A “vacuum of information” on the characteristics of grooming gangs is fuelling continued abuse and allowing extremists to exploit it, MPs have said.
In a delayed debate sparked by petitions on the issue, several politicians said a report published by the Home Office had not answered the questions many hoped it would.
Tom Hunt, a Conservative member of the Petitions Committee who opened Wednesday’s debate, said many victims he had spoken to “feel that the report doesn’t go far enough”.
“They believe it only touches upon the issues and if it is the start of something more significant then OK, but if it is the end of it they would be very unsatisfied,” he told the House of Commons.
“They feel this was an issue that was swept under the carpet … [and] if it is the case that if certain crimes are disproportionately committed by members of certain communities, we should be open and honest about that and address it.
“Because actually by sweeping it under the carpet it makes tensions and divisions worse down the line.”
The Home Office report said that although a number of high-profile grooming cases, including Rotherham, Rochdale and Telford mainly involved men of Pakistani ethnicity, “links between ethnicity and this form of offending” could not be proven.
The Home Office report said the “existing data would not answer the question of the relationship between ethnicity and child sexual exploitation,” adding: “Based on the existing evidence, and our understanding of the flaws in the existing data, it seems most likely that the ethnicity of group-based CSE offenders is in line with child sexual abuse more generally and with the general population, with the majority of offenders being white.”
It was published in December following a petition demanding its release, which was signed by more than 130,000 people – automatically triggering a parliamentary debate.
Conservative MP Sir John Hayes called the report a “study in obfuscation” and called for action on known modus operandi for grooming gangs, such as the use of taxis to find and pick up victims.
Simon Fell, the Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness, said there was a “clear appetite for more information” and that faith could only be restored in the ability for public institutions to deal with grooming gangs through transparency.
Telling of how far-right protests broke out in Barrow-in-Furness during the first coronavirus lockdown, he accused people with “vested interests of stirring up tensions to serve their own ends”.
“They take the vacuum of information that forms when investigations start and court processes begin and exploit people’s fears and worse natures, filling the void with misinformation and conjecture that serves no one but themselves,” he added.
“While every single case is reprehensible…individual cases do not mean an epidemic or a cover-up. We’ve got a burning need to restore the faith in processes.”
Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, said she had received threats from both the far right and far left over her campaigning.
“I fail to understand why this topic is so emotive,” she added. “Where there is a clear picture of gangs that are similar profile involved in sexual abuse and exploitation, this should be investigated without fear or favour – as any other gang-related crime would be.”
Labour MP Jess Phillips said victims had been used as “political footballs”, adding: “This issue is not a tool to be further exploited”.
She said the delay to the publication of the Home Office report had “meant that further distrust and misdirection on this issue was allowed to gain traction” and called for swift action on its findings.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton said sexual exploitation could happen “anywhere and to everyone”, warning that stereotypes about either the characteristics of victims or abusers could cause crimes to be missed.
Sammy Woodhouse expresses shock at Rotherham council decision to allow rapist rights to child
Several MPs urged the government to back a law proposed by Rotherham survivor and whistleblower Sammy Woodhouse, which would give victims the right to have their criminal records automatically reviewed, and crimes associated with their grooming removed.
Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price questioned why a debate on such a vital issue had to be triggered by the Petitions Committee, and held “at the fag end of the parliamentary day”, saying it showed that victims are “not getting the attention they deserve”.
As well as the petition on the Home Office report, MPs were also responding to a second petition calling for a public inquiry into grooming gangs.
Victoria Atkins, the minister for safeguarding, suggested one would not be taking place because grooming gangs had already been examined by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
She said that evidence was taken on grooming in September and October, and a report would be published in autumn.
“This should never have happened and must not happen again,” Ms Atkins said. “Political or cultural sensitivities must not deter agencies from preventing and investigating these terrible crimes.”
Ms Atkins said the Home Office report on grooming gang characteristics was “by no means the end of our work on this issue” and the Home Office hoped to improve data collection, including on the ethnicity of offenders.
She added that work was ongoing to better protect children and tackle perpetrators under a new Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy.