The 13 men convicted so far in £90m probe into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham 

Top row (L-R): Nabeel Kurshid; Asif Ali; Mohammed Imran Ali-Akhtar; Salah Ahmed Al-Hakam'Middle row (L-R): Tanweer Hussain Ali; Iqlak Yousaf; Darren Hyett; Tony Champan'Bottom row (L-R): Asghar Bostan; Sajid Ali; Riaz Makhmood; Zaheer Iqbal
Top row (L-R): Nabeel Kurshid; Asif Ali; Mohammed Imran Ali-Akhtar; Salah Ahmed Al-Hakam'Middle row (L-R): Tanweer Hussain Ali; Iqlak Yousaf; Darren Hyett; Tony Champan'Bottom row (L-R): Asghar Bostan; Sajid Ali; Riaz Makhmood; Zaheer Iqbal

The conviction of seven sexual predators today is said to mark a ‘significant milestone’ in a £90million investigation into historical child sexual exploitation in Rotherham which is believed to involve as many as 1,523 victims. 

The NCA's Operation Stovewood inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the South Yorkshire town between 1997 and 2013 has 250 staff and an annual budget which will soon reach £15 million a year.

It is estimated the operation will cost more than £90 million by 2024 - the date to which current planning extends, although few people think it will be completed by then.

READ MORE: ‘They’ve waited a long time for justice’ - South Yorkshire child abuse survivors praised for their bravery

 

The trial which finished at Sheffield Crown Court on Monday involved just one of the 22 separate investigations ongoing under the Operation Stovewood umbrella.

And the team leaders admit the overall investigation is still at an early stage.

They say 296 survivors of exploitation in the town - all female - are now actively engaging with officers.

But that is under 20 per cent of the 1,523 victims the NCA has identified.

The NCA launched Operation Stovewood, at the invitation of South Yorkshire Police, in the wake of Professor Alexis Jay's 2014 report into the rape, grooming and trafficking of hundreds of children in Rotherham.

Professor Jay shocked the nation when she described how more than 1,400 children had been affected and how police and social services had largely ignored the problem.

Operation Stovewood has now established the Jay Report's 1,400 figure was an underestimate.

The NCA now has full control of allegations relating to between 1997 and 2013.

READ MORE: Gang of ‘despicable predators’ abused South Yorkshire girls as young as 13 who ‘just wanted to be loved’ 

Two years ago, the last South Yorkshire Police investigation into this period - called Operation Clover - resulted in a gang connected to four brothers being given lengthy prison sentences, with ringleader Arshid Hussain jailed for 35 years.

Now the NCA says it has 151 designated suspects, as well as 275 other people also under investigation.

Almost all still live in Rotherham, the NCA said.

Operation Stovewood's leadership has consistently said it is not their role to criticise the police's past actions, although they admit they have come across "conduct which falls below what was expected".

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is conducting its own investigation into the police response to what was happening in Rotherham.

Earlier this year, the IOPC said it has had 106 individual case references as part of itsRotherham investigation, and it estimates this will result in around 84 individual investigation reports.

READ MORE: BREAKING: Gang of seven men guilty of grooming and sexually abusing girls in South Yorkshire 
 

It said 33 officers remain on notice that they are under investigation, but this number fluctuates as the inquiry continues.

In July, the IPOC announced it was expanding its investigation to include the role of the force's former senior command team, although no individual senior officer is under investigation at this stage.

Operation Stovewood leaders are keen to stress that their investigation is very different from others in that it is primarily focused on the victims.

The team incorporated specialist Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs), integral to the work and stress that this support is offered to all survivors who are contacted - even if they decline to take part in the criminal investigation.

Tanya Wills, who leads the ISVA team, said: "It's important for them to know that they do have a choice. When they were children they didn't have a choice."

And Senior Investigating Officer Paul Williamson said the Stovewood investigation is founded on the files of the support group Risky Business - an outreach group who recognised the problem in Rotherham more than a decade ago, but was ignored and sidelined.

Mr Williamson said: "Our approach, in general terms, is working. We have engagement. We are building the trust of victims. It is very much a victim focused investigation."

Stovewood is mainly funded by a grant from the Home Office with a contribution from South Yorkshire Police.