Senior officers at Rotherham MBC between 1997 and 2013 missed opportunities to uncover the scale of child sexual exploitation (CSE), a report examining their roles and performance has found.
The report by lawyer Mark Greenburgh, of Gowling WLG, said no one had ‘turned a blind eye’ but there was ‘not much evidence of inquiring minds or a purposive approach when evidence of what was happening did come to their attention’.
Most of the officers mentioned in the report no longer work in local government but Mr Greenburgh recommended that his report should be referred to the current employers of Liverpool City Council’s boss Ged Fitzgerald, who was Rotherham chief executive between 2000 and 2003, and Doncaster MBC’s Jacqueline Wilson, who was head of children and families between 2000 and 2004.
The report read: ‘It is important to be clear that we have not found that either of these people were uniquely culpable for the council’s response to emerging evidence of CSE, but there are points at which each missed opportunities to have changed the outcomes.
‘We recommend that those employers consider whether they wish to raise any of these matters with their employee in light of the content of this report, the findings of any internal investigation already conducted and the nature of the role and responsibilities now undertaken by the employee in their current role, to satisfy themselves that the learning has been adequately captured.
‘The way in which the council responded to CSE in Rotherham was not the responsibility or fault of any one person.
'It was the product of multiple and systemic failures.
‘Most senior officers with responsibility for the safeguarding of children (from chief executives to heads of service, as well as some members) across the relevant period knew that there were issues with CSE (or child prostitution as it was known prior to guidance issued in 2006) for the council, even if the extent and scope, later identified in the Jay Report, had not been realised.
‘Some positive work was done by the council, but its progress was hampered by organisational and attitudinal barriers.’
The report said the number of groups formed to tackle the issues was ‘indicative of an organisation that was endeavouring to get to grips with CSE but was struggling to find an effective way of doing so’.
It added: ‘One of the main problems in Rotherham was that no one had sole responsibility either for identifying CSE or for implementing strategies to tackle it.’
The report said Mr Fitzgerald, who declined to be interviewed as part of the investigation but agreed to provide written responses to questions, had received a letter in February 2003 claiming the council ‘obstructed significant planned research’ into CSE.
It continued: ‘Concerns of this nature deserved a response from the chief executive, but there is no reason to believe the absence of such was a deliberate strategy or that Mr Fitzgerald was involved in, or aware of any cover up.
‘It is clear that opportunities to look into the position in more detail in 2001, when Mr Fitzgerald had personal dealings with the police and again when he received external correspondence in 2002/03, were missed.
‘Had a more rigorous approach been taken by him then or if he had looked to establish the reasons behind the issues raised with the police or in the correspondence, his understanding of the issues and response by the council might have been very different.’
In a statement, Mr Fitzgerald said: 'For my part, I understand that my tenure as chief executive of Rotherham MBC between 2001 and 2003 saw just six of the 1,400 cases identified by Professor Alexis Jay in her 2014 report.
'Clearly, each case of CSE is totally unacceptable and an absolute tragedy for the child involved, but it bears stating that back then, the very term child sexual exploitation had yet to gain currency and our understanding of the issues was nowhere near as developed as it is today.
'While I take issue with some of the individual assertions in the report, which I feel are partial, the sexual exploitation of children is utterly heinous and, with the benefit of hindsight, there are lessons we can all learn about how to protect children and vulnerable young adults from sexual predation in future.'
The report also said Mike Cuff, who was Rotherham chief executive between 2004 and 2009, said he should have paid more attention to CSE ‘with the benefit of hindsight’ and that it was ‘surprising’ that John Gomersall, who was director of social services between 1999 and 2005, ‘remained apparently unaware of such a significant issue’ as CSE until a report to members in December 2004.
Phil Rogers, who had overarching responsibility for Rotherham’s youth service between 2001 and 2005, was also criticised by the report.
Mr Greenburgh wrote: ‘Mr Rogers said he had no knowledge of issues of child prostitution or CSE in Rotherham.
'This is very surprising to us.
'We recognise that memories fade but, for a manager in his position, with access to data and information, to have no knowledge at all implies either that he did not effectively line manage his service and/or did not absorb information provided to him.’
A number of senior officers and councillors, including former leader Roger Stone, chose not to engage with Mr Greenburgh’s team and could not be forced to speak to them.
President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, Jo Miller, said: ‘People can have a legitimate expectation that those who are paid by the public purse will participate fully with investigations when things go wrong. The survivors deserve better than silence.’
Current Rotherham leader, Cllr Chris Read, said: 'I take reassurance that we have been addressing the systemic failings within the council.
Many of the issues raised are familiar and work has long been under way to rectify them.
'It almost goes without saying that such failures cannot rest solely at the door of one person, but that doesn't mean that the failure to establish individual culpability is any easier to swallow.
'The reports we receive today are based largely on people who volunteered to take part.
'It is not beyond the realm of possibility that, with criminal investigation powers, there is still more to be learned about some of the people who failed Rotherham so badly.
'We have changed our council and we will keep doing so, to give every child the safety and the opportunities that I have had, and make Rotherham a beacon to the rest of the country.'
But Rotherham MP Sarah Champion called the investigation a 'wasted opportunity' to help survivors and the town.
She said: 'I had hoped that today’s publication of the reports into Rotherham MBC preventing CSE would draw a line under the catalogue of errors that led to our children being let down so badly by those supposed to protect them.
'However, despite these huge failures, leading to at least 1,400 victims being let down, it appears that no individual at Rotherham MBC has yet been held to account for their role.'