Police chiefs have been ordered to do more to protect South Yorkshire’s children from sexual exploitation - after an inspection found not enough is being done to tackle the ‘heinous crime’.
Earlier this year Chief Constable David Crompton was grilled by Government minsters over his force’s handling of child sex abuse after it emerged his force had known about grooming gangs for a decade but failed to act.
Prosecution numbers were low, and leaked papers suggested police and council chiefs in Rotherham in particular had been reluctant to bring about prosecutions of sex gangs because of racial sensitivities over the ethnicity of the alleged offenders.
Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to assess the effectiveness of South Yorkshire Police’s approach to protecting children from sexual exploitation, and to recommend improvements.
Inspectors found that, despite Mr Wright and Mr Crompton both making it clear that ‘preventing and responding to child sexual exploitation’ was ‘a top priority for the force’, staff on the ground are not giving the issue as much attention as offences including burglary and vehicle crime.
It found that, despite 1,700 frontline staff receiving specialist training in how to handle child sexual exploitation cases, senior and middle managers were not driving the importance of the work home at district level - to officers on the ground in Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster.
Inspectors said the inconsistent approach gave them ‘serious concern’ about the quality of protection children in the county receive.
The report said: “An inconsistent approach at district level gives inspectors serious concern about the quality of protection children receive.
“The inspection found the PCC and the Chief Constable had both made it clear that preventing and responding to child sexual exploitation is a top priority for the force.
“As a result, between January and March 2013, the force trained all its 1,700 frontline staff in relation to child sexual exploitation. In addition, all the officers and staff working in child protection were clearly deeply committed to their work. They were conscientious, enthusiastic, and focused on achieving good outcomes for the children with whom they work.
“Overall, however, the evident efforts to improve the force’s response to child sexual exploitation have had mixed success – and, in particular, had not been consistently translated into operational activity on the ground at a local, district level.
“Many of the staff interviewed for this inspection felt the emphasis from senior and middle local managers was still more on dealing with offences such as burglary and vehicle crime than child sexual exploitation.”
The report also found that ‘while there are pockets of good and effective practice’, the approach taken to tackling child sexual exploitation varies significantly across the county.
Roger Baker, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary for the Northern Region, said: “HMIC recognises the commitment of the PCC and Chief Constable to making child sexual exploitation a force priority. However, we have concerns that this is not properly being disseminated across local policing districts, and that as a result children are not always being adequately protected.
“This situation must not be allowed to continue. It is unarguably of paramount importance that all children in South Yorkshire receive the same high levels of protection, regardless of the policing district in which they live.”
The police response:
Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright, who is tasked with holding South Yorkshire Police to account, has been vocal in his criticism of the force during his first year in post.
Last month he warned the force ‘must do more and do it faster’ to improve results in a number of areas, including crime reduction and preparing for policing in times of austerity.
He labelled the force’s performance in some areas ‘unacceptable’ and said it was failing to meet the objectives set out in his Police and Crime Plan.
Tackling child sexual exploitation was one of the priorities he set when he was elected to the top policing post, which gives him the power to sack the Chief Constable.
Speaking after the publication of the new HMIC report, he said Chief Constable David Crompton must ‘act immediately’ to improve the force’s response to the problem of child sex abuse.
He has also written to the HMIC asking for help for the Chief Constable to deliver all the improvements and recommendations listed in the report.
The Commissioner said: “This current situation has to change. The report makes a number of recommendations, with the most urgent to be implemented immediately and others within three and six months. I fully support the recommendations and have instructed the Chief Constable that he must ensure they are in place within the time frames set out by the inspectors.
“The commitment and effort of officers and staff on the front line of this most heinous of crimes is fully appreciated by me and rightly recognised by the inspectors. However, there is clearly a failure of management to turn my, and the public of South Yorkshire’s, key strategic priority into operational effectiveness uniformly across the whole force area.”
Mr Wright made funding available for 10 extra specialist public protection when he was voted into office last November.
He said between January 1 and September 30 there were 425 investigations launched into child sexual exploitation offences across South Yorkshire.
A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman said: “As HMIC says, we have had mixed success in improving our response to tackling child sexual exploitation. We welcome the report and its findings because it provides us with a series of recommendations about how to further develop our approach and provide the most robust and consistent service to children at risk.
“A significant amount of work has been done in the last year to enhance our performance and do all we can to ensure our children are safe from this type of harm. But there is much more we need to do, as HMIC point out, and we absolutely acknowledge this. In particular, we accept that the inconsistency of approach across the four policing districts is unacceptable and it will not continue.
“It is heartening that HMIC recognises the considerable efforts we have made so far.
“We now intend to build upon this by acting on its recommendations.”
HMIC’s Key Findings:
- Tackling child sexual exploitation is a ‘top priority’ for both the Police and Crime Commissioner and Chief Constable, but the importance of the work has not been drilled into managers and officers in the four policing districts - Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster.
- Some 1,700 frontline officers have received extra training since the force was criticised for its response to the crime.
- Officers working in child protection described as ‘deeply committed to their work’ and ‘conscientious, enthusiastic and focused upon achieving good outcomes for the children with whom they work’.
- There is improved partnership working with agencies and organisations which have child protection responsibilities.
- Officers on the ground feel burglary and vehicle crime are given more priority by senior and middle managers.
- There is a lack of consistency at district level with how child sexual exploitation cases are dealt with.