It is “likely files were removed…and computer records impaired” belonging to a project looking into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham, an investigation has found.
While nobody has been found responsible, an audit has concluded “there might well have been strong motivation for individuals to prevent” information being reported to statutory agencies.
A separate investigation into the theft of 21 laptops from the council, including five containing personal data relating to children, adults, and staff, said it was “understandable” people thought Rotherham had “covered-up the facts” due to its poor handling of the incident.
The findings have been published by Rotherham MBC alongside a series of other independent investigations into the role of council staff during the child sex abuse scandal in the town.
A 2014 report by Alexis Jay found at least 1,400 children were sexually abused in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013. A subsequent report by Dame Louise Casey found the council was not fit for purpose and was more concerned about protecting its own reputation than its most vulnerable citizens.
One audit investigation looked into the alleged removal of files and impairment of computer records belonging to a former researcher in Rotherham’s Risky Business office. Risky Business was a project first established in 1997 to look into CSE in the town.
In April 2002, one employee funded by the Home Office noticed files relating to her work had gone missing from a locked cabinet, although there was no sign of a forced entry. It is alleged records on a computer were also impaired.
While the former employee was able to produce a grievance letter relating to the alleged incident, the investigation “found no unequivocal evidence to show that any Rotherham Council managers leading the Risky Business project were told about” it and added council officers “denied any knowledge” of it happening.
The allegations were not reported to the police because the researcher claimed they were told not to by superiors, the report said.
A number of “respected” individuals and organisations told investigators they believed files were removed and the researcher was found to be a “very credible” witness. But other individuals advancing opposing arguments were “similarly credible”, the report noted.
“However, on the basis of our investigation and taking into account the circumstantial evidence available our conclusion is that on the balance of probability it is likely files were removed from the Risky Business office and computer records impaired,” the report said.
While there was “no evidence” to suggest any of the council officers interviewed as part of the investigation were involved in the alleged incident, the report noted: “The work of Risky Business was gaining profile in 2002 and with what is known now about the exploitation of children, there might well have been strong motivation for individuals to prevent the information held in Risky Business files from being reported to statutory agencies.”
Rotherham rapped for response to laptop thefts
In October 2011, 21 laptops were stolen from the council’s Norfolk House building where staff within the children and young person’s directorate were based.
While the laptops were password protected they were not encrypted.
While the council immediately reported the incident to the police and instigated its own investigation and assessed the risks to service users it was decided they should not be told about the thefts.
A decision by the senior leadership team outside of a formal meeting was also taken to not inform the Information Commissioner Office.
The ICO first became aware of the incident after a report about the thefts appeared in a local newspaper.
In April 2012 Rotherham told the ICO none of the data on the stolen laptops was sensitive personal data. The ICO disagreed and in January 2013 the council accepted the commissioner’s view.
The internal audit report said the way the council responded to enquiries from the press and public on this matter was, while not inaccurate, “far from clear and reflected the evasive way” in which it dealt with the issue.
“Taken together, it is understandable that others have formed a view that the council has covered-up the facts,” the report said.