When Sajid Javid, as Home Secretary, launched a review into the characteristics of ‘Asian’ grooming gangs in 2018 and boldly declared there would be ‘no no-go areas of inquiry’, many hoped that we’d finally begin to understand this national scandal. We would find out why men involved in street-based sex grooming gangs are so wicked, and why they often seem to target vulnerable white working-class girls.
Is it racially or religiously motivated crime, as indicated by some judges – and increasingly highlighted by victims themselves? Or are there other associated factors, such as the night-time economy? Of course – as journalists who write about this emotive and difficult subject well know – officials and the police appear to have self-censored when it comes to open discussion about the involvement of men of Pakistani heritage, for fear of stirring up community tensions. This was most recently highlighted in a Manchester Child sexual exploitation (CSE) report commissioned by Andy Burnham.
We may never find out the motivations of these grooming gangs because, unsurprisingly, the government has refused to publish the findings of its ‘no no-go areas’ inquiry. The information it contains was deemed to be exempt from an FOI request, as it concerned the development of government policy. ‘Internal’ fact-finding work, the Home Office decided, was not in the public interest to disclose.
This government decision has understandably caused consternation and public anger, given that almost 19,000 children were victims of ‘grooming’ in England between 2018-19. An e-petition launched last month urging the Home Office to release the review in full has, at the time of writing, obtained a staggering 122,826 signatures – enough to secure a debate in Parliament. But because of Covid-19, the debate is unlikely to happen any time soon. On Friday the government responded to the petition, arguing that: ‘Any insights gained from this important internal work will be used to inform our future action to end this devastating abuse, including the forthcoming Strategy.’ It went on to warn, ‘Extremists may also seek to exploit legitimate concerns to sow further division. The Government will continue to challenge these views and to help communities unite.’
Survivors I’ve spoken to see the government’s hesitation to release the report as an act of betrayal. This includes a Rotherham survivor who goes by the pseudonym Ella Hill. She may have escaped the monsters in Rotherham, but she is now persecuted online for daring to discuss (and write about) the racial and religious dimension to the abuse she suffered. She told me:
“Releasing the report will not cause as much anger as withholding is doing. We already know what it will say. Now we want to know what they [the government] are going to do about it.'I do share the concern that bringing this information into the light might anger some people, but we must remember that we are not responsible for their actions. It’s the racist rapists who are ultimately responsible for inflaming racial tensions, not those of us who have a duty to pick up the pieces.
If nothing else, the reluctance to publish this research will give oxygen to the very people who wrongly demonise all men of Pakistani heritage as ‘groomers’ and who demonstrate a broader contempt for immigrants and foreigners.
Worse still, this reluctance to publish gives cover to the perpetrators themselves. Surely, we all need to know more about their characteristics in order to disrupt their activities? The government could even publish the report while redacting ‘operationally sensitive’ information. The victims and the public deserve to know the truth.