The former Chief Prosecutor who brought the Rochdale ‘grooming gang’ to justice believes the Home Secretary’s rhetoric will have real life consequences
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As the Chief Prosecutor who led the teams that brought, among others, the so-called Rochdale grooming gang to justice in 2012 for the abuse of up to 47 young girls, I was fortunate to lead the national response.
I prosecuted ‘grooming gangs’ one month and ‘paedophile rings’ the next – not my words but the media shorthand for where offenders might include black or brown men; and the other group which was exclusively white.
There is sadly no community in which women and girls are not at risk from men and sexual predators.
I prosecuted people from more than 25 countries, not including the EU, for sexual offences and trafficking in the last three years of my prosecutorial career. In that same period, victims of trafficking and sexual offending came from 64 countries, not including the EU. But the vast majority of these crimes are carried out by white British males.
Suella Braverman’s recent attempt to blame child sexual abuse largely on British Pakistanis grooming gangs was unfortunately timed to coincide with the conviction of 21 white abusers in the “largest child sexual abuse ring in the West Midlands”, as it was reported. Notice how it is “child sexual abuse” when it involves white people. Words are important.
After the conviction of the ‘Rochdale grooming gang’, the far-right realised that my prosecuting it, when others hadn’t, damaged their narrative. How could they argue that all brown men are abusers when a brown man led the team that brought them to justice?
So they wrote posts on Facebook and other social media channels telling their followers that “I had deliberately not prosecuted the case” – flying in the face of the facts. So for the first time in a prosecutorial career of more than 20 years, I had thugs outside my home, I had panic alarms placed in each room, and my kids could only go to school in taxis for their security.
I nearly quit my job because of the impact it had on my family. Yet, I got every decision right in that case. That’s what words can do.
The Home Secretary’s words played to a particular constituency, which have been fed a mountain of stories of these brown gangs terrorising towns. The research, however, paints a different picture.
The first substantial study was carried out by the Children’s Commissioner in 2013, which concluded that the sexual abuse of children takes place in every “town, village or hamlet”. The next big contribution was the Government’s own Office for National Statistics which shockingly reported in early 2020 that “at least 3.1 million Britain’s were sexually assaulted as children.” That’s one in 20 of us.
Brits are also the third-largest consumer of indecent images of children, behind only American and Canada. Again, I can’t recall anything other than white men who had this material. Also, two-thirds of child sexual abuse that is reported to the police has been perpetrated by a family member or someone close to the child. Again, they are predominantly white.
When I prosecuted one so-called grooming gang in a northern town, the conviction of the (mainly white) abusers led, according to police data, to a significant reduction in drug supply, because the abusers were also the biggest drug gang. However, the Home Secretary would rather fight a ‘culture war’ than a war against serious criminality.
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What she said is highly dangerous to potential victims of sexual abuse.
Because there is no one type of victim or survivor or one type of perpetrator. If we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of expecting a specific model, we create blind-spots for perpetrators to exploit. We also run the risk of failing to identify black and minoritised children who have also suffered terrible harm at the hands of abusers, little boys, those with disabilities and those who are not from white working-class backgrounds.
We are united in our horror at child sexual abuse and all want to build a country in which every perpetrator responsible for these terrible crimes is identified and punished. But we cannot restrict our thinking to a single model of offending and leave victims unheard and abusers unpunished.
Nazir Afzal is a lawyer and was the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for North-West England
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