When Newcastle hit the headlines with the latest major prosecution for sexual exploitation earlier this month, the city council was centre stage, with council chief executive Pat Ritchie heading up the press conference to announce the case.
The trials, which saw the conviction of seventeen men and one woman of nearly 100 offences, had been ongoing for a long time. The convictions came as part of Operation Sanctuary, a joint exercise with the police to prosecute sexual exploitation cases across Tyne and Wear.
Underneath the Sanctuary umbrella, Operation Shelter consisted of four trials, kept quiet until press reporting restrictions were lifted as the final case concluded. While the national press attention was distracted by the use of a convicted rapist as a paid informant, Newcastle City Council chief executive Ms Ritchie believes there is another important story to be told about how the council has worked with the police on sexual exploitation.
‘Operation sanctuary… came about because of two women, a child and an adult, who came forward within about the same week, to talk about what had happened to them in terms of sexual exploitation. One went into a police station and one disclosed to a social worker,’ Ms Ritchie tells The MJ. Those reports led to the police and the council joining forces to support victims and to encourage women to come forward.
‘Right form the beginning, after those first women came forward, we put a social worker in the police station in the west end of the city to work alongside the police and, out of that, we then established the joint sexual exploitation hub – jointly located police, adult and children’s social workers and people from voluntary victim support organisations.
‘In Newcastle, we went out of our way with the police to really encourage victims to come forward. For us it has always been all about supporting the victims. We said, if you come and talk to us there will be a social worker and the police working alongside each other, and we will listen to what you have to say. Whether or not you decide that you are going to take this to trial, the most important thing for us was to understand what was happening to victims of sexual exploitation.’
The process of getting people to come forward has been vigorous. Alongside the police, the council visited licensed premises, and raised public awareness of the issue. They visited schools, GP surgeries – any route to encourage women and girls to come forward and to make people aware of the problems to prevent more cases in the future.
If there is a unifying factor among the victims, it is that they are all vulnerable in one way or another – and the men who were found guilty have exploited that vulnerability. But what is perhaps different in Newcastle is that they have identified adult victims.
Similar high profile cases, such as those in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxfordshire, have focused on child sexual exploitation. In Newcastle, there were adult women, too. Ms Ritchie suggests this may be the case elsewhere. ‘What we have done is uncovered it here.’ She warns others should be vigilant too.
It creates a whole new set of issues when it comes to protecting over-18s. ‘We have used things like deprivation of liberties (DoL) legislation to try to take adults out of vulnerable situations. With children there are other powers we have because we have other means of protecting,’ Ms Ritchie says.
‘With a child you can take them into secure accommodation. There are powers. With an adult, it is a bit more complicated. We have tested the boundaries of some of the DoLs legislation to take adults out of the vulnerable and difficult exploitative situations.’
The council has commissioned a serious case review, which they believe is unique because it is a joint review between the adult and children’s safeguarding boards. It will look at eight representative cases of abuse, of adults as well as children and will report in December.
‘A lot of the work that the hub has done has been working with victims to help them tell their story, to help them understand what has been happening to them and to help them get out of that situation. And that is regardless of whether or not that ends up in charges.
‘That is difficult, painstaking work because the nature of sexual exploitation is based on fear, control and all that goes with that.’ Ms Ritchie says the social workers are proud of the women who have come forward.
The council is still working with women to bring more cases to trial – they expect more historic cases to be uncovered. A further trial under the Sanctuary umbrella – Operation Wren – is due to start shortly and a further trial will begin next year. They are ‘of a significant scale’.
While there has been much criticism in the media of the authorities not taking sexual exploitation cases further over fears of political correctness, Ms Ritchie says it was not the case in Newcastle. The council was clearly committed from the outset.
They have also worked closely with the police on ‘disruption’, examining all licensed premises and taxi licenses. So far, the council has revoked 25 taxi licenses and all renews and new licenses require drivers to go through a safeguarding training course. So far, 1,200 have gone through the course.
‘It helps taxi drivers be the eyes and ears of supporting women who are vulnerable – as part of the community pushing back against these sorts of crimes.
What the abusers have in common is that many of them work in the night time economy, in takeaways, licensed premises and as taxi drivers. While media attention often focuses on race issues, Ms Ritchie says it is not the problem.
‘What unites these men is that they are praying on vulnerable girls and women. What they have in common is the exploitation of vulnerability.
‘In the case of Newcastle they come from different communities… the community they come from is a community that exploits women. They come from backgrounds such as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Iraqi, Kurdish, Iranian, a range of different backgrounds. These communities came out clearly in a statement to condemn this behaviour. They are appalled by what has been happening through this network.’
Nevertheless, the council has worked with elected members to raise awareness of any tensions that arise between its different community groups, and is monitoring far right activity. ‘So far there is no indication of any spike in race crimes since the reporting but that is something we are very aware of, she says. ‘We have good community relations by and large in Newcastle… but we are alive to the threat that this might cause greater tensions.’
Moving forward, Ms Ritchie is determined to learn lessons from what has happened in
Newcastle, both in the city and beyond, and to shine a light on the dark side of what has happened in the city.
‘Newcastle is a great city, but that shouldn’t mean we don’t raise awareness… we should be clear that that’s not acceptable in our city and we are going to tackle that. We will continue to be here for the victims and we will continue, through the hub, to offer ongoing support. That’s our role. We will continue to work with the women who come forward, for as long as it takes.’
The serious case review will report in December and she is hopeful there will be a recognition of the ordeal victims are put through in order to convict their abusers.
‘This was a long process and the victims had to give evidence a number of times. Recovering from this sort of exploitation and abuse is a really challenging thing and there is ongoing damage, but if you have to be challenged and tell your story multiple times and be cross-examined multiple times, that’s a really difficult process to go through.
‘We should be proud of what the victims have done to bring these men to justice.’
She is also clear that this is not just an issue in one city. ‘What is happening in Newcastle is not unique. It is happening in other parts of the country. When you really look for it and really work to bring the victims forward…. We’ve been shocked about the numbers, but that is a factor of encouraging and providing a safe space for victims to come forward.’
As investigations continue across the rest of the country, Ms Ritchie says there needs to be a national debate about the issues around sexual exploitation.
‘There is a need to think about how does local government learn from that and also support one another, but at the same time really try to confront some of the difficult issues that the sanctuary and shelter trials have brought to the fore.
‘With all the blaze of publicity… I wanted to get over to other partners in local government what is happening. But I don’t think this is something we can stop talking about.
‘There is a role for the LGA, for government, for The MJ, for all of us as leaders of local government, to learn from the various different places where this is happening… around how we along with partners to respond to it.
‘And it’s not an easy issue.’