04:26, October 21 59 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-21 04:26:05
Austerity harms hunt for sexual abuse gangs, says ex-prosecutor

Potential victims of grooming gangs are no safer now than when the issue became a national scandal almost a decade ago, according to the Crown Prosecution Service’s former lead on child sexual abuse and violence against women and girls.

Speaking after 20 men were found guilty on Friday of belonging to a gang that raped and abused girls as young as 11 in the west Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, Nazir Afzal said the government’s austerity programme had seriously undermined attempts to protect victims.

Afzal, who is also a former chief prosecutor for the north-west of England and in 2011 reopened the infamous Rochdale grooming case, said cuts to the policing budget and a loss of vital local services had created a “perfect storm” of challenges that meant perpetrators were getting away with child sex abuse.

“Austerity has come at the wrong time,” he said. “When finally voices are being heard, finally authorities are beginning to do their job properly and finally the NGO sector are being listened to, there isn’t any money to go around. They are doing this with one hand behind their back. As a consequence, clearly people will not get justice.”

Afzal cited one typical example of the cuts: a van that would regularly pass by fast-food outlets to help identify potentially vulnerable girls has now been axed by the local council because of budget constraints.

He said that the Rochdale case – which became the subject of the BBC series Three Girls – had led to dramatic improvements in how the justice system approached the issue, but that these had subsequently been compromised.

“One of the problems with austerity has been that the very first thing that goes is training. Organisations that should have been upping their training have done the bare minimum.”

Also, he said, statutory agencies had targeted their most highly paid senior staff for redundancy. “It’s almost like a perfect storm.”

Afzal, the first Muslim to be appointed as a chief prosecutor, also spoke on the issue of abuse and race, saying that although the debate was often framed around the idea of Asian men as perpetrators, white men were responsible for the vast majority of child sex abuse cases: “Intelligence has suggested that when you prosecute Pakistani men and put them in jail, white men step into that void.”

On Saturday, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, came in for severe criticism after tweeting about “Asian paedophiles”, in reference to the Huddersfield gang whose members were found guilty of more than 120 offences against 15 girls. Labour MP David Lammy was among those who felt that the minister, by “singling out” ethnicity, had pandered to the far right.

Afzal said that one characteristic of the grooming cases that did need highlighting was an apparent north-south divide in authorities’ approach to the issue. As the Welsh government’s new adviser on violence against women, he believes that the southern half of England has seemingly adopted a position of not fully investigating the issue.

“When it first happened, people said, ‘this is just a northern thing’ – mainly because we in the north were looking. And if you don’t look, you don’t find.

“The perceptions is that northern towns and the Midlands have got a better handle on it, but London, the south-east, the south-west really are not focusing on it and claiming they don’t have any problems.”

He said that, apart from high-profile cases like those prosecuted in Oxford and Aylesbury, there was a conspicuous lack of convictions.

“There have been hardly been any cases south of Birmingham. What the hell is going on? Is it because there is no problem? I don’t accept that at all. Is it because it’s not a priority? I hope that not’s true. I do think it’s that thing about not turning over a stone.”

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