What went wrong in Rotherham

By Sam Clayden | 12 September 2017

For more than two decades, from the late 1980s through to the 2010s, the child sexual exploitation scandal went largely unchallenged in Rotherham. Not until 2012 was it brought to national attention. It took another two years for the full scale of the problem to be comprehended: some 1,400 children were systematically abused between 1997 and 2013 by a ‘conservative estimate’.

Two major reports – the first from Alexis Jay, commissioned by the council, and the second by Louise Casey, commissioned by then communities secretary Eric Pickles – forensically picked apart the shortcomings of the council. The conclusion of each was institutional and systemic failure.

But despite steady progress in the council (see box), the scars in the community remain. A cacophony of pleas for answers still echo not just around the town, but across the whole country and even further afield – the scandal has been watched across the globe since the Jay report.

Last week, the council released six long-awaited independent reports, each delving into different areas of alleged failure.

The most anticipated of these was perhaps the report investigating the performance, practice and conduct of senior employees at the council, which included references to people still working in local government. The paper made recommendations that the findings should be referred to 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.

Doncaster MBC has carried out investigations, as has East Riding of Yorkshire Council, which also has a current serving employee who was working at Rotherham during the CSE scandal. Liverpool City Council has not yet investigated the role of Mr Fitzgerald.

But the report came as a blow to many of those in Rotherham seeking answers. Report author Mark Greenburgh, a lawyer at Gowling WLG, did not go so far as to allege any individual culpability. He concluded that 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’.

It continued: ‘It is important to be clear that we have not found that either of these people [Mr Fitzgerald or Ms Wilson] 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.

‘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.’

Local MP Sarah Champion described the reports as a ‘complete wasted opportunity to allow the town to move forward. She said: ‘I had hoped that today’s publication of the reports into Rotherham MBC preventing child sexual exploitation 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… it appears that no individual at [the council] has yet been held to account for their role.’

The investigators did not have the powers to force individuals to cooperate, and some did not take up the opportunity to be interviewed, including Mr Fitzgerald.

The president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), Jo Miller, lambasted those who refused to cooperate with the investigations. She 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 Chris Read added: ‘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.’

In a statement, Mr Fitzgerald said he believed ‘just six of the 1,400 cases’ occurred during his tenure.

He continued: '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.'

With some of the revelations emerging from the reports, many will remain furious that individuals will not be held accountable for their actions – or inaction – during the period. The papers paint a picture of an organisation hampered by incompetence and ‘questionable’ decisions.

Among the most damning was a report that found Rotherham MBC's children’s services department was not ‘child focused at all times'. The report into 15 individual cases noted a complete lack of focus on the welfare of children and ‘widespread systemic failure’ within children’s social care at the council.

It read: ‘While it is not possible for senior managers to know and have oversight of every single case or the circumstances of every single child, it is nonetheless their responsibility to ensure that organisational culture and working practices are such that staff understand that services exist in order to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.’

In another report, investigators revealed that the councils were alerted to links between the taxi service and CSE by the Home Office in 2002, Dr Angie Heal in March 2006 and via an email in November 2010. Author of the report John Riddell wrote: ‘These reports were in the hands of Rotherham MBC but do not appear to have been shared with those responsible for taxi licensing and enforcement.’

Mr Riddell found the taxi licensing management department ‘suffered difficulties with a divided site, staff shortages and staff absence’. He continued: ‘I have identified individual failures but there was a collective failure by licensing enforcement and management to confront the problem.’

Another report highlighted a similar failure by the council to investigate a situation that could have changed the course of history. Rotherham MBC did not follow up claims that files and computer records relating to CSE were removed from the office and computer of a Home Office researcher working in a council building. 

The report concluded that ‘on the balance of probability’ it was likely files were removed from key coded offices in 2002.

The researcher filed a grievance against the authority. However, following the individual’s departure from the council, Rotherham MBC closed the grievance and did not follow up the matter.

The report claimed that by failing to pursue the issue, the council ‘missed an opportunity to confirm at the time whether any removal of documents and/or impairment of computer files had occurred or not’.

Despite the reports’ apparent failure to provide a sense of closure for the town, the papers do highlight some important lessons for local government more generally.

SOLACE director Graeme McDonald said: ‘There are clearly lessons for councils regarding children’s services in terms of practice. However we should not lose sight of the broader lessons around corporate approaches to children more generally. By that I mean the linking of issues around the relationships with partners and other parts of the local authority.

‘It is a reminder that children’s services isn’t just the responsibility of those working directly within the children’s services department. This is not the first example where the culture of the organisation is as important in its failure as procedure. It was caused as much by culture as it was by procedure.’

In recent years high profile cases of child grooming have surfaced in towns and counties across the country, from Newcastle to Oxfordshire. Newcastle City Council chief executive Pat Ritchie told The MJ there was evidence of child sexual exploitation in ‘just about every town and city’ in the UK. The sector cannot afford to be complacent about learning from Rotherham.

Rotherham MBC’s strategic director of children and young people, Ian Thomas, believes the council has made ‘good progress from a low starting point’. Dan Peters reports

An independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in Rotherham by Professor Alexis Jay found that at least 1,400 girls were abused in the town over a 16-year period.

Since then, at least 18 men have been arrested and eight charged as part of Operation Stovewood, which has more than 70 designated suspects and is in the process of engaging with more than 190 survivors.

Mr Thomas told The MJ that bringing people to justice ‘instilled confidence’. He said: ‘People really understand when bad guys go to jail. It’s a real signal that we won’t tolerate this in our town.

‘We’ve seen our CSE [child sexual exploitation] referrals go down at a time when we are more aware than ever of CSE and the signs of CSE.

‘The challenge we have in Rotherham is turning around almost two decades of failure. We are compliant with the statutory frameworks and more compliant with the law than we were before. Our challenge now is around the consistency of practice quality.’

Mr Thomas also points out that CSE cases represent less than 10% of all referrals to children’s services and often the ‘toxic trio’ of domestic violence, mental health issues and substance abuse lies behind serious case reviews.

In Rotherham, Mr Thomas says there are ‘reasons to be optimistic,’ with the commissioner model helping the council to turn itself around.

The government-appointed commissioner team noted steady improvement by the council in July and their intervention is expected to end in March 2019.

Commissioners now only have executive decision-making power over children’s services, special allowances, and the appointment and dismissal of any statutory officers.

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