LGC commentary on the Rotherham abuse scandal reports
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Today’s top opinion: ‘Don’t delude yourself about your management style’
The six further independent investigations published yesterday into catastrophic failings at Rotherham MBC between 1997 and 2013, which resulted in at least 1,400 children being left at the mercy of multiple abusers, had given hope to survivors, their families and the wider community that those responsible would finally be held to account.
The previous reports by Alexis Jay and Dame Louise Casey exposed a council so dysfunctional that misogyny, harassment and bullying were commonplace while poor practice and abandoned responsibility were endemic. This toxic culture created a political and organisational vacuum in which desperate pleas for help from children were, at best, unheard.
The six reports subsequently commissioned by the council further examined the issues exposed by Professor Jay and Dame Louise. They raised expectations that the catalogue of devastating evidence against the council could form a strong case for individual blame, but those hoping for some form of closure were left disappointed.
In a summary of the findings of the investigation into the conduct of senior officers, law firm Gowling WLG concluded that “on the evidence available” the council’s response to CSE in Rotherham “was not the responsibility or fault of one person” but the product of “multiple and systemic failures”.
Jean Imray’s review of 15 individual cases brought into sharp focus the devastating consequences of the council’s failings. In particular she highlighted the case of Child E, who had suffered sexual abuse before she was raped at two different council residential homes.
Ms Imray described the case as the “most shocking” she had experienced during her 40-year career, but concluded that the poor practice she had reviewed was “indicative of widespread systemic failure rather than anything for which individual practitioners can be held to account”.
These conclusions – and similar ones reached by the other reports – were met with anger, frustration and claims of a “whitewash” from the public gallery, where some of the survivors and their families were sitting.
They questioned how the most senior members of staff employed at the council at the time could not be directly held to account for the disastrous long-term failures of the organisation they were responsible for.
Under repeated challenge to his conclusions, Growling WLG’s Mark Greenburgh said he was also frustrated by the process, but insisted he had found no evidence of conduct that would pass the test of criminal culpability.
Frustration and scepticism is understandable, particularly when poor council record keeping and missing data were frequently cited as reasons for preventing firm conclusions from being reached.
But it was the unwillingness of many former council staff to engage fully with the investigation that provoked the most anger and highlighted a significant weakness in the process – investigators had no legal authority to compel individuals to participate.
In relation to the investigation into senior managers, three former chief executives, Mike Cuff, Ged Fitzgerald (currently chief executive at Liverpool City Council) and Martin Kimber were among six senior managers who refused to be interviewed but responded to written questions.
A further 27 people – including Roger Stone, who was leader of the council between 2003 and 2014, and Shaun Wright, who was cabinet member for children and young people between 2005 and 2010 – either declined to take part in the process or did not respond to a request for interview.
This contributes to the belief that the latest reports offered little beyond what had already been highlighted in the Jay and Casey reports and the full picture of what happened in Rotherham may never emerge. As a result, questions about how this could have happened and who can be held to account have not been fully answered.
As Rotherham’s leader Chris Read (Lab) said yesterday: “I hope those who refused to take part, including those former Labour councillors, understand the consequences of their choice. Our survivors deserve far better than their miserable silence.”
Rotherham MBC has made significant improvements in recent times, highlighted by the fact more powers were returned to council in the summer.
These reports were meant to give survivors and those affected by the town’s child sexual exploitation scandal some sense of closure. While “failures cannot rest solely at the door of one person” Cllr Read echoed many people’s thoughts when he said “that doesn’t mean that the failure to establish individual culpability is any easier to swallow”.