Politics & Policy

The Lessons of Rotherham

(Photo: Daniel Allott)
Political correctness played a major role in a shocking child-sexual-abuse scandal.

Last August, Rotherham, an industrial town in northern England, was thrust into the headlines when a government report detailed how gangs of local men had raped and trafficked at least 1,400 girls, some as young as eleven years old, over the course of more than 15 years. The report found that almost all the alleged perpetrators were Muslim men of Pakistani origin and that most of the victims were white working-class girls.

The 153-page report, written by Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland, further found that local authorities, including the Rotherham Metropolitan Bureau Council, had failed to halt the abuse and in some cases perpetuated it. 

On February 4, another government report — this one authored by Louise Casey, who heads the government’s troubled-families unit — corroborated Jay’s findings. Casey discovered that the Rotherham Council tried to silence whistle-blowers and cover up its own responsibility in the scandal. The council, according to Casey, also “demonstrate[d] a resolute denial of what has happened in the borough.”

Casey concluded that the Council was “not fit for purpose”; hours later, all five members of the council’s cabinet announced their resignations.

In late December, we traveled to Rotherham (pronounced ROTH-er-um) in an effort to gain some insight into how it had become the setting of one of the most shocking cases of mass child sexual exploitation in recent memory.

During our trip, and in subsequent phone interviews, we spoke with more than two dozen Rotherham residents — including a member of the Rotherham Council, an Anglican vicar, and the president of a local Muslim nonprofit. An important recurring theme in our conversations and in the official reports was the central role that political correctness played in the scandal. It is a role many of Rotherham’s leaders are only now beginning to come to terms with.

The crimes are known colloquially as the “Rotherham grooming scandal” because most of the girls were targeted for their youth and vulnerability and gradually forced into sexual slavery. They were typically plied with drugs, alcohol, gifts, and shows of affection. Over time the men would start having sexual relationships with the girls and then begin demanding that they have sex with other men. Many of the girls were trafficked across England for that purpose.

Beatings and other forms of abuse were common. One 15-year-old girl told police that her captors had doused her with gasoline and threatened to set her ablaze if she talked about the abuse to her parents or the police.

In some cases, the authorities — the police, the local council, and even child-care agencies and social workers — deterred victims from coming forward. The police sometimes even arrested parents who tried to intervene. 

One girl brought soiled clothing to police as proof that she’d been gang-raped, but she was sent away with only a check as compensation for her damaged clothes. Another was urged to drop her rape complaint because, she was told, it would ruin a police physician’s Sunday lunch.

A few of the abusers have been brought to justice. In 2010, five men of Pakistani descent were found guilty of sexual crimes against underage girls. But prosecutions have been few and far between.

Starting in the late 1990s — that is, very soon after the abuse began — several government departments conducted investigations. A 2002 Home Office report found a “high prevalence of young women being coerced and abused through prostitution.” But most of the investigations’ findings were, according to the Jay report, “effectively suppressed” because officials “did not believe the data.”

The Labour-dominated Rotherham Council did little more than throw money at the problem. The Jay report found that the council showed “little obvious leadership or interest” in halting the abuse, beyond appropriating funding for Risky Business, an outreach service for at-risk children. But even that program was shuttered four years ago because the council saw it as “a nuisance.”

In the six months since the release of the Jay report, something close to a consensus has formed about what allowed the abuse to continue for so long: political correctness.

After the report became public, Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, told Parliament that “institutionalized political correctness” was to blame for the authorities’ unwillingness to combat the crimes. She said that “for reasons of political expediency and ideology,” Rotherham’s public officials were “unwilling to confront the fact that the abusers were of Pakistani heritage.”

The Jay report noted that “several councilors interviewed believed that by opening up these issues they could be ‘giving oxygen’ to racist perspectives that might in turn attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion.”

The Casey report described Rotherham as having had a culture of “political correctness, incompetence, and cover-up” that “allowed gangs of Asian men to get away with child abuse for years.”

“The issue of race is contentious,” the Casey report continued, “with staff and members lacking the confidence to tackle difficult issues for fear of being seen as racist or upsetting community cohesion.” Casey found that “frontline staff were clearly anxious about being branded racist.”

These considerations led some police officers to omit information about the ethnicity of the alleged abusers in their official reports. Among other things, this meant that nobody reached out to local Pakistani leaders for help in trying to identify the gang members and stop the abuse.

A researcher from the Home Office voiced her concerns to senior police officers, noting in a report in 2002 that the abuse was being carried out almost exclusively by Pakistani men. Instead of following up, her superiors suspended her from her job and sent her to a two-day course in diversity awareness.

We visited Allen Cowles, a member of the Rotherham Council from the U.K. Independence Party, at his home in Whiston, a suburb of Rotherham. He told us there was “no doubt in anyone’s mind that political correctness played a role” in the scandal. “There were politicians who initially opposed an inquiry on the grounds that if it was just South Yorkshire and just the Asian community, they weren’t going to support it. If you look nationally, previously over the last two years, anyone who mentioned ethnicity or immigration, the Labour Party screamed ‘racist.’ Now they’re beginning to recognize that there is a problem.”

Virtually all the Rotherham residents we spoke with blamed the scandal, at least in part, on political correctness. “It’s absolutely disgusting that political correctness in this country has gone ballistic,” one young mother told us. Several Pakistani-Britons we interviewed also said they thought political correctness was to blame.

The only person we spoke with who was reluctant to point to political correctness was Canon David Bliss, whom we interviewed in the pews at his parish, the Rotherham Minster Church of All Saints. “I don’t really know. I suppose it’s how you define political correctness. I don’t really know,” Bliss said when we asked him about the scandal. “From what I hear, if you look at the people involved, it crosses all sorts of spectrums. I don’t think you can narrow it down and say it’s that particular group. I don’t think that is the case.”

Bliss is technically right. As Cowles also acknowledged, a few native-born whites have also been implicated in the abuse of the girls.

It is also important to note that the scandal was rooted in problems that run much deeper than an oversensitivity to the feelings of a particular ethnic group. According to Jay, some officers in the South Yorkshire police department regarded the girls as “tarts” who had made “lifestyle choices” and thus more or less had the abuse coming to them. “These girls were often treated with utter contempt” by the police, Jay said.

Even civilians who were raised in a very different environment often have little sympathy for them. “I wonder how girls come to be in that position if they’ve got any sense,” one lifelong resident of Rotherham in her seventies told us. “I hate to be too much against girls, but it’s up to the ladies to say ‘no,’ isn’t it? When I was younger, we ruled the roost, so that if I said ‘yes,’ it was yes, if I said ‘no,’ it was no. But now it seems to be different. This younger generation is a bit permissive. You’re talking to an old lady now. But we always played by rules.”

One officer tried to console a victim by telling her that she hadn’t been the first girl raped by a particular perpetrator and that she wouldn’t be the last. Many of the girls came from poor and broken families, and some were living in foster care or group homes, where supervision was often lax. “If you went out at two or three in the morning, you’d actually see some of these girls of 12 or 13 out,” Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, told us in a phone interview. The Ramadhan Foundation is a nonprofit that advocates for Muslims in the U.K.

The scandal has also highlighted dysfunction within Britain’s Asian community. Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown told the Independent: “I partly blame the families [of the alleged perpetrators] and communities. Too many Asian mothers spoil their boys, undervalue their girls and demean their daughters-in-law. Within some British Asian circles, the West is considered degenerate and immoral. So it is OK to take their girls and ruin them further. Some of the fiercest rows I have ever had have been with Asian women who hold these disgusting views.”

Shafiq is one of many who think Rotherham’s authorities may have been motivated by political correctness in not taking action sooner, but as for the abuse itself, he blames overt racism — but a different sort of racism from the one local authorities were concerned about: “Some of these [Pakistani] men had a lesser view of white girls. In some cases [the girls] were treated as if they were commodities that [the men] could use and abuse. And to me that was a form of racism. They targeted these girls deliberately because they were white. Many of these men lived double lives. They had respectable lives with wives and families. Then they had other lives where they were abusing these girls.”

Scandals similar to Rotherham’s have been uncovered in at least a dozen other British towns and cities. “Rotherham is the tip of the iceberg,” Cowles said. “It is undoubtedly happening in other places. Rotherham happens to be the one that’s hit the news.” In October, an inquiry found that sexual abuse of children had become “normal” in some areas of Manchester, 45 miles west of Rotherham.  

Most of the Rotherham residents we interviewed remain unconvinced that meaningful reforms will take place. One reason for the public’s skepticism, Cowles said, is that while many government agencies are addressing the issues that allowed the abuse to go on for so long, “the communication back to the public is still very poor.”

If the public can’t see that changes are being made, it will, in Cowles’s view, “conclude that this is a whitewash, that it’ll be another cover-up.” In fact, in our conversations with residents, many used the word “whitewash” to describe the government’s response to the abuse. 

It hardly helps that some of the perpetrators remain on the streets and may still be abusing girls. One victim told Casey that her abusers still had not been arrested or faced any legal action for their crimes. “I’m still seeing my abusers driving young girls in cars — they’re untouchable,” she said. “We’ve had no arrests, no charges, evidence is still being lost.”

The Rotherham community leaders we spoke with were somewhat more optimistic. Shafiq said that police had made several arrests in the last few months. Three men were arrested in February on suspicion of being involved in the abuse. There have also been a number of additional inquiries into agency failures, including one launched in mid-December by the National Crime Agency, Britain’s version of the FBI.  

The Jay report led to several high-profile resignations, including by the leader and chief executive of the Rotherham Council, as well as the South Yorkshire police commissioner and the head of Rotherham’s children’s services. And, as we have seen, the Casey report led to the mass resignation of the Rotherham Council’s cabinet in February.

The Casey report also prompted Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party in Parliament, to declare that he was “deeply sorry” that his party had “let people down in Rotherham.” It was important, he said, that the Labour Party “learn the lessons” from Rotherham.

Allen Cowles noted that even Labour Party officials are now “coming around” to the role that political correctness played in the scandal. Cowles, who is standing as a parliamentary candidate this year, said that he is “hopeful that coming out of this scandal will be the recognition that we must never again allow a PC culture to threaten the security of our children.”

On the spiritual side of things, Shafiq said that local Muslim leaders have been campaigning to stop the abuse: “We now see a number of imams speaking out on this.” Last September, Shafiq and other local Muslim leaders led a demonstration of some 200 people to denounce the sexual abuse and stand in solidarity with the victims.

Canon Bliss said that soon after the Jay report was issued his church held an interdenominational evening of prayer that attracted some 600 people, including representatives from Rotherham’s two mosques. On the morning of the December day we visited, Bliss and Rotherham Minster had hosted an ecumenical carol-singing event in All Saints’ Square in honor of the victims.

Situated in the heart of the city, Rotherham Minster advertises itself as a place where “All are Welcome for All are Precious.” After two days in Rotherham, we left wondering whether that ideal will become reality in this town anytime soon. 

— Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C. Jordan Allott, a filmmaker, is executive producer of In Altum Productions. Ben Allen is a writer in Somerset, England. 

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