Lizzie Dearden, The Independent, May 19, 2020
Research on the “characteristics” of grooming gangs is to be published by the government following a U-turn.
In response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by The Independent, the Home Office previously said releasing the paper would not be in the “public interest” in February.
The response sparked a government petition that has so far been signed by almost 126,000 people demanding the “release of the official research on grooming gangs undertaken by the government in full”.
In its initial reply, the government said the work announced by Sajid Javid in 2018 was “internal” and would inform an upcoming strategy on child sexual abuse.
But on Tuesday, the Home Office announced that it would “publish a paper into group-based child sexual exploitation in order to better understand the characteristics of group-based offending and help deliver justice for victims”.
“The work was commissioned by the previous home secretary to better understand the scale and nature of group-based child sexual exploitation, including the characteristics of offenders, victims and the context in which these crimes are committed,” a spokesperson added.
The Independent understands that the format of the document, to be published later this year, has not yet been decided.
An external reference group of experts is to be established to review the research before its publication.
Priti Patel, who has met with survivors and the National Crime Agency on the issue, said: “Victims of these sickening child sex abuse groups have told me how they were let down by the state in the name of political correctness.
“What happened to these children remains one of the biggest stains on our country’s conscience. It is shameful. I am determined to deliver justice for victims and ensure something like this can never happen again.”
Child sexual exploitation will be discussed by government, law enforcement and charity officials at a virtual Hidden Harms Summit on Thursday.
The announcement was made on the deadline set by a parliamentary committee considering whether to hold a House of Commons debate on why the research had not been released.
Earlier this month, the Petitions Committee told the Home Office to issue a revised response to the petition by 20 May because the original reply had “not directly addressed the request”.
“This should clearly state whether the government will publish its research into the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation,” committee chair Catherine McKinnel said.
She added that the Petitions Committee had “received a significant volume of correspondence complaining about the government’s response”.
Mr Javid first promised the review in July 2018, pledging that there would be “no no-go areas of inquiry”.
As home secretary, he said that abusers convicted in high-profile cases had been “disproportionately from a Pakistani background”, adding: “I will not let cultural or political sensitivities get in the way of understanding the problem and doing something about it.”
Mr Javid spoke about the ongoing work several times but the Home Office made no further announcements after he moved to the Treasury.
In its response to the petition, the government said it had completed a review of existing literature, spoken to investigators and safeguarding professionals to better understand the offenders and victims of grooming gangs.
Survivors of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham said they believed the research was going to be made public and accused the government of making “empty promises”.
Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, and the former chief prosecutor who initiated charges against a grooming gang in Rochdale were among those demanding its release.
Nazir Afzal OBE said an information “vacuum” had been exploited by the far right and that evidence was needed to develop effective prevention strategies.
“Despite the fact that most child sexual abuse takes place in family settings, followed by online and institutional communities, the least understood is so called grooming gangs,” he added.
Ms Champion said: “I’m glad it’s coming out but the frustration is that there’s not a publication date.
“I understand that the research needs to be peer reviewed but every day we are waiting there’s the possibility of another victim.”
In response to The Independent’s original FoI request, Home Office officials said they had applied a “public-interest test”, but the information was exempt from the FoI Act because it could be used for government policy and included “operationally sensitive” information from police.
“The information could be misleading if made public and used out of context,” the letter added.