“More cock up than conspiracy.” Rotherham and issues of professional negligence and misconduct

This month saw the publication of six reports into varying aspects of historical issues in Rotherham associated with the child sexual exploitation scandal uncovered by Professor Alexis Jay three years ago.

The reports were originally commissioned in 2014 and 2015 following the Jay report and subsequent Casey report. What is not widely known is that several of the reports were ready for publication in early 2016 and that despite a number of requests for information, no-one in the council has been able or willing to explain the delay of over 18 months. All six reports; by different authors, and covering different issues – from complaints of stolen data, to an investigation into the performance, practice and conduct of senior employers of Rotherham MBC; were published on Wednesday 6 September 2017. The sheer amount of information in them is overwhelming and unlikely to be read by many who will instead rely on the summary of each report. While the intention may have been to release reports dealing with (sometimes) related issues, the result is that key points of each report have been engulfed in a tidal wave of information. To the cynical, this may well feel like a burying of any information that may prove controversial to the Council and an attempt to avoid intensive scrutiny of its past conduct.

The publication of the reports also came as a surprise to many, who were unware of their forthcoming release. Personally, (and as someone who has dedicated a significant number of hours to some of the investigations informing these reports) I became aware of their release by a member of the press seeking my thoughts on them. This was apparently due to an administrative error by the Council,  but it hardly helps restore faith in and encourage belief in its newly heralded era of transparent practice.

Included in the six reports, is one which is an independent investigation conducted by Gowling LLP into the performance, practice and conduct of senior employees of the Council from 1997-2013. The report was commissioned to advise the Council to decide whether there were grounds to take disciplinary action against current employees based on misconduct. It is worth noting that many of the employees referenced in the Jay report have either retired or moved on to other employment. The outcome? None of the employees investigated (a number of whom refused to co-operate with the investigation) were found to be guilty of any ‘culpable behaviour’ that would warrant disciplinary action or review of their local government pensions.

In the word of the author Mark Greenburgh, the response of the Council to issues of child grooming, rape and torture was ‘more cock up than conspiracy’.  This is an exceptionally poor choice of words. It calls to mind a hapless series of events, a course of action where no real harm was done. This so called ‘cock up’ involved highly skilled and well paid individuals looking the other way while receiving clear information about the grooming, rape and torture of a significant number of children. It is true that at that time knowledge of CSE was in its infancy, but what the report fails to acknowledge is the number of reports, presentations, and training sessions that myself and others delivered to raise awareness of the issue locally with these same individuals and their counterparts. And even if the complexities and nuances of the abuse were not recognised – we were sharing information on a daily, weekly and monthly basis about the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable children, many of them in the care of the local authority. There was medical evidence of sexual activity with underage children, with adult men often being the father of teenage pregnancies. Physical injuries that  in some cases required hospital treatment. Children being found and sometimes arrested in the homes of adult men where clearly those children were at serious risk of harm. Children being encouraged to take Class A drugs so that they developed addictions. Trauma upon trauma upon trauma; horror after horror after horror; and most of it beyond the imagination of ordinary citizens. But it didn’t have to be beyond the imagination of professionals in Rotherham because I and others were constantly providing details and evidence of it.  And yet no action was taken to protect those children and those future victims that were identified as being at risk. If that does not meet the test of malpractice, gross misconduct and ‘culpable behaviour’, it should be asked what would?

The report describes how in December 2004 a report raised concerns about CSE with several senior officers in the council for the first time. This is incorrect. My work, funded by the Home Office, was presented at different meetings from 2001 to 2003, including one Area Child Protection Committee meeting. My final report of 2003 detailing the findings of my research, and outlining the known extent of the problem in Rotherham as well as concerns about professional responses was distributed far and wide – including to directors of service. The Chief Executive was aware of the Pilot and the concerns I was raising. It is interesting to read that a number of those interviewed for the investigation seem to have suffered from significant (and convenient) memory loss.

In a report hampered by lack of evidence, it is inevitable that there would be some inconclusive findings.  I do question why aspects of the report were commissioned at all when it was already known and remarked upon in the Jay report that documentary evidence of some of the allegations had been lost, misplaced or otherwise disposed of. The reality is however, that the length of time taken and cost of the investigations has taken us exactly nowhere in understanding the conduct of those professionals formerly employed by Rotherham MBC.  Considerable criticism has been made of South Yorkshire Police and their responses to CSE both during the Home Office Pilot period and afterwards. The responsibility for failing to protect victims of child sexual exploitation and in addressing the risks posed by identified adult men (now convicted and in prison) however cannot rest solely with the Police. Those working in statutory services, particularly children’s social care, also had a clear duty to act and did not. I do not accept that they did not have the tools or skills to respond. Other local authorities were achieving this, and they did not have the benefit of a specialist CSE project or a Home Office research pilot.

 

While the findings of the Gowling LLP report is difficult to comprehend and disappointing (but not altogether surprising) my thoughts turn to those who need the answers they need and deserve to move on with their lives. To simply say that Rotherham Council is a different organisation, and has addressed the failings of the past is simply not good enough.

I will be one of the few scrutinising and responding to each report and will continue to raise difficult and uncomfortable questions about the past failings of those professionals in Rotherham. I will do so because those who experienced unimaginable abuse in Rotherham deserve to know the truth and to see those who so badly let them down brought to account.

Two days after the reports were published at a total cost of £440,000.00 to the tax payer, I cannot escape the thought – how much preventative work for vulnerable children, and support for victims of child sex abuse, could that have funded in the area?

“Fabulous session!

“The course was extremely well devised and prepared.