There seems to be a political consensus that the sexual abuse of more than 1,400 girls in Rotherham, revealed in the recent Jay report, was caused by ‘political correctness’. And there is no doubt that race played a role in the horrors perpetrated in the town. Plain-speaking Muslim commentators like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown have set out the issues. She said in the Independent:
‘I partly blame the families 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.’
For warriors against PC it’s very satisfying to read such views. But there is a danger that, in stressing political correctness as the root cause, commentators are missing out some more fundamental reasons that industrial scale sex abuse could go on in Rotherham. After all, only a tiny minority of Muslim men were involved in abusing girls. Furthermore it has become apparent that many Muslim girls were abused too — but a culture of shame stopped them from coming forward.
Issues around gender and class were at the root of events in Rotherham, together with the ease of covering up scandals in a one-party town. And there may have been something in the nature of the patriarchal political establishment, where party bosses do deals with self-styled ‘community leaders’, which made those who could have done something prepared to turn a blind eye and unwilling to disrupt cozy arrangements.
It is worth noting that the abuse did not just involve a handful of girls and a single gang. Hundreds of young women (and some young men) were victimised in plain sight. And it went on for years: anybody who took a cab in Rotherham late at night, bought a kebab or knew the families of either the victims or the perpetrators would have had an inkling as to what was going on. But something made them blind to it.
That ‘something’ was a toxic mix of class and misogyny. A few of the girls were from middle class homes. But the majority were working class girls, many of them in care. It is not just their abusers who thought that they were worthless. So too did the police, councillors and local worthies who dismissed these girls as ‘rubbish’ not worth bothering about.
Many of the working class communities of the de-industrialised North have been left behind and these young girls were on the far edge of the marginalised. They were not worth reading reports about, not worth upsetting delicate (and vote-winning) relationships with ‘community leaders’ over and it wasn’t worth noticing their hanging about late at night with older men who clearly meant them no good. Senior policemen could insist that an abused eleven year old was in a consensual relationship. When the girls went to the police they were ignored. And when they tried to report abuse they could end up arrested themselves.
There has been–quite rightly–much attention paid to the senior councillors and officers who claimed not to know the full extent of the scandal. Their claims are clearly preposterous. In 2002, 2003 and 2006 external reports into the extent of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham were published. And in 2004 and 2005 there were seminars held for councillors and senior police which the Jay report points out ‘presented the abuse in the most explicit terms’.
Something must be done about the ease with which senior officers like Directors of Social Services are able to avoid taking responsibility for scandalous child abuse on their watch. Many go on to even higher paid jobs. Possibly government needs to look at the contractual arrangements for senior officers to ensure that, when these scandals happen, it is easier to remove them.
But the truth about child sex abuse scandal in Rotherham is that, at the highest level of the local establishment, nobody cared. Ultimately this, more than ‘political correctness’ explains why the tragic victimisation and abuse of these girls could have happened on such a scale and continued for so long.
Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.