Grooming Gangs and Indifferent Police: What Have We Learned After Rotherham?

Grooming Gangs and Indifferent Police: What Have We Learned After Rotherham?

Ben Sixsmith
Ben Sixsmith

Victoria Agoglia was reported missing 136 times between February and September 2002. Whenever she returned to her residential care home she was thought to be drunk or to have taken drugs. Staff at the home were aware of a “pimp” who appeared to be in his mid-twenties and who was thought to have been supplying her with drugs. “No attempts were made to verify his age,” one reported. Victoria told her social worker that she had been injected with heroin by an older man. This information was not relayed to the police. Astonishingly, Victoria’s “drugs worker” thought an appropriate course of action was to make the girl agree to smoke rather than inject heroin. Within two months, Victoria was dead after a 50-year-old man injected her with the drug.

This tragic and appalling case is detailed in a new review of “the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester.” As in similar cases in Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere, there were numerous victims and the perpetrators were Pakistani-Muslim. As on other occasions, the authorities did not respond to the discovery that the offenses were taking place with anything resembling appropriate force.

The death of Victoria Agoglia inspired Greater Manchester Police to launch “Operation Augusta,” an investigation into child sexual exploitation in the city. The investigation identified almost 60 children at risk and almost 100 “persons of interest” who might be involved in abuse. A successful investigation, one might think. But the police appear to have been intimidated less by the scale of the crimes than by the scale of their investigation. They were unprepared for such a large, ambitious and, of course, sensitive mission, and—shamefully—they had no support from above.

The investigation was closed. “Few of the relevant perpetrators were brought to justice,” the review has found, “And neither were their activities disrupted.” As the BBC reports:

eight men identified in the investigation [went on] to commit serious sexual offences, including rapes of girls aged both under and over 16, after the operation was ended.

For retired detective Maggie Oliver, who blew the whistle on the failings of Operation Augusta, the review provides vindication but is too little, too late. “These men…walked away scot free in 2005,” she says. “How many more kids have they raped?”

I wrote about grooming gangs for Quillette almost two years ago. Periodically, since the 2011 revelations about the British-Pakistani gang that had been preying on children in the northern British town of Rotherham, the issue has erupted into the public consciousness, and the Manchester review is just the latest example. Recently, some left-wing academics have pushed back against the “Asian grooming gang” narrative. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to clarify and emphasise some points—but also to correct one.

In my previous article I wrote:

Child abuse is not uniquely or largely a problem of particular demographics but grooming gangs—that is, multiple offenders exploiting women they have met, manipulated, and abused outside their homes—are 84 percent Asian. [Pakistani-Muslim.]

This claim linked to a report by the anti-extremist organisation Quilliam and I now regret relying on it. A critique by Dr Ella Cockbain argues persuasively that the Quilliam report defines the problem poorly, uses inadequate sampling, and draws unreasonably strong conclusions.

Dr Cockbain argues that so-called “Asian grooming gangs” are an overhyped phenomenon, not because Asian grooming gangs do not exist, but because people of other ethnicities are members of grooming gangs, and because “grooming gangs” is an unhelpful concept when it comes to understanding child sexual exploitation. For example, there is no evidence that people in Britain with Asian heritage are overrepresented among all kinds of sexual offenders who have targeted children. Indeed, the opposite may be true. (In the U.K. we use the term “Asian” to describe people of South Asian ancestry.)

This is worth remembering, and I also agree with Dr Cockbain that, counterintuitively, the argument that authorities were hamstrung by political correctness—afraid to investigate Asian suspects for fear of being branded “racist”—might be too kind to them. The authorities who failed to act were not merely intimidated by the atmosphere of political correctness, but failed to push back against sclerotic bureaucracies and were just straightforwardly snobbish in their attitude towards the victims, all of whom were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in their communities. An underlying sense that the victims were not really victims is evident in the Manchester report. Victoria Agoglia was thought to be involved in “prostitution” rather than simply being an abused child, and after her death the coroner referred to her propensity “to provide sexual favours.” The Jay Report, an investigation into what happened in Rotherham, found that “[the] attitude [of the police] at that time seemed to be that they were all ‘undesirables’ and the young women were not worthy of police protection.”

Institutional management was also at fault. The Augusta team, the report found, were “insufficiently resourced” and “not…fully trained.” We cannot blame the officers themselves for this but we can blame their bosses. In one of the richest nations in the world, do we not have enough money to keep children safe from predators? Or did the police just decide not to protect them?

So I agree with Dr Cockbain up to a point. But there are problems with her arguments. While some mistakenly reduce grooming to ethnicity, and attribute the failure of officials to respond to it to political correctness and that alone, Cockbain maintains these are not relevant factors at all.

While Dr Cockbain criticised Quilliam for using “exaggerated claims of the type rarely heard from credible researchers,” her research article with Dr Waqas Tufail—‘Failing victims, fuelling hate: challenging the harms of the “Muslim grooming gangs” narrative’uses heated polemical language in its introduction when it claims that mainstream commentators “lent a veneer of legitimacy to…the demonization of whole communities.” Did they? True, Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter, painted “for Rotherham” on the barrel of his gun. But who “lent a veneer of legitimacy” to that? Cockbain and Tufail seem to accuse anyone who mentions ethnicity in the context of grooming of being an apologist for far-right terrorism.

Cockbain and Tufail are very concerned about “discourses” surrounding crime—and seem less interested in crime itself. Criticising Hillary Clinton for her reference to “super predators” in 1993, for example, they leave the reader potentially unaware that rape and murder were far more prevalent in the early ’90s than they are today. One can offer different explanations for that, and one can criticise the Clintons for their response, but one cannot pretend that it came out of nowhere.

Similarly, Cockbain and Tufail write as if Andrew Norfolk and the Times—the journalist and newspaper that did the most to expose the various scandals—invented the “Asian grooming gang” phenomenon out of whole cloth. In fact, all the evidence suggests they were reporting on a real trend. In 2013, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) suggested that 75 percent of the offenders connected with “Group Offending Targeting Victim Vulnerability” were “Asian.” A 2018 study by Dr Kish Bhatti-Sinclair of the University of Chichester and Professor Charles Sutcliffe of the University of Reading argued that 83 percent of defendants in cases of “Group Localised Child Sexual Exploitation” were of Muslim origin.

Granted, this evidence has limitations. CEOP admitted that its evidence was patchy as “not all police forces responded to CEOP’s information request,” and so its conclusions were tentative. The Bhatti-Sinclair and Sutcliffe study, meanwhile, relied on data collected from media reports and I suspect it was not comprehensive. It is fair to say, then, that we have imperfect evidence, and we need to do more thorough research. On the other hand, it is not fair to ignore evidence of what appears to be a meaningful, disturbing trend by talking about “pseudoscientific ‘research’” for paragraph after paragraph without mentioning more credible studies.

Cockbain and Tufail accuse people like me of racializing these offenses:

sexual abuses carried out by Asian offenders are explained in terms of race and culture, whereas their white counterparts’ crimes are framed as individual deviance.

This is not entirely without foundation. However, the mistake may be failing to take the background of some white criminals into account when trying to explain their crimes, rather than doing it in the case of Asian offenders. It seems plausible, for example, that European “child sex tourists” are exhibiting an extreme example of the tendency of Europeans to exoticize foreign cultures and peoples. (Here is a paper by a left-wing academic that argues exactly that.) I don’t think most European people would find that idea offensive, still less that in saying it I am demonizing all Europeans.

Cockbain and Tufail argue that group localized child sexual exploitation constitutes only a small proportion of child abuse cases as a whole, and that excessive emphasis has been placed on the grooming gang phenomenon due to racial prejudice. The first claim is true, but the second relies on a kind of blinkeredness. First, they emphasize the number of cases rather than the number of victims. The victims of group localized child sexual exploitation may constitute a small percentage of the total number of victims of child abuse as a whole, but the high number of victims in the grooming gang cases made them especially scandalous. It is estimated that 1,400 children were sexually exploited over 16 years in Rotherham alone, while more than 100 are alleged to have been exploited in Telford over two years. Second, organized crimes are always more sensational than individual crimes. Rightly or wrongly, the presence of multiple criminals acting in concert strikes us as especially threatening. Thirdly, the crimes were allowed to take place over many years without effective official intervention or media investigation. And that makes them more scandalous. I agree with Cockbain and Tufail that political correctness was not the dominant factor behind the failings of the authorities, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a factor. As I wrote in my original Quillette article, the Jay Report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham found that there was “a general nervousness in the earlier years about discussing [the backgrounds of the perpetrators], for fear of being thought racist.” The Deputy Council Leader, in avoiding the subject, “was at best naïve, and at worst ignoring a politically inconvenient truth.”

Abdul Rauf arriving at Liverpool Crown Court where he is accused, along with 10 other men, of exploiting five underage girls for sex, February 12th, 2012, Liverpool UK. Peter Byrne / PA Images

The perpetrators’ backgrounds weighed on the minds of the investigators in Manchester as well. They had seen the stink that had been stirred up by the documentary Edge of the City, shown by a British broadcaster, which had investigated similar crimes and criminals in Yorkshire, and wanted to avoid the same controversies. One police officer said he was ordered to try to find offenders of non-Asian backgrounds:

What had a massive input was the offending target group were predominantly Asian males and we were told to try and get other ethnicities.

In addition, recent reports have alleged that a Rotherham chief constable told the father of a grooming victim:

With it being Asians, we can’t afford for this to be coming out as Rotherham would erupt.

This quote has been extracted from an unpublished report by the police watchdog the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and should be treated with caution until it can be seen in its proper context. But it suggests that political correctness played a role in the unwillingness of officials to pursue effective investigations.

One of the most enraging things about these reports is that, in many cases, they say the officials responsible for botching the investigations are no longer identifiable. South Yorkshire Police claim not to have been able to identify the police officers who dragged their heels as evil men exploited children. The Manchester report, meanwhile, limply states that its authors:

[have] been unable to clarify who was the gold commander for Operation Augusta; however, it would have been likely to have been an officer of at least chief superintendent or assistant chief constable rank.

Sajid Javid, during his time as the U.K.’s Home Secretary, promised an investigation into the grooming phenomenon but nothing materialized. It is clear that we need investigations, but we also need accountability. What has changed? What will change? How can we have confidence that our institutions are not still failing children as they failed Victoria Agoglia?

Where do all the research and all the reports published so far leave us? With a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon, I hope, but not with less anger or determination to address these crimes in future. We need to find justice for the victims and protect other children.

Child Sexual ExploitationGrooming GangsRapeTop StoriesUnited Kingdom

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland.