By Nazir Afzal OBE, Chief Crown Prosecutor CPS North West
As the Chief Prosecutor who led the teams that brought, amongst others, the so called Rochdale Grooming Gang to justice in 2012 for the abuse of up to 47 young girls, for the past two years I have led a national network of prosecutors who have dedicated themselves to gaining the experience and expertise to tackle all such localised grooming and child sexual abuse in England and Wales. We learnt very early on that to make a difference you have to act differently.
There is sadly no community where women and girls are not at risk from men and sexual predators. The CPS has prosecuted people from more than 25 countries, not including the EU, for sexual offences and trafficking in the last three years. In that same period, victims of trafficking and sexual offending came from 64 countries, not including the EU. We have learnt that abusers of women and girls are of all nationalities, ages and ethnicities though the vast majority of it is carried out by white British males.
Rochdale, Oxford, Rotherham, Telford, and other such towns and cities have been rightly in the public’s consciousness as a result of similar cases where their children have been preyed upon. Vulnerability is universal and not confined to particular races. The problem that we identified in the Rochdale case was that prejudice in the form of the questioning of the credibility of the young girls prevented justice being delivered prior to our prosecution. In fact, I had to reverse a decision not to prosecute to even initiate the prosecution of this particular group of offenders. If we don’t believe her, who will? If she has had a troubled life, then a refusal to act will subject her to a lifetime of abuse. The authorities and communities appeared to have turned a blind eye to the abuse of its own children. The fact that there were no prosecutions of note was not a failure on the part of the victims, but a failure on the part of the state. These men targeted them because we all didn’t care. We have spent decades telling children that they should be “seen and not heard,” why then are we surprised when we didn’t hear their cries for help?
Responsibility for the abuse begins and ends with the criminals who commit these acts, not collectively with the law abiding communities of this country. There is, however, a collective and individual duty to report what you suspect and to act to protect these vulnerable youngsters. This type of offending relies upon the silence of the majority in order for them to harm our children. The gangs do not just select white girls, the ringleader of the Rochdale gang was subsequently convicted of raping a girl from his own ethnicity, and it beggars belief that others within that community did not know what these grown men were doing with young girls in these circumstances.
The ethnicity of many of the abusers in Rotherham and Rochdale and other places is a matter of fact, namely that they were from Pakistani or South Asian backgrounds. I do not care where they come from as long as they are stopped and brought to justice. I told Parliament in 2012 that the ethnicity of the perpetrators was an issue but not THE issue. Yes, members of the Pakistani community and Asian community may themselves have been threatened by the gangs in order not to disclose what they knew, but those that could have, should have. That does not, however, take away responsibility from these men for the actions that they have carried out.
It was not the abuser’s race that defined them, but their attitude to women and girls. They targeted young women and girls because of their availability and vulnerability as a result of short comings on the part of those who should have safeguarded them. Victims fell prey to men, often in the night time economy. This is where young girls would migrate in order to seek warmth, transport, food, and alcohol/drugs and this is where men from minorities were disproportionately employed. The girls were manipulated, distanced from their friends and families and harmed. There is no excuse for what they did and nor is there any excuse for the authorities to choose not to believe and protect.
The Asian communities have woken up to the criminals in their midst. They recognise that they can do more to stop this offending. When I was initially criticised by some for giving racists a stick to beat minority communities, I said that our communities should be carrying their own sticks. The reaction by the Far Right in targeting me was even more unexpected. I brought these men to justice when others had not, but that damaged the racists’ narrative that all minorities are the same. So I was subjected to a campaign to intimidate me, but letters and emails calling for me to be “sacked and deported” were met with the response that I was born in Birmingham!
Look at the journey that the Crown Prosecution Service has taken over the last five years. We have our first guidance for prosecutors to tackle these types of crime. We have specialist prosecutors in every Area in a network that I chair. We have a panel that looks at non-recent allegations together with the police and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. We are building stronger cases through earlier intervention and increasing the number of successful prosecutions. We are now clear that we will focus on the credibility of the allegation rather than that of the complainant. We know that the very vulnerabilities that these young girls carry – often the use of drink or drugs; the involvement in low level crime; distance from family and friends and the attachment to their abusers – are both the reasons they were targeted and the reasons they were not listened to in the past. These are the signs we now look for to strengthen our cases, not weaken them. There are hundreds of suspects upon whom we are currently advising and we are together protecting hundreds of victims. In one operation alone there are 20 potential victims and 180 potential suspects. It is time for the criminals to be in fear.
However, another girl will have been abused whilst this article was read. Others will have been targeted for future abuse. Organisations, through a lack of knowledge and awareness, will contribute to enabling these crimes to go unnoticed. We cannot shy away from tackling child sexual abuse regardless of where it occurs and by whom. Multi-cultural sensitivity is no excuse for our blindness.
This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 31 August 2014