The UK’s grooming gangs and the lessons never learned

It is high time for Britain’s criminal justice system to stop failing vulnerable girls victimised by predatory men.

An independent report published in the UK last month found that girls in the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale were "left at the mercy" of grooming gangs for years because of failings by police, council authorities [Al Jazeera]

When it comes to official responses to criminal justice failures, the phrase “lessons will be learned” has become a wretched cliche. Once uttered by a cornered police chief or politician, it is hard to respond to it with anything other than raised eyebrows and a sardonic scowl because we have come to know it means nothing at all.

I clearly remember it being repeated over and over again after the extent of child sexual exploitation in the northern town of Rotherham was exposed in the United Kingdom a decade ago.

In August 2014, a groundbreaking report by former senior social worker Alexis Jay revealed that an estimated 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town from 1997 to 2013, predominantly by Pakistani-British men. It revealed that council staff and others knew of the abuse but turned a blind eye to what was happening and refused to identify the perpetrators in part for fear of being branded racist.

The report laid bare the disastrous consequences of failing to prevent predatory men – of whatever racial background, for whatever reason – from accessing vulnerable victims.

In response to the report’s damning revelations, so many in positions of power looked straight into the cameras and said “lessons will be learned.”

Tragically, however, what happened in Rotherham was not an anomaly.

About 60km (35 miles) down the road in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, girls were also being abused, as they were all over the UK.

Last month, the latest in a long line of reports found that the National Health Service crisis intervention team in Rochdale had referred 260 victims to children’s social care services and these referrals has “not been acted on over the years”.

The report was commissioned by Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, when he was first elected in 2017. Covering the period from 2004 to 2013, the report identified at least 96 individuals who still pose a serious risk to children, most of whom have yet to be prosecuted. Apologising to the victims, Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Stephen Watson promised a “day of reckoning” for those men. But so far, not one of the men identified in the report has been arrested.

Every state agency, the review found, has failed hundreds upon hundreds of girls targeted by organised sexual abusers. In short, girls were “left at the mercy” of predatory men for years.

Once again, authorities responded to the report with empty promises and platitudes. “Lessons will be learned,” they said.

I have little hope that anything will change.

I was first made aware of the existence of “grooming gangs” in the UK in the mid-1990s. Groups of mostly Pakistani-British men would target vulnerable girls to sexually exploit them and pass them around among their friends and business associates for profit.

As a lifelong campaigner against men’s violence towards women and girls – including child sexual abuse, rape and prostitution – I was very interested in the issue and eagerly joined the efforts to expose and put an end to this heinous crime.

Soon I came across an organisation set up in Leeds, West Yorkshire, in 1996 by Irene Ivison to honour and seek justice for her daughter Fiona, who had been murdered three years earlier at the age of 17. Fiona was groomed by an older man from the age of 14 and was eventually forced to sell sex on the streets, where she was murdered by a sex buyer.

Ivison had set up the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping to draw attention to how every single statutory agency failed her daughter. She tried to explain to the police and social services that the men targeting girls like Fiona were part of organised abuse rings. She told them girls are duped into believing that these men love them and are their boyfriends and, once they are besotted, the gang leaders step in and put them to work in prostitution. This was back in the late 1990s. They did not listen to her. They did not take action. They turned a blind eye to this crime and allowed thousands of girls to be victimised over the following years.

Around this time, I too interviewed many parents who complained of police indifference to grooming gangs. They said they reported that their daughters were hanging around with older men and coming home smelling of alcohol and cannabis but neither the police nor social services were interested. They said they handed over hard evidence in the form of number plates and phone numbers belonging to the men but nothing was ever followed up. They said they had to do their own investigations and take precautions to protect their children.

Finally, years later in 2007, my investigation into the grooming gang phenomenon was published in the Sunday Times Magazine. This was the first time the issue was covered in-depth in a British broadsheet. I had been pitching the article for some time but was told by several editors that there was a danger of “being accused of racism” because many of the suspects were of Pakistani heritage.

Of course, as people ignored the ever-growing number of grooming gangs abusing vulnerable girls across the country for fear of being called racist, real racists began to co-opt the issue. Far-right groups such as the British National Party started claiming in flyers and speeches that Muslim men are treating white girls as “easy meat” and that the only way to protect native women and children in Britain is to put an end to “mass migration”.

But the problem is neither immigration nor a particular racial or religious group. The problem is the incompetence of those tasked with protecting the most vulnerable in our society and a criminal justice system that is geared to fail all victims.

Indeed, there are countless white, British-born men abusing girls and getting away with it in this country. In fact, the majority of child abusers in the UK are white men, most of whom are never reported to the authorities let alone prosecuted and jailed. The police forces working in areas with large Muslim, South Asian populations being reluctant to go after predominantly Muslim, South Asian grooming gangs in fear of accusations of racism is just one part of the problem. In many cases, girls subjected to such abuse, no matter the racial and religious background of their abusers, are not believed by the police – and at times they are even blamed for what happened to them.

I know one such victim who uses the pseudonym Amber.

Amber was abused by an organised gang from 2008 to 2010 in Rochdale. She was just 14 years old when her nightmare began. Yet rather than being identified as and treated like a victim, Amber was herself arrested.

She was accused of being a “madam” and trafficking her underage friends to the men already abusing her. She was eventually released on bail and sent to live with a man who had already been arrested on suspicion of grooming. None of her abusers was ever charged.

I met Amber when she was working with a number of feminist legal experts and campaigners to bring a legal challenge against police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for their treatment of her and other girls like her.

In April 2022, Amber and two other victims were finally awarded damages and a public apology from the Greater Manchester Police chief constable. But so far, the CPS has been unwilling to offer an apology or indeed any recognition of the harm caused to Amber, who was named (without her knowledge) on the charge sheet as a co-conspirator in the prosecution of some of the Rochdale grooming gang members. After suffering years of abuse, Amber was branded a perpetrator and abused once again by the authorities who were supposed to protect her.

To date, no disciplinary action has been taken against anyone responsible for failing the victims, and nothing has appeared to have changed that would prevent a repeat performance in the future.

“What the police and CPS did to me was worse than the abuse,“ Amber told me. “I agreed to help the police to stop it happening to others. I trusted the police and thought I would be helped.”

“I was the victim of these men at the age of 14. I should’ve been helped, not punished.”

Amber is but one of the countless victims of sexual violence whose trauma has been compounded by shockingly poor police practice. Because she and others chose to speak out and call the police to task, it can no longer be denied that our criminal justice system is not fit for purpose.

The extensive report published last month into the systemic failures in the handling of Rochdale grooming gangs is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Let’s hope that this time “lessons learned” means exactly that.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.