Around 300 potential suspects have been identified by a new independent investigation into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, it was revealed today.
The National Crime Agency - who have been dubbed the British version of the FBI - are following up more than 3,300 lines of enquiry as part of Operation Stovewood.
Officials also confirmed at a press conference at South Yorkshire Police’s headquarters in Sheffield today that two ‘current or former’ Rotherham councillors are under investigation over allegations they were involved in child sexual exploitation.
Meanwhile, the NCA have also asked South Yorkshire Police to consider referring two officers to a parallel investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into police misconduct over the handling of cases. The IPCC is already examining more than 100 complaints against 42 named police officers, both retired and serving, in relation to the scandal - including suggestions of ‘corrupt relationships between police officers and offenders’.
NCA Director Trevor Pearce said the organisation’s investigations into abuse in Rotherham that took place between 1997 and 2013 may last for up to three years, at a cost of between £3m and £5m per year.
The bill for the NCA’s work is being footed by South Yorkshire - leaving the force with a potential £15m bill by the time the operation concludes.
Mr Pearce refused to comment on whether the need for the massive NCA investigation showed there had been ‘major failings’ by South Yorkshire Police.
The NCA said the majority of suspected offenders that have been identified appear to be of Asian origin, with their victims typically being white girls under the age of 16 in their teenage years.
Those suspected of being involved in child sexual exploitation in the town are believed to be linked to organised crime gangs, involved in trafficking girls around the country to be abused by different groups of men.
Steve Baldwin, senior investigating officer for Operation Stovewood, said: “The abuse that has taken place in Rotherham is horrific. We have gathered a huge amount of information which details some very disturbing events.”
Mr Baldwin added: “We will use the information as a starting point for developing intelligence and evidence.
“Given the amount of victims there are, there is potential to identify thousands of offences.”
He said: “We will progress this investigation as quickly as professionally possible but it is complex.
“Much of the information we have is not yet in a format that makes it easy to analyse.
“My priority at the moment is to ensure that we fully understand what has happened, and how, so that we can take the most effective action.”
There are currently 32 officers assigned to Operation Stovewood, but this is expected to increase in the next few months.
Mr Pearce said work is still taking place to identify precisely how many suspects there are.
He said: “It is clear that some details provided will be duplicates of other details, names, nick-names or street names. Others may not prove to be offenders at all, or may be witnesses to abuse.
“The information established from these reports will form part of the investigation and it will be some time before we are able to put a more precise figure on the number of people who have been involved, directly or otherwise, in the grooming and sexual exploitation of children.”
But the NCA has said Professor Alexis Jay’s estimate of there being at least 1,400 victims in the town appears to be a ‘very good assessment’.
Professor Jay’s report, published in August last year, provoked nationwide shock and led to a series of high-profile resignations, including the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, who was the councillor with responsibility for children’s services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010.
It led to a further report, by Louise Casey, which further criticised Rotherham Council’s actions and led to the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles replacing the local authority’s elected cabinet with appointed commissioners.
Mr Baldwin said his team was prioritising those suspects who still posed a threat and had committed the most serious offences.
But he added: “I want to assure all victims that we will examine all allegations of abuse and, most importantly, we will listen to victims.”
He stressed that the investigators were being very careful about how they approached alleged victims, liaising with other agencies to make sure support is available to them.
Mr Baldwin said: “Progress will best achieved at present by tackling what we have now and demonstrating through our actions that we deserve the trust and confidence of others.”
As part of the investigation, 47 boxes of written material containing almost 1,500 files has been provided from the Risky Business project which worked with victims in the town before it was shut down by Rotherham Council.
Mr Pearce said: “For a large number of girls, it is fair to say their lives have been stolen.”
Karen Froggatt, director for child victims of sexual exploitation at the independent charity Victim Support, said: “The scale of sexual exploitation against children in Rotherham is appalling. We know from supporting many of these victims just how devastating and long lasting an impact it has.”
UKIP MEP for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Jane Collins said: “Every perpetrator of sexual crimes against children in Rotherham deserves the full weight of the law bringing to bear upon them.
“The victims of Rotherham have in some cases waited years for action against those who perpetrated horrific crimes against them. It has taken a long time to get to this stage, but maybe at last we can start to see the wheels of justice turn.”