There is little evidence to suggest Rotherham has a unique problem with child abuse and only honest debate can uncover the scale of this crime, writes LGC’s acting editor
Professor Alexis Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham is packed full of horrific lines cataloguing the nature and scale of the abuse and the apparent callousness of public officials who were supposed to tackle it.
However, perhaps the most worrying passage is the one that says the lack, at the time, of standardised reporting of child sexual exploitation meant it is hard to form “reliable judgments about whether child sexual exploitation was more or less prevalent in Rotherham than in other parts of the country”.
Indeed the report says the existence of one initiative in the town, the Risky Business project, made referrals easier than in other places, meaning “the problem would have been more visible in Rotherham than in some other parts of the country”.
The sad truth is that Rotherham isn’t unique. We don’t even know if it’s unusual. One suspects the situation in the town isn’t common but there is little evidence to conclusively back this up.
A back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests the problem in Rotherham is not necessarily any worse than it is in other places.
According to the 2011 census, 257,300 people lived in Rotherham; it therefore made up 0.46% of the population of England and Wales. According to the NSPCC, there were 23,000 sex offences against children in the year up to March 2013. If Rotherham had a proportionate share of them, it would have had 105 a year – slightly more than the average annual figure of 87.5 cases recorded in the town during the period covered by the probe.
It is worth noting that reported cases of abuse have risen nationally in recent years, meaning comparisons between Rotherham in the period covered by Professor Jay and the NSPCC’s more recent figure are not necessarily valid, and there may be other factors such as how abuse is recorded which need to be taken into account.
Nevertheless LGC is keen to present this figure as a challenge to other people, be it in the media, the wider local government and child protection to prove that Rotherham’s problem is worse than that in other areas.
This is not to excuse the failings of Rotherham MBC and its individual officers and members who failed to take appropriate action against the perpetrators of this most vile of crimes. Far from it, all people who really did turn a blind eye to abuse or did nothing to tackle the perpetrators of it must be held accountable. But one fears that it is not only in Rotherham that people in this position can be found.
Child abuse is a national problem and the evidence suggests that the problem is in no way diminishing. The government’s announcement this summer that it was establishing an independent inquiry into whether public bodies are doing enough to protect children from abuse is to be welcomed. However, it is vital that professionals in children’s services are encouraged to enter the debate in an environment in which honesty is encouraged. The perennial dominance of the blame game above honest debate serves only to impair efforts to protect children.