Article in The Tablet published 6 September 2014 (published with some small edits)
When some future David Kynaston, the great social-economic-cultural historian of the post-war years, comes to write a history of the recent era there will be a special chapter reserved for Rotherham.
Rotherham represents an entire failure of politics, government, policing and state agencies. More importantly it raise moral questions but why in Britain we allowed such evil to sink roots.
The usual rent-a-quote MPs are out demanding that heads should roll and some should. But they are the heads of senior police officers who refused to listen to the pleas of abused children. They are the heads of state prosecutors who have allowed sex crime, including massive internal and external trafficking, to continue unchecked.
They are the heads of the liberal establishment – Tory as much as Labour – who in their understandable wish not to be described as racist or Islamaphobic turned a blind eye to the often rampant misogyny and denial of equality to women in the deeply masculinist and patriarchical Kashmiri Muslim community.
Blaming imams is an easy shot like blaming every parish priest in Ireland for the church’s paedophile shame.
The question of crime and the question of culture need to kept separate even if the former grows out of the latter.
As one of Rotherham’s three MPs from 1994 until 2012 I was never told about the criminal activities of some taxi drivers, who drove young girls to places where they were abused, until the crimes led to court cases.
MPs on the whole do not know about crimes taking place in their constituencies. No one came to my surgery to report an abused child. But is the “I didn’t know, No-one told me” line a sufficient excuse?
Let me start with a personal confession. I have to accept my shame in the way I abused the MPs’ expenses system that led to me spending time in Belmarsh and Brixton (at least the Old Bailey judge was kind enough to say that I had made no personal gain and I had been cleared by a 20 month Met inquiry until MPs got to work). But that shame is as nothing to the shame I feel today that in my two decades as an MP I did not notice, sense, intuit what was going on within my own constituency of Rotherham involving members of the Muslim Kashmiri community.
My youngest child was born just after I became MP for Rotherham in 1994. He and his three sisters went out to play in parks in the town or went shopping with their grandmother without the slightest sense of worry or concern, so friendly are Rotherham folk of all backgrounds.
Yet underneath this friendly surface something evil and rotten was growing. Rotherham is poor. There is little economic hope. The youth unemployment rate amongst the 8,000 strong Kashmiri community is twice that for white school-leavers. So-called arranged – in truth compulsory marriage with cousins from Kashmir brought into new immigrants with no English from backgrounds of peasant poverty where women had no status or rights. Under Labour as under the Tories the Rotherhams of the north were ignored. The focus was on banking, financial services, and what was never discussed – the explosion in the lucrative sex business.
Scotland Yard says there are 2,000 brothels in London full of imported or trafficked girls and women. The Scottish Police earlier this month said there were 3,000 women working in brothels in Scotland. The internet porn business is hugely profitable. The sexualisation of childhood and the obsession of much of the media industry with selling images of women’s bodies to be gawped at in order to make money has made Britain notorious amongst modern democracies.
Kashmiri taxi drivers like their white equivalents looked at Page 3 of The Sun and got the message that women’s bodies were tradeable goods for male pleasure and profit.
Liberal-left bosses of the Crown Prosecution Service did little to encourage police and prosecutors to take action. A law was passed in 2009 making it a crime to pay for sex with a coerced or trafficked teenager. Most Rotherham victims fell into that category. In 2013, just nine prosecutions resulted in convictions. As with rape and domestic violence, the failure of the CPS and police to tackle the abuse of women and teenagers is a permanent shame.
South Yorkshire police was able to deploy hundreds of officers to protect the English Defence League as it organised its Muslim-hate marches in Rotherham. But the police could find no one to go undercover and break up the taxi driver grooming rings that were preying on girls from the late 1990s onwards. The first Home Office inquiry into this problem was in 2001. Its funding was cut and the researcher fired. If the Home Office could go into denial about the problem why should local government officials be braver?
A month ago the Economist called for prostitution to be treated like any other economic activity. Those Rotherham taxi drivers who took young women to service men in other towns in exchange for money would nod their heads in agreement.
I became aware of the Rotherham problem only after a great journalist, Andrew Norfolk of The Times, began his investigations. Norfolk was based in Leeds where a giant BBC newsroom sits. The journalists there did not look into what was happening but nor did the journalists on any local or weekly papers in South Yorkshire.
In Rotherham the political elites hated Andrew Norfolk. I saw powerful evidence of this in one meeting with leaders of the council and my fellow Rotherham MP Kevin Barron in Rotherham Town Hall where The Times journalist was aggressively denounced. I blew up. ‘For heavens’ sake. He’s a reporter. He reported what happened. We should be asking how it happened under our noses not blaming the messenger.’
This culture of denial pervaded police, prosecutors and politics. Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris benefited from it. The Guardian in 2009 reported that trafficking into and inside the UK was a ‘moral panic’ and did not exist. I had a spat on Newsnight with the great Jeremy Paxman, the voice of the liberal establishment, as he argued the Guardian line and I tried to explain that the exploitation of prostituted women, especially those trafficking within the UK, to service man should be taken seriously.
The Rochdale MP, Simon Danzcuk, has written a fine book on how the Liberal Democratic establishment protected a serial child abuser, Sir Cyril Smith, a firm favourite of the BBC in his prime. But Rochdale like Derby, Oxford and Greater Manchester also have seen Kashmiri Muslim taxi drivers and others convicted because, as in Rotherham, the state agencies were in denial for years about the abuse of young females to make money for taxi driver pimps. MPs love castigating dead opponents for their depravity but few MPs are willing to confront contemporary abuse of women by their own voters.
One brave MP, Ann Cryer who represented the Yorkshire constituency of Keighley from 1997 till 2010, spoke out about the sexism and oppression of young girls and women in the local Kashmiri communities. But Labour MPs in the region disparaged her behind her back. A friend who wrote about politics for the Guardian told me he tried to get a friendly article about Ann into the paper but the editors refused to run it.
Now some of the truth is out. But no one comes out of this well. Police who refused to investigate. Town hall chiefs who earn more than the prime minister sitting on reports. Politicians attacking the press, a liberal-left media and a political-media establishment now full of denunciation but unwilling to look in the rear-view mirror unwillingness to think differently about an issue involving race and minority ethnic communities.
There was something rotten in Rotherham. But it was part of a wider culture of denial about dark sides to modern Britain that we are scared to confront for what it reveals about ourselves.