but the government rejected it then. Introducing such a policy now, however, risks encouraging greater reporting without the necessary trauma-informed victim support to help those who come forward. 

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Secondly, the special task force is unlikely to be very special. The police have lost thousands of years of experience over the past few years – 38 per cent of officers have been on the job for less than five, which is three times higher than a decade ago – due to spending cuts. Even the “special” task force I was part of comprised two people, with one of us working part-time. So I’m not convinced that the Prime Minister’s policy is anything more than a soundbite. Besides, any tinkering on the police end fails to address the bigger issue: that the criminal justice system into which all investigations feed is fundamentally broken. With only one in 70 sexual assault cases leading to a charge and only one in 100 leading to conviction, the government’s talk about longer prison sentences is irrelevant. Hardly anybody will be charged or convicted. It is merely raising the expectations of victims who have already been traumatised by their abuser – perhaps leading to their re-traumatising.

Third, the narrative being pushed by the Home Secretary in particular may give potential victims a false sense of security. They are being told “beware the brown man” when their abuser is more likely to be white. That’s not only morally wrong – it leaves them in greater danger. 

It is not the abusers’ race that defines them, but their attitudes to women and girls. They target young women and girls because of their availability and vulnerability, as a result of shortcomings on the part of those who should have safeguarded them. Not that this diminishes any responsibility on the part of these men for their criminality, but tackling misogyny should be at the heart of this government’s plans.

Braverman and Sunak have said nothing about prevention. We do not want a single more victim, yet they choose to continue to deprive children’s services, social services, youth services and the victim-supporting NGOs of the resources they desperately need to stop abuse from happening in the first place. The government’s plans are a dangerous distraction from what would really make a difference.

Meanwhile, children continue to be less safe than they were a decade ago.

[See also: Joan Bakewell’s Diary: living with cancer, and the age of the grandparent]

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