If Rotherham council were a family, its children would have been removed by social services long ago, and Ma and Pa Rotherham would be safely behind bars. Professor Alexis Jay’s report, which was published this week, reveals depravity on an industrial scale in the South Yorkshire town. At least 1,400 children, Prof. Jay estimates, were subjected to sexual exploitation between 1997 and 2013. Many were raped multiple times by members of gangs whose activities either were or should have been known about. Children were trafficked around the country to be abused. Those who put up resistance were beaten. And when they complained they were treated with contempt by the people who were employed to protect them.
We don’t hold out much hope that anyone in a position of authority will be going to jail, nor even that anyone will lose their pension. Roger Stone OBE, leader of the Labour-run council for the past 11 years, has ‘stepped down’, saying that he would be taking responsibility. There was no mention of the 71-year-old Mr Stone ceding his pension, and neither did he show much in the way of contrition; he seemed to see his resignation as a noble act, falling on his sword so that his minions might continue in employment.
It is always the same with public authorities and scandals relating to children in care. No one is ever to blame, only ‘systems’. There is always room, of course, for these nebulous ‘systems’ to be improved. But there must never be any finger-pointing. If, on rare occasions, people are forced out of their jobs, then an action for unfair dismissal invariably follows.
If Rotherham Council’s social services department does have anything that deserves to be described as a ‘system’, it is a deeply flawed one. How can a child, entrusted to the care of the state, end up being delivered into the arms of abusers, the very thing that children’s services are supposed to be there to prevent? Worse, how can it happen to hundreds of children and still no one act to stop it?
It has been reported that no one in the council felt strong enough to challenge the mainly Asian gangs that perpetrated the abuse for fear of accusations of racism. It’s true that racism, even of the inadvertent kind, has — along with sexism and homophobia — been turned into such a heinous crime in the eyes of public-sector functionaries that many would rather turn a blind eye to child rape than risk such accusations. Rotherham Council’s children’s services last made headlines when it removed three eastern European children from their Ukip-supporting foster parents. One of its functionaries explained it was concerned about Ukip’s opposition to the ‘active promotion of multiculturalism’.
It is a pity that the council was not as concerned about the systematic abuse of the children supposedly under its care. As Colin Brewer explains on page 16, there’s also something inherently fishy about the pseudo-scientific nature of social work and how social workers are trained.
But there is a bigger sickness in Rotherham, and in other councils where similar scandals have taken place: the bias towards secrecy. Wherever children are involved, the default position on the part of public authorities seems to be that they should keep information about their failures under their institutional hats — out of concern, naturally, for the privacy of the children involved. Yes, of course, the privacy of children has to be protected. But often what is really being protected is the privacy of the social workers and other staff involved. The wellbeing of hundreds of children is, in this way, sacrificed in order not to disturb careers and retirements.
Social workers always come into the firing line when scandals involving children come to light — and that is right. But we should not ignore, either, the astonishing failure of the police. The Rotherham scandal is not a historic case which we can pretend would not happen in this day and age: the timescale of the abuse uncovered by Prof. Jay runs from the beginning of Tony Blair’s premiership to last year. It commenced well after the care of children became subject to the much-vaunted ‘multi-agency’ approach, where social workers, police, teachers, doctors and so on are all supposed to work together. Echoing what happened in Rochdale, the Jay report finds that police treated victims ‘with contempt’.
We are in the middle of an investigation into sexual exploitation of children and adults by celebrities and other public figures dating back more than 50 years. Some of this is certainly genuine; some of it may be moral panic. But one thing is for sure. The allegations of historic groping that we read about on a weekly basis are dwarfed by the kinds of scandals we have seen in Rochdale and Rotherham — scandals which, besides being of a graver nature and on a worse scale, are happening beneath our noses, in the present. There will be no drawing a line under them until all those who let this happen have been held to account.