The past few weekends have seen Labour MPs engaged in a pretty unseemly ideological schism over child grooming scandals in (most recently) Newcastle, and before that Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere.
It was kicked off by Sarah Champion who wrote an irredeemably dreadful piece for the Sun that spoke in such clumsily broad-brush terms about ‘Pakistani men’ that it was perceived (rightly or wrongly) as outright racism and this cost her a frontbench role as shadow Equalities minister. Any thoughts that she’d been misrepresented or misquoted by the sleazy tabloid were dispelled a week later when she gave an interview to the Times that saw her digging deeper into the same trench.
On Saturday, the constituency MP for Newcastle upon Tyne, Chi Onwurah, responded directly with a piece in the Guardian that was uncompromising in its assertion that race has nothing to do with the grooming gangs, whose members are motivated by misogyny, not racism, she wrote.
If my Twitter feed was anything to go by, her piece was not exactly well received, even by left-leaning liberals who might have been minded to agree with her general stance. Her opening sentence in particular was unfathomably crass and ill-advised, asking: “What’s worse, rape or racism?”
The arguments around it put me in mind of a rambling chat we had in the comments section of another post here, about the meaning and definition of hate crime, and I thought it might be worth unpicking how I see all of this.
I should stress at this point, I claim no particular expertise or authority in any of the areas under discussion here, but the criminology of the dynamics of sexual abuse is an area I have given a lot of thought to over the years, so I hope you’ll hear me out.
The first thing that needs to be said about grooming gangs is that there is not one scandal here. There are at least three different scandals, which have come together in a perfect storm of exploitation. Each is different, has different causes, different roots and should demand different responses. Here are the facts as I understand them.
Over years if not decades, in dozens of different towns and cities, apparently entirely independently, conspiratorial gangs, (almost but not exclusively) British Asian-Muslim men, used networks of small businesses such as taxi companies and fast food outlets to groom, intoxicate, rape and sexually exploit thousands of children, most (but not all) of whom were girls from non-Muslim and/or white British backgrounds.
In most towns and cities, particularly those with extensive poverty and social problems, there are worryingly large numbers of children and adolescents who are living with minimal adult care, protection, supervision and love. They are highly vulnerable and often already profoundly damaged. Many of these children are supposedly under the care of social services, whether in residential accommodation or under child protection orders.
When authorities – primarily police and social services – in many of these towns and cities came to learn that Scandal 1 was happening, and that the victims were the children described in Scandal 2, they were grossly negligent in response, failing to act upon reports of serious sexual offending against children, and failing to offer any meaningful protection to the victims of horrendous crimes.
While the three paragraphs above are a crude snapshot of different events in many different places, I hope it conveys the bare facts of what we are discussing here. By and large, the facts above are not disputed. The argument is not really about the what, but about the why. Let’s take them in turn.
Why did hundreds of men involve themselves in conspiracies to rape, abuse and exploit children? It seems to me that any single answer here is inevitably trite. I would confidently guarantee there were a wide variety of personality types and motivations within the full groups of offenders, ranging from the psychopathic and the sadistic at one end to the naïve and the stupid, who perhaps hadn’t even considered that they were doing anything wrong, at the other.
Like most sex offenders, they will have been driven by selfish base desires which outweighed any concern for their victims, and their behaviour and decision-making will have been underpinned by a whole host of beliefs and attitudes about sex, sexuality and women.
I would be astonished if one common prevailing attitude amongst those offenders wasn’t a belief that their victims were (literally) asking for it, ‘had it coming to them’ or actively wanted the abuse to happen. Part of that would be a toxic blend of racially-charged misogyny about “white slags” and we must not ignore that many of the victims who bravely testified in court and gave evidence to the enquiries described exactly this type of language being used.
That said, it is important to note one of the most crucial findings of the Baroness Jay enquiry (p94 here) which was that the grooming gangs in Rotherham were known to have targeted girls of Asian/Muslim origin as well, and were strongly believed to have been also abusing girls from their own communities. The absence of identified victims is believed to be about a much greater reluctance to come forward and report the crimes for fear of stigma and issues of “honour.” So whatever racial motives might have been involved, they clearly weren’t the only ones.
So were the crimes committed by those men motivated by racist stereotyping or misogyny? It seems obvious to me that they would have been motivated by both of those and a whole lot more. To deny any one of those elements would seem as disingenuous and dishonest as to pretend only one element is relevant.
So what of Scandal 3, the authorities turning a blind eye to the abuse?
One of the most common and inflammatory assertions made about grooming scandals is that police and social services failed to intervene because they were afraid of being seen as racist.
The most comprehensive investigation into this allegation was within the Jay report, and those investigations found literally no evidence that this was the case. No one from the authorities involved who gave evidence believed that this had been what happened.
Even at face value, the idea that police in places like Rochdale and Rotherham are unwilling to investigate or arrest Asian Muslim offenders is frankly laughable. They are doing so, for all sorts of crimes, all the time.
What Baroness Jay did find were a couple of similar issues. First, it seems that even once the scale and nature of offending had come to light, the police and council declined to publicise the events as they should have, for fear of raising racial tensions. Secondly, she pointed to frontline officers receiving ‘mixed messages’ about cultural sensitivity and an over-reliance on community ‘gatekeepers’ such as Imams to communicate in either direction. As Louise Casey later noted in her report, it is likely that those subsequent decisions not only put future victims at greater risk, but had the effect of damaging community cohesion much more profoundly than had they acted responsibly in the first place.
There were certainly lessons to be learned from that, but there was never any evidence that it was political correctness or cultural sensitivity that allowed the victims to be abused in the first place.
But what seems much more pertinent (and the reports from Rochdale, particularly from CPS investigator Nazir Afzal, are particularly illuminating here) is that the attitudes towards ‘white slags’ demonstrated by the offenders were pretty much shared by police and social services. Those beliefs about vulnerable young girls being nothing more than chavs and sluts who were asking for it and had it coming were not restricted to Muslim men. Police and social services appeared to dismiss the girls as ‘child prostitutes’ who knew what they were doing and didn’t need the protection of the law or the state.
Arguments around grooming scandals continue to generate more heat than light. The Islamophobic hordes, egged on by the tabloids, wish to use it as a stick to beat liberal multiculturalism and Islam itself. Even a supposed progressive like Sarah Champion offers precisely zero solutions beyond pointing fingers at British Muslims and shouting ‘rapists!’ One consequence of that is inevitably that Muslim communities batten down the hatches and are less inclined to engage with the issues, helping no one.
Meanwhile the liberal left, as Chi Onwurah demonstrated, seem to do themselves few favours by point-blank denying that these issues are riven through with racial elements, in the crimes themselves and the responses to them, a truth which to everyone else looks written in neon letters 20 foot high.
To return to the question at the top of this page, I would have no problem acknowledging that the crimes committed will often have met the test of a definition of hate crimes – the motivations for them were, at least in part, driven by attitudes to race and ethnicity. However as far as I’m concerned the offenders should have every book available thrown at them, and whether they were motivated by racial prejudice, misogyny, personal moral failings is largely by the by – may they rot in their cells, whatever.
Ultimately though, I believe the greatest hate crime that has been committed here is contained within the scandal that none of us has really been talking about, Scandal 2 above. The real hate crime here, the one that drove the abusers to abuse, which drove the police and social services to negligence and which continues to drive the media and political debates to this day, is a crime in which I think we are all complicit. It is our collective indifference, contempt, hostility and outright animosity towards the young, poor, marginalised and vulnerable on the edges of society.
Of all the millions of words written about these scandals, the Twitter feuds and political interventions, who has talked about the scandalous underfunding of social services? Who has talked about the chronic shortages of child protection social workers? What steps have been taken to ensure that no other young kids are left alone and unprotected from predators of any background?
I’ve written myself in the past that all members of all cultures within a multicultural society, whether Muslim or white British or Sikh or Roman Catholic or whatever else need to examine our hearts and our minds and consider how the cultures we share, propagate and preserve contribute to and enable sexual abuse. I stand by that. Absolutely central to that must be how we value and protect the most marginalised and vulnerable amongst us.