South Yorkshire’s police chief ‘vows to stay on’ despite resignation calls

Shaun Wright. South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner.
Shaun Wright. South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner.

South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright has reportedly vowed to stay in the job despite calls for him to quit over a report into widespread child abuse by gangs in Rotherham.

An inquiry report, published on Tuesday, found at least 1,400 children in the town were sexually exploited by criminal gangs between 1997 and 2013.

Mr Wright, a former Rawmarsh councillor, was in charge of children’s services at the council between 2005 and 2010 but he supposedly said today that he would remain in his position.

He reportedly said: “I have taken lessons learned in that office and brought them to bear in my new role with South Yorkshire Police. I believe I am the most appropriate person to hold this office at this current time.”

Both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have already called for him to step down.

In the report, council and police leaders in the town were accused of “blatant” failures of leadership for most of this period, where girls as young as 11 were raped by “large numbers of male perpetrators.”

The report highlighted that some of the 1,400 plus victims were raped by multiple attackers and even doused with petrol and threatened with being set alight.

Roger Stone, who lives in Kilnhurst and was council leader from 2003, resigned with “immediate effect” following the revelations at a press conference at Rotherham United’s New York Stadium on Tuesday. He will stay on as a councillor.

He said: “I think it is only right that I, as leader, take responsibility on behalf of the council for the historic failings that are so clearly described in the report.”

However, the council’s chief executive Martin Kimber said he did not have the evidence to discipline any individuals working for the council despite the report saying there had been ‘blatant’ collective failures.

Mr Kimber said: “Officers in senior positions responsible for children’s safeguarding services throughout the critical periods when services fell some way short of today’s standards do not work for the council today.

“To that extent, I have not been able to identify any issues of professional practice related to current serving officers of this council that would require me to consider use of disciplinary or capability procedures.”

According to Professor Alexis Jay OBE, a former senior social worker who authored a report into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham since 1997, evidence presented to police and social services was “suppressed and disbelieved.”

She said: “If all of the authorities involved, officers and members, had been less concerned with their own agendas and prejudices and kept their focus on children’s welfare, some of these children might not have suffered the abuse and brutality we read and heard about.”

Prof Jay said child victims were “raped by multiple perpetrators. Trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten and intimidated.

“There were examples of children being doused with petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.”

The report said evidence of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s and a council youth service called Risky Business made the evidence known to the police and social services.

But it added: “In most cases, especially in the early days, the evidence was disbelieved, suppressed or ignored.”

Professor Jay said sexual abuse of children continued to this day, with 55 cases on the books of Rotherham’s specialist CSE team in June and 157 reports made to the police last year.

The report said almost all the perpetrators were identified by victims as being of Pakistani heritage, but that there was a widespread perception “that some senior people in the council and the police wanted to ‘downplay’ the ethnic dimension.”

Professor Jay concluded: “The question inevitably arises as to why those in a position to do something so blatantly failed to act over such a long period of time. I found no single answer to this.

“I was told some elected members seemed to be in denial about the issue and refused to believe such a thing could happen in Rotherham. Others thought it was a ‘one-off’ problem.

“There was also a concern not to bring the ethnic issues out in the open, because it might damage community cohesion. Others said it would compromise police operations if the issue had been publicly discussed.

“There were professional jealousies apparent in the relations with the Risky Business project, and a persistent sense that the issue was being exaggerated despite the evidence to the contrary.”

The report added that many improvements had been made to services in recent years and that “the protection of children is more secure than it was in earlier years.”

There are 15 recommendations for improvement in the report.

These range from improving risk assessment procedures on children affected by sexual exploitation, giving victims more support and different agencies must work more closely together to tackle problems.

The under-reporting of abuse in minority ethnic communities must also be addressed and the report states: “The issue of race should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised child sexual abuse.”

The inquiry was announced last September by Roger Stone, who apologised to victims let down by the authority’s safeguarding services.

In November 2010 five Rotherham men were jailed for sexual offences against under-age girls.

And in June last year MPs described Rotherham Council as “inexcusably slow” in tackling the problem, while South Yorkshire Police was said to have “let down” victims of grooming.

Earlier this year, it emerged Rotherham council is being sued by 15 women over its failure to tackle child sexual exploitation.

The report also criticised the council for “insufficient” attempts to engage with the Pakistani-heritage community, and a “macho”, “sexist” and “bullying” culture which stopped the authority from providing an effective response.

Rotherham Council put out a statement stating that the inquiry found “services to protect young people at risk from child sexual exploitation in Rotherham are stronger and better co-ordinated across agencies today than ever before.”

Chief executive Martin Kimber has apologised to the young people who were let down by services.

He said: “The report does not make comfortable reading in its account of the horrific experiences of some young people in the past, and I would like to reiterate our sincere apology to those who were let down when they needed help.

“I commissioned this independent review to understand fully what went wrong, why it went wrong and to ensure that the lessons learned in Rotherham mean these mistakes can never happen again.

“The report confirms that our services have improved significantly over the last five years and are stronger today than ever before. This is important because it allows me to reassure young people and families that should anyone raise concerns we will take them seriously and provide them with the support they need.

“However, that must not overshadow – and certainly does not excuse – the finding that for a significant amount of time the council and its partners could and should have done more to protect young people from what must be one of the most horrific forms of abuse imaginable.”

Mr Kimber added: “It is clear that services are stronger and better co-ordinated now than ever before. They are not perfect, but they are fit for purpose, are significantly improved and continue to improve through close multi-agency working.

“The report contains 15 recommendations, all of which are intended to secure further improvements in our services. The delivery of these improvements will be swift and effective, and where they require a response from several agencies we will work with our partners.

“In terms of our organisational culture the report indicates that the organisation is different today from that which was perceived for much of the period under review: issues of bullying have been addressed and it no longer shapes the atmosphere in which the council conducts business.”

The report – together with Mr Kimber’s response to it – will be considered by the council’s cabinet on Wednesday, September 3.

Chief Superintendent Jason Harwin, District Commander for Rotherham, said: “Firstly I’d like to start by offering an unreserved apology to the victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) who did not receive the level of service they should be able to expect from their local police force. We fully acknowledge our previous failings.

“We have completely overhauled the way in which we deal with CSE and that’s been recognised in the report and by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary earlier this year.

“In the last four years we’ve made significant strides in how we protect those at risk from CSE, and the report found that the issue is ‘clearly a priority’ for South Yorkshire Police.

“In Rotherham we are currently dealing with 32 live investigations into CSE and developing a further 22 referrals where there are concerns around a child potentially being exploited.”

He added: “Our recent cases have involved both female and male offenders and people from a wide range of different backgrounds including British, Pakistani and Roma Slovak. We will go wherever the evidence takes us. Equally we find that the victims too can be from any background, there is no ‘typical victim.’

“For all of these cases, I’d like to acknowledge the people that have had the courage to come forward. We treat CSE with the utmost severity and sensitivity. If you have concerns about a child whom you believe may be at risk we would urge you to come forward.

“I accept that our recent successes in tackling CSE will not heal the pain of those victims who have been let down but we continue to deal with historic investigations with great success and will continue to thoroughly investigate any new evidence available to us.”

Adam Pemberton, assistant chief executive of Victim Support, said: “The extent of the sexual exploitation of young girls in Rotherham is horrific. Almost as shocking as the details of that abuse is the abject failure on the part of social services to protect these children.

“Vulnerable girls were often not believed by the authorities because of their troubled backgrounds, consequently they were denied help not due to lack of resources, but due to a lack of concern.

“Time and again we see the same pattern repeated. Until those in authority focus on the sexual abuse and not the symptoms of that abuse, the lives of vulnerable young people like the victims in Rotherham will go on being ruined.”