Great Britain

Grooming gang review kept secret as Home Office claims releasing findings 'not in public interest'

The government is refusing to release official research on the characteristics of grooming gangs, claiming it is not in the “public interest”.

Survivors accused ministers of making “empty promises”, while a man who prosecuted abusers in Rochdale called for the Home Office to “show some courage and publish” its findings.

It comes after The Independent revealed that almost 19,000 suspected child sexual exploitation victims were identified by local authorities in just one year, sparking renewed calls for prevention efforts.

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Sajid Javid promised the review as home secretary in July 2018, pledging that there would be “no no-go areas of inquiry”.

“I will not let cultural or political sensitivities get in the way of understanding the problem and doing something about it,” he said at the time.

“We know that in these recent high profile cases, where people convicted have been disproportionately from a Pakistani background.

“I’ve instructed my officials to explore the particular contexts and characteristics of these types of gangs.”

But the government has made no further announcements on the review following Mr Javid’s move to the Treasury last year. It has, however, said it will soon publish a national strategy that will set out a “whole system response to all forms of child sexual abuse”.

In December, The Independent was told that the work had been completed but would only be used for internal policy-making and would not be publicly released.

In response to a freedom of information (FOI) request asking for the research carried out and any reports drawn up as a result, the Home Office confirmed it held the information but would not release it.

In a letter to The Independent, officials said they had applied a “public interest test” but the information was exempt from the act because it concerned the development of government policy.

“One of the main purposes of the exemption is to protect the ‘safe space’ necessary for ministers and officials to consider policy options in private without risk of premature disclosure,” it added. 

“Disclosure would risk pre-empting decisions still to be made by ministers. In addition, the information could be misleading if made public and used out of context.”

Rotherham grooming ring: seven men convicted of sexually exploiting vulnerable teenage girls

The Home Office’s FOI unit said the documents also included “operationally sensitive” information from police and could prejudice ongoing investigations.

The letter added: “We recognise that this topic in general and any insight and learning are matters of strong public interest, although it does not necessarily follow that it is in the public interest to disclose any specific information relating to it.”

Sammy Woodhouse, a Rotherham victim who helped expose the scandal, told The Independent she believed the research was going to be made public.

“I always got the impression they were going to do a full report and get something official,” she said.

“A lot of people were backing it, it’s ridiculous they’re not releasing it.

“We keep hearing ‘we’re going to do this and that’, and when it actually comes to it there’s nothing. It’s empty promises all the time.”

Another woman, who was also sexually abused by a grooming gang in Rotherham and wanted to remain anonymous, said she was “disappointed and frustrated” by the decision not to release the report.

“The government’s repeated failure to acknowledge the role of racism and religious bigotry in grooming gang crime has led to inadequate investigation, protection and prosecution,” she said.

“Prevention of future grooming gang crime can only come through counter-narrative sex and relationships education.”

The woman is campaigning for changes to hate crime guidance and the creation of a parliamentary committee to examine gender-based violence linked to faith and belief.

A former chief prosecutor who initiated charges against a grooming gang in Rochdale warned that far-right groups were using a “vacuum” of reliable information to spread their beliefs and gain support. 

Nazir Afzal said he had been calling for formal research on potential links between ethnicity and street-based abuse since 2012.

“The misinformation and anecdote are exploited by white supremacists and others with an agenda,” he added.

“The sooner we have evidence, the sooner we can truly confront it. The Home Office should show some courage and publish.”

Mr Javid’s original pledge was in response to a letter from a cross-party group of politicians who called for the Home Office to undertake research into common patterns of behaviour and drivers of grooming gangs.

Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, was among the signatories and voiced hope at the time that the review would prevent abuse and protect children.

The Home Office has said it will soon publish a national strategy that will set out a “whole system response to all forms of child sexual abuse”.

A spokesperson for the government department said: “Child sexual abuse is a sickening crime and predators who abuse children will face the full force of the law.

“We’re pursuing work on a number of fronts to understand the characteristics of group-based offending and the contexts in which it occurs. This includes ongoing work commissioned by the previous home secretary and will inform future government policies on child sexual abuse.

“New sentencing laws will also ensure the most serious violent and sexual offenders spend time in prison that matches the severity of their crimes, protecting victims and giving the public confidence in the criminal justice system.”