It's some time in the early 2000s and, as the controlling group's executive on Bradford Council, we're briefed about 'grooming' in Keighley. It's a matter-of-fact presentation albeit one informed by the political issues associated with the BNP and the concerns raised publicly by Anne Cryer, then Labour MP for the town. And, since you are going to ask, that's it. We were told it was with the police, that social services were engaged and that it was a bad but isolated incident. I don't recall any other discussion or presentation on the subject in the remainder of my time as a member of the Council Executive (I left in 2006).
I present this observation - it's a recollection rather than a set of facts - because it seems to me that we failed some very vulnerable young people back then. And I say 'we' here to refer to us as councillors because every year, sometimes more than once, we make a big thing of us being 'corporate parents' to hundreds of young people in the Council's care. So when one of those young people is raped, exploited and abused we should be (and mostly aren't) taking some responsibility.
Today the review commissioned by Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham has reported on the scandal of how Greater Manchester Police allowed hundreds of abusers to carry on raping and exploiting young people in the city. The report describes how GMP made choices about resources and priorities, the downgrading of serious accusations and the ending of the investigation that, without question, resulted in subsequent abuse, exploitation and rape of children:
After her (Victoria Agoglia) death a police investigation, Operation Augusta, was set up to see if there was a wider problem of child sexual exploitation in south Manchester. Officers managed to quickly identify a network of nearly 100 Asian men potentially involved in the abuse of scores of girls via takeaways in and around Rusholme, but the operation was shut down shortly afterwards due to resources, ‘rather than a sound understanding’ of whether lines of inquiry had been exhausted.At the same time as we were being told that a similar case in Keighley was under control and an isolated incident, GMP along with Manchester social services were, in effect, doing the same. And we know now that there were other cases in dozens of other towns and cities including Rochdale, Rotherham, Birmingham, Dewsbury and Bradford. Far from being isolated incidents, we had a pattern of abusive and exploitative behaviour directed to vulnerable teenage girls right across the country.
Barely any charges were made against the men identified by the operation. Eight of them later went on to commit serious sexual crimes, including the rape of a child, the rape of a young woman, sexual assault and sexual activity with a child.
Since this became clear, we have seen individual reports from each of these places, some more telling than others but all showing the same detachment as public authorities repeatedly ignored representation, dismissed exploited girls as 'making their own choices' or 'sexually aware', and hinted as other sensitivities contributing to the lack of action to protect the abused or deal with the abusers. Beyond these public reports there is a lot more information, detailed and granular evidence, hidden away in Serious Case Reviews and Court Files. Public authorities have used every trick in the book to avoid their failings being revealed - that the victims were mostly children means that these authorities feel able to hide behind the laws intended to protect young people, extending them to protect social workers, police officers and the CPS lawyers from proper scrutiny. Too many people responsible for failing to protect young girls from exploitation, abuse and rape have avoided being held to account.
There have now been dozens of similar cases across the UK and it is time to ask how it is that, despite the attention supposedly given to correcting past failures, the cases still keep coming forward, each one showing public authorities being slow to respond and hesitant in taking action. Every case involves failures by social services to protect children in their care and most involve the police giving a disturbingly low priority to the abuse. We're told by councils and police that all the past problems are resolved (this, in my experience, is definitely the argument in Bradford) but we get no actual evidence to substantiate this assertion. Meanwhile, anecdotally, the problem on the streets persists with girls (often as young as eleven) targeted by young, mostly Pakistani heritage, men.
It is time to think seriously about how we are responding to this problem and the words coming from police and councils, while sympathetic and carefully crafted, seem complacent and intended to give the impression that all is right when evidently it is not. There is a very strong case for a properly constituted - as Ed Miliband would doubtless say, judge-led - enquiry into the failures of public authorities to protect vulnerable girls from abuse. If government can find time and money to do enquiries into the gender pay gap (and to pass legislation too), I'm absolutely sure they can find the time and money to look into the far more serious issue of the industrial exploitation, rape and abuse of girls, many in the care of the state.
Such an enquiry can, as well as considering actions to take in response to public sector failures, look at why girls in public care are given so much license and at how young men - and some not so young - feel able to treat those girls as the trashiest sort of disposable chattel. There are some who say that we can't do this because the Pakistani community would feel put upon in some way but, from conservations I've had over recent years, I'm absolutely sure that this is not the case and that many from that community (and the wider Muslim community), especially those trying to provide a voice for women, would welcome a robust and honest examination looking at a problem they know persists with a minority of Pakistani heritage men.
In failing to respond openly to the problem - as we know from Rotherham, partly from fear of being accused of racism - public authorities give oxygen to those who are racist and anti-Muslim. The complacency of council leaderships, police and crime commissioners and those leading social services risks building up to a further problem as exploitative grooming continues on the streets of many towns and cities. A public enquiry would provide some restitution for victims, would put the problem in a national context instead of as a series of local challenges, and would provide the basis for government to consider whether changes to law, regulation or resourcing are needed to provide better protection for girls and a tougher response to those men who want to exploit, abuse and rape those girls.