Authorities in South Yorkshire claim they are getting tough on child sexual exploitation – after being condemned for their ‘inexcusably slow’ realisation of the extent of the problem in Rotherham.
A Home Affairs Select Committee report said there had been ‘a woeful lack of professional curiosity’ at the top at Rotherham Council.
MPs found social workers dismissed victims – children as young as 12 – as prostitutes, instead of helping them.
MPs examined the issue of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham after a serious case review identified missed opportunities to help 17-year-old Laura Wilson, who was ‘on the periphery’ of a grooming ring when she was stabbed to death and dumped in a canal in 2010.
Joyce Thacker, Rotherham’s director of children’s services, was challenged in the report for claims that prosecutions in sex grooming cases were of ‘secondary importance’.
Police and Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright, formerly Rotherham Council cabinet member for children’s services, was accused of ‘failing to engage with victims’.
And, in evidence to the inquiry, one former grooming victim said a South Yorkshire Police officer told her when girls complained of abuse ‘we just think it’s little white slappers running around with Asians’.
But Mr Wright said criticism of him was unfair.
He said: “I’m disappointed the committee took one line of my evidence out of context. I am always happy to meet with victims and have met with hundreds of victims that have lots of vulnerabilities.
“But I never felt it was appropriate for an elected politician to seek to pry into their specific issues. I thought that was best left to professionals.”
Mr Wright added he felt Ms Thacker had always been ‘incredibly professional’, and said a project had been established in Rotherham to tackle child grooming back in 1999.
He said: “In 2008, I was aware of an operation investigating grooming which led to five men being convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
“There are currently 60 live investigations into allegations of child grooming in South Yorkshire.”
Mr Wright said he made tackling the issue a ‘manifesto commitment’ before being elected as Police and Crime Commissioner.
“South Yorkshire Police are now spending several million pounds a year on tackling grooming and the number of dedicated staff has grown from three when I took charge to 13,” he said.
“We have also taken on a data analyst and put an extra £200,000 a year towards voluntary sector support for victims.
“I have also invested in an organisation called the Golddigger Trust, which is working with young women in Sheffield.”
Rotherham Council refused to speak directly to The Star today, but instead issued a prepared statement.
A spokeswoman said: “Rotherham Council welcomes the work of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the report published in further raising the profile regarding issues of child sexual exploitation.
“Having just received the report, we need time to consider and reflect on the important issues raised to assess how this can help us to build on the significant improvements that have been made since 2009 and hope to provide a more detailed response very shortly.
“Working with our partners, including South Yorkshire Police, we continue to give top priority to tackling this horrific crime and to protecting the children and young people of Rotherham from the people who will use any means at their disposal to cause them harm.”
A police spokeswoman said: “It is accepted South Yorkshire Police and partner agency services to combat child sexual exploitation in the past have not been as strong as they are today.
“However, lessons have been learnt and this is an area of work where significant progress has been made within the last 12 months.”
Criticising Rotherham Council, the Home Affairs Select Committee report said: “That it took so long for anybody, at any level from the Chief Executive downward, to look at reports of young girls with multiple, middle-aged ‘boyfriends’, hanging around takeaways, drinking and taking drugs, and to think that it might be worth investigating further, is shocking.”
Mr Wright accepted police and partners had ‘not got everything right’ in the past but improvements had been made.
“It’s only by joining up various agencies that we can act more effectively to protect individuals from being targeted,” he said.
“I am keen to see more prosecutions of the perpetrators.
Group charged with a total of 71 offences
Police chiefs in South Yorkshire insist tackling the sexual exploitation of children is a top priority for the force.
Last year there were two criminal investigations under way – today there are 60.
Last month a 28-year-old Sheffield man was jailed for five years after being found guilty of sexual activity with a child, relating to a relationship he had with a 14-year-old girl in 2011 when he was 26.
And last week five men and a woman were charged with a total of 71 offences relating to sexual exploitation.
The Home Affairs Select Committee report criticised South Yorkshire Police for a lack of prosecutions. “We have heard evidence that South Yorkshire Police have previously let down victims of localised grooming and child sexual exploitation - as a result we would expect the force to be striving to redeem their reputation,” the report said.
“We do not believe that differences in the number of offenders could explain why Lancashire has 100 prosecutions a year whereas South Yorkshire has none.
“We believe it is the responsibility of the Chief Constable to ensure investigations lead to prosecutions.”