An ‘urgent’ investigation is needed into the theft of key files that exposed Rotherham’s child sexual exploitation problems - and the failures to tackle them – more than a decade ago, MPs have said.
The files – which have never been recovered – were taken from the locked office of a Rotherham Council worker in 2002 as the woman worked on a Home Office funded project to investigate ways of stopping grooming gangs.
There was no sign of forced entry, with the files removed over the course of a weekend.
A damning Home Affairs Select Committee report said a ‘full, transparent and urgent investigation’ is needed as a result of the loss of the records and other missing files, raising ‘public suspicion of a deliberate cover-up’.
The report, which is published today, comes just days after Professor Alexis Jay, whose inquiry exposed the true scale of Rotherham’s child abuse problems, revealed that four years of minutes of meetings between children’s social care teams, the police and the health service about exploitation issues have also gone missing.
She told the Communities and Local Government Committee that minutes from 1999 to 2003 – which are understood to have included details about victims, and intelligence about abusers and where they were operating - had disappeared.
Professor Jay said: “There were four years of minutes. That is important, not just from the point of view of the inquiry, but also because they contained information about how decisions were made about these children’s lives.
“As adults they have a right, of course, to know about what happened to them when they were being supported by the local authority, and that information is no longer available.”
The select committee said a draft report written by the researcher in 2002 while she was based in the offices of the Risky Business child sexual exploitation project at the Rotherham International Centre had contained ‘severe criticisms’ of organisations responsible for tackling the issue.
It said her report alleged senior managers treated child sexual exploitation with ‘indifference’ and ‘ignorance’ - with victims being given the blame for relationships rather than suspected abusers.
The select committee said the researcher’s office was then broken into by someone with access to key-coded and locked doors in April 2002.
It said: “The researcher told us that an unknown individual subsequently gained access to her office and removed all of the data relating to the Home Office work.
“There were no signs of a forced entry and the action involved moving through key-coded and locked security doors.
“She was subjected to personal hostility at the hands of council officials and police officers, and was unable to complete the last part of the research.”
When the unnamed researcher gave evidence to the select committee last month in private she claimed she was threatened by two police officers who warned her that her address could be passed on to suspected abusers.
The researcher claimed she was approached by two officers while she was in her car at night, to be told it would be a ‘bad thing’ if the abusers she was investigating found out her home address.
She said she ‘feared for her life’ as a result of harassment in connection with her work.
Details of her evidence were revealed during the public session of the hearing by Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood.
In her written evidence, the researcher said fake minutes of meetings that had not happened were also added to her computer during the raid.
The researcher said: “Some documents had been deleted, and there appeared to be minutes of meetings which had been created over the weekend.”
She added: “We knew that because of a log of activity which showed that documents had been created or edited over the weekend on the computer hard drive.
“The minutes of those meetings, which I had purportedly attended, showed I had apparently agreed to certain conditions regarding the disclosure of the data to the Home Office evaluators and the consequences of failing to adhere to those conditions were outlined to me.
“In particular, I had agreed not to submit data to the Home Office evaluators without express line management approval. I had not attended any such meetings, had such conditions outlined to me, or agreed to them. In fact the date of one of the meetings that I had supposedly attended was when I was overseas on annual leave.”
She said the council then attempted to sack her for gross misconduct and, when that attempt failed, she was barred from meeting victims, accessing confidential data and going to strategy meetings - making her unable to complete her research
She said she raised concerns about the missing data but never received a formal response from council managers, while the incident was not reported to the police.
The Home Office is currently conducting an internal investigation into what happened to the missing files - but MPs on the select committee said more needs to be done.
Committee chairman Keith Vaz MP said: “We found it shocking that evidence of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham was ignored by both Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police.
“A number of individuals attempted to bring these crimes to light, only to face obstacles from the council and police which in some cases questioned their credibility and the veracity of their claims.
“If the council and police had taken these warnings seriously, the abusers could have been brought to justice more quickly and some of the later victims could have been spared their ordeal. The proliferation of revelations about files which can no longer be located gives rise to public suspicion of a deliberate cover-up.
“The only way to address these concerns is with a full, transparent and urgent investigation. The Home Office must do everything in its power to locate any missing files in its possession relating to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and other places.”