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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 8 January 2013

Members present:

Mr Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Mr James Clappison

Michael Ellis

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Martin Kimber, Chief Executive, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, and Joyce Thacker, Strategic Director of Children’s and Young People’s Services, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, gave evidence.

Q710 Chair: Ms Thacker and Mr Kimber, thank you very much for coming to give evidence. The Committee is conducting a far-reaching inquiry into the issue of child grooming, and obviously Rotherham’s name has been mentioned in respect of a number of national articles and indeed in evidence that has been given to us. Ms Thacker, you have been in your current post since 2008, I understand, as the Strategic Director of Children’s and Young People’s Services.

Joyce Thacker: That is right.

Chair: Mr Kimber, you are the Chief Executive, so you have overall responsibility. Of course, it is Ms Thacker who has day-to-day management of this issue, but you will be aware of some of the issues involved, I am sure, in your position as Chief Executive.

Martin Kimber: You are correct, Chairman.

Q711 Chair: Ms Thacker, why has Rotherham failed so dismally to deal with the issue of child grooming?

Joyce Thacker: I do not think I would fully accept that we have failed dismally to deal with the issue. I think there are some historical issues here that we have managed over time to have an improved service. When you look back at practice from, say, a decade ago, things have substantially improved in that period of time. I would not necessarily agree with you that we have failed dismally to deal with this as an issue.

Q712 Chair: Let us look at the evidence. We have received evidence that the council identified 600 victims during the previous 10 years. In terms of what the police have done, only eight men have been arrested for offences against four children. In 2002 the Home Office research project found in fact that there were hundreds of girls who risked exploitation, and in 2010 an independent report described the localised grooming offences prosecuted in Rotherham as being at the top end of seriousness. We are talking about hundreds of victims, of vulnerable young girls who have not been protected, because, at the end of the day, what people are looking for are prosecutions, are they not?

Joyce Thacker: Prosecution is the icing on the cake, absolutely, but I think prevention is the key issue for me particularly. Prosecutions are very hard to achieve in child sexual exploitation. As a form of child abuse, it is probably one of the most difficult to secure convictions. That is not to say that we should not do that, but, looking back, when we talk about victims we are talking about young people who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, not necessarily victims of sexual exploitation. They are two very distinct things.

Q713 Chair: But do you accept the charge that is made against Rotherham that in fact you have not acknowledged publicly the existence of this problem? You have a lot of internal reports that have been conducted, but you have not published any of those reports. Is that right?

Joyce Thacker: I would say that in 2006 we held a major conference in Rotherham where one of our MPs spoke as a keynote speaker. There were nearly 200 delegates at that conference; many local people and journalists were present as well. That, in 2006, was a key event in our activity.

Chair: Yes. With the greatest respect, we are not concerned about conferences. We are concerned about protecting young girls, one of whom will be giving private evidence to this Committee later. We are looking at the Risky Business Intelligence Report for South Yorkshire-the council, of course, ran the Risky Business organisation or funded it-where it linked three members of a family to 61 girls. Of those 61 girls, 43 were said to be ex-girlfriends of one or more members of the family and 13 were said to have been raped, sexually assaulted or threatened by one or more of them. There was another example in March 2008 where a young 12-year-old girl was found in a car with a bottle of alcohol with a member of the same family who was then aged 22. There are countless examples. We have had evidence from the police and from a journalist from The Times about the problems in Rotherham, but you are telling us that you do not think this is a problem.

Joyce Thacker: No, I do think it is a problem. I am not denying that it is a problem, but I think the fact that you are trying to say that we perhaps have covered it up or that we have not dealt with it sufficiently is not the same thing.

Q714 Chair: You will send this Committee a copy of all reports that you have held internally that you have not published on these issues?

Joyce Thacker: I think you have a report that I have never seen. You are talking about the Home Office report that I have never seen.

Q715 Chair: No, the reports of Rotherham Council. Presumably, when you found out that there were 600 victims during the last 10 years, when you were appointed in 2008 with your vast experience in Keighley and Bradford, you must have decided to look to look into this matter very carefully indeed. You must have had an inquiry. There must have been a report. Where is that report?

Joyce Thacker: The work that we have done is looking at, for example, the Serious Case Review of Child S where we commissioned an external report into that. We commissioned, through the Safeguarding Children Board, an external review of Operation Central. That would have to have the permission of the Chair of the Safeguarding Children Board. If the Chair is agreeable to that, I am happy for you to have a copy of that. That is not my gift. It is the Chair of the Safeguarding Children Board.

Q716 Chair: No. We will write to ask you, because we were concerned that it took Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, to write to you to ask you to publish the report on Laura Wilson, who was 17 years of age when she was repeatedly stabbed and thrown into a Rotherham canal in 2010. Six years after issues were raised with your council, it took the Secretary of State to write to you and your council to ask for it. This Committee wants to see all the internal reports that you have about child grooming. We will write to you, and we would like them to be sent to us because we have the power to call for papers.

Joyce Thacker: Could I just come back at you on Mr Gove’s issue? We did publish the report. What Mr Gove was asking us to do was to publish the full report. We had published the report at that stage, a redacted version.

Chair: But not the full report until he intervened.

Joyce Thacker: No, we did not publish the full report. It was our right as the Safeguarding Children Board to have a redacted version. That is what we published.

Chair: The Committee wants to see all these reports.

Q717 Mr Winnick: I am not sure if you have mentioned it, but there has only been one successful prosecution in Rotherham for offences related to localised child grooming. That is the information we have received. If that question has not been asked by the Chair-I have just come in-is that the correct position?

Joyce Thacker: It is the correct position, Mr Winnick, absolutely. It is a deeply disappointing position. We have worked with the police and secured a number of prosecutions on another operation, and the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with that. It is disappointing when we cannot proceed to prosecutions.

Q718 Mr Winnick: The general impression that we have heard on the abuses that have occurred is that those involved or alleged to be involved have been able to get away with vile activities, which we all agree are disgraceful and vile in any civilised community, without sufficient pressure from the authorities. That includes the local authority and the one in Rotherham. What would you say to that?

Joyce Thacker: As I mentioned at the start, we are particularly interested in disruption activity as well with perpetrators or alleged perpetrators. We spend a lot of time doing attrition visits and issuing abduction notices. We try to make life hard for people who we think are interested in young girls for inappropriate purposes. We spend a lot of time doing that. Where a prosecution is not likely to be successful, that is the tactic that we take.

Q719 Mr Winnick: One of the features in this whole ugly and disgraceful business is the way in which minicab firms and drivers have been involved. How far was the council aware, either of you, perhaps Mr Kimber, of these minicab firms operating in the way that I have described?

Martin Kimber: From about 2010 it became clear that it was one of the features of grooming.

Mr Winnick: Only from 2010?

Martin Kimber: From about 2010, that it was one of the features. It featured in intelligence reports beforehand, but the pattern of activity did not become clear until that point. The council has strengthened its internal partnership working arrangements since, as well as its external partnership working arrangements. For example, we are now fully engaged with the licensing committee responsible for giving licences to taxi drivers. Where there are any allegations or issues relating to potential for child sexual exploitation then licences will not be issued. I think that is something that is an improvement point that has been brought forward, as Mrs Thacker said, in recent years.

Q720 Mr Winnick: Has the authority taken any action in taking away the licences of these minicab firms?

Martin Kimber: Yes. The action has been taken in two ways. First of all, it is one of the criteria that are looked at in deciding whether to grant a licence at all, and, secondly, when licences are reviewed, and indeed some licences have been removed as a consequence of those allegations.

Q721 Mr Winnick: Can you tell us how many licences have been removed?

Martin Kimber: I am afraid off the top of my head I cannot give you that answer, but I am very happy to write to you and provide you with that information.

Q722 Mr Winnick: Mr Kimber, am I not right that Denis MacShane, a Member of Parliament until very recently, got in touch with your department and asked for a report on what was happening?

Martin Kimber: I have to say I am not aware of that. I can check that for you.

Q723 Mr Winnick: That is the information we have. The final question I want to ask you: now that you are appearing before us, is there any self-criticism? Is there any feeling on the part of the two of you, bearing in mind the very senior positions you hold in this job, that much more could have been done to stop what was happening?

Martin Kimber: I think it is clear when you start looking at the evidence and you indeed listen to the evidence you have had as a Select Committee and you look at the raft of reports that have been brought forward based on evidence from about 2009, that it is widely acknowledged that sexual exploitation of young people was not handled anywhere near as well even six or seven years ago as it is today. I think there are a number of reasons for that. A number of people have apologised in front of you in respect of what has happened to young people and their families as a consequence, and I am no different.

Q724 Chair: You would like to record your apology?

Martin Kimber: I would certainly apologise to young people and families where they have been let down. I do not think that that is ever as a consequence generally of individual failure. It is nearly always systemic failure. I think it is recognised now that the best way to tackle child sexual exploitation is by agencies working far more strongly together-shared responsibility and shared accountability. We have just heard issues relating to prosecutions. The council has a role to play in delivering successful prosecutions as part of tackling child sexual exploitation, but it is not entirely within our gift, and I think what recent evidence is telling us is effective multi-agency responses is the way to tackle child sexual exploitation. A single agency by itself will never be successful.

Q725 Mr Winnick: Would it not be right (final question) that those who are the subject of sexual exploitation and grooming by these horrifying characters, who should certainly face justice where this has not already occurred, do you feel that such people are justified in coming to the conclusion that the agencies concerned, be it the local authority and the police, have let them down and in a way that is totally unacceptable?

Martin Kimber: I think there is evidence coming forward now-I heard the evidence given by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, for example-that sexual exploitation has been a very difficult topic to have a conversation about. It is very clear now that people are far more aware of sexual exploitation occurring, of the pointers to that and the potential responses to that. Therefore, it is inevitable that when you are casting your eye backwards, as indeed we all are trying to learn lessons from history, that you will have a sense of failure as a consequence of not knowing then what you know now.

Chair: Thank you. That is very helpful.

Q726 Lorraine Fullbrook: I would just like to go back to the co-ordination with other agencies. In many cases there appears to have been a lack of co-ordination between various agencies that allowed this grooming process to flourish, but in Rotherham there were apparently numerous multi-agency forums held by yourselves to discuss problems over many years. Why was nothing done following these discussions?

Martin Kimber: I am not sure I would agree with the proposition that nothing was done. There are a number of examples of local authority, police and partners working together to, firstly, try to identify sexual exploitation. Again, part of the evidence that you have heard is that, unless you look for it, you are unlikely to find it. I think in Rotherham there is a history of the council looking for child sexual exploitation to try to tackle it. That would be the first point I would make. I think the second point I would make…..

Q727 Lorraine Fullbrook: But Ms Thacker came to the council as an expert in child exploitation cases in 2008. Presumably you have people, as the Chief Executive, that you employ to look for this kind of thing.

Martin Kimber: Absolutely. It is given a very high priority and even a higher priority today than has ever been the case in recent history.

Lorraine Fullbrook: Because you have been found out.

Martin Kimber: No, not because we have been found out; because child sexual exploitation is a vile, criminal act. It is against people who are not able to protect themselves and agencies are responsible for protecting them. That is my role, representing the council. It is the role of a series of partner agencies, including the health economy, including the police, including the CPS, including the schools, and indeed the communities themselves. It is all of those agencies with a duty of care to protect young people who are unable to protect themselves and who often in the past have not been recognised as victims.

Q728 Lorraine Fullbrook: You have had all that in place since your multi-agency discussions?

Martin Kimber: I will let Ms Thacker come in. We now have conjoined multi-agency working, which is a recent development, and the idea behind that is to try to improve both intelligence and the responses to sexual exploitation; to assist with early identification; to assist with issues of making sure we can protect victims effectively, while at the same time creating the right conditions to allow proper disclosure and evidence-gathering.

Q729 Lorraine Fullbrook: When was that put into operation? When was that implemented?

Martin Kimber: That was put into place about nine months ago.

Q730 Lorraine Fullbrook: In July 2010, the local Safeguarding Children Board received the results and recommendations of a "lessons learned" review that looked at Operation Central, the case that led to Rotherham’s one and only prosecution for localised child grooming. If you are being transparent and you have put in place implementations that allow multi-agency working, why have you not allowed this report to be made public, this specific report?

Joyce Thacker: This is not a council report. It is a Safeguarding Children report, and, as I said to Mr Vaz at the start, if the Chair is agreeable, then we will allow this report to come to you. It is not an issue.

Lorraine Fullbrook: I think the Chair has asked for all reports that you have not released.

Joyce Thacker: Absolutely; happy to do that.

Martin Kimber: We are very happy indeed, Chair, to release those reports if we are able to.

Chair: Thank you very much. We will write to you.

Q731 Nicola Blackwood: Ms Thacker, I was a little concerned by your comment in your opening statement about prosecutions being icing on the cake and you distinguishing between prosecutions and prevention, because obviously prosecutions serve a very important deterrent effect and are part of prevention. I am also trying to understand why, when other areas are managing to have successful prosecutions, Rotherham is not. I understand that you have had one successful prosecution in 2010 in which five men were prosecuted and three others were not successfully convicted and you have had two operations in which they did not go through to prosecution. Is that correct? That was reported in The Times.

Joyce Thacker: We had one where there were no people charged and the next one where we had people charged but the Crown Prosecution Service did not feel it was sufficient to go through to a trial.

Q732 Nicola Blackwood: Can you explain why that was? Was it because of concerns about credibility, concerns about evidence? What was the failure in the investigation?

Joyce Thacker: The failure in that was a range of things as you have just described; about the credibility of the witnesses, which I think was despicable.

Nicola Blackwood: Who made that judgment? Was it the CPS? Was it the police?

Joyce Thacker: The CPS.

Nicola Blackwood: It was the CPS. Are you able to give us any details about that?

Joyce Thacker: I think you will find that when Mr Crompton wrote back to Mr Vaz he has given some information in that feedback to Mr Vaz, so it is in there, but we could certainly give you that information again.

Q733 Nicola Blackwood: Other areas are finding that they are managing to overcome these problems because these are problems that have emerged over the last few years, as you have identified correctly. Since 2003 it has emerged that it is difficult to get credibility of witnesses, that the CPS have problems and so on, but other areas are overcoming this. This does not seem to be happening in Rotherham. Multi-agency working has been identified, and-as Mrs Fullbrook mentioned-you have been exercising multi-agency working, but the problem is that there does not seem to be any fruit coming out at the other end. You still seem to have a lot of victims and you still seem to have no prosecutions. There is nothing to show for all the activity. Why?

Joyce Thacker: I have just described that it has been very difficult getting cases to prosecution.

Q734 Nicola Blackwood: What is more difficult in Rotherham than in Lancashire or in Oxford, where we are about to have a prosecution, or in anywhere else where we are experiencing exactly the same problems that you are experiencing? You have all of the systems in place and yet it is not working. What is the problem?

Joyce Thacker: I would say that we have looked-

Chair: Just to give you the facts, in Lancashire there were 100 prosecutions the year before last. In South Yorkshire there were no prosecutions.

Joyce Thacker: I do understand that. I have been reading all the evidence carefully that came from the different contributors and I am pleased, I am delighted that other authorities are getting such level of convictions. As I said at the start, it frustrates me when we do not get that level of convictions because these people need to be brought to justice, as you absolutely say, as a proper deterrent, but I cannot stop at that. I have to make sure girls are safe now and, while I would ideally like prosecutions wherever possible, I have to make sure that disruption is then going on. If I can’t secure prosecutions-or our contribution to securing prosecution-at the end of the day it is the police who will submit that evidence to CPS.

Q735 Nicola Blackwood: But what do you think the problem is? Do you think the problem is the attitude to victims within the police? Do you think the problem is a failure to collect the correct evidence early enough in the investigation or a failure to engage early enough with the CPS and build the correct evidence along the way? Do you think that the CPS attitude within your particular area towards the victims is inappropriate? Please tell the Committee what you think the problem is.

Joyce Thacker: I think it is a range. It is all of those things you have just said. I look with envy at the fact that in the north-west CPS are going to be co-located, for example, one day a week with their specialist teams. That would be good to happen in South Yorkshire. That would be a positive thing to do. We need to look at more creative ways of getting evidence.

Q736 Chair: Why is it not happening? It may be a very good idea, but why is it not happening now?

Joyce Thacker: It is the only place in the country it is happening. It would be good if we could follow that lead. We are members of a national working group that is the platform-

Chair: In the words of Nicola Blackwood, it is still not resulting in prosecutions. Are you blaming the police for failing to prosecute?

Joyce Thacker: No, I am not.

Q737 Chair: Who is to blame in all this? We have had your conferences in Rotherham. You have had your good practice, but, in answer to Nicola Blackwood, if it is happening in Oxford and Lancashire, why is it not happening in Rotherham? You are an expert, Ms Thacker.

Joyce Thacker: No, I have never set myself up-

Chair: You have worked at Barnardo’s. You have worked in Keighley. You have worked in Bradford. You are on £130,000 a year in this council job.

Joyce Thacker: I would just say that I have worked in evolving practice over a number of years. It is only as recently as 1998 we were talking even in Barnardo’s of abuse through prostitution. It is only in 2009 that we have moved to exploitation, so we have all come a long way in our thinking. I am not an expert. There is no such thing as an expert out there in the field, but there is some good practice out there that we need to make sure we are adopting quickly in places like Rotherham. The information that was given out by the police was a South Yorkshire focus, and I think there are creative things we can do that we are modelling now, which will hopefully lead to some prosecutions in the near future.

Chair: All right, but you cannot be sure of that.

Q738 Mark Reckless: Ms Thacker, I believe we would be better off as an independent country outside the EU. Should that preclude me from fostering?

Joyce Thacker: I am sorry, what’s…..?

Mark Reckless: I believe we would be better off as an independent country outside the European Union. Do you think that should preclude me from fostering children?

Joyce Thacker: I am sorry; I do not know what this has to do with sexual exploitation.

Q739 Chair: Are you not the Strategic Director of Children’s Services for Rotherham?

Joyce Thacker: Yes, I am.

Chair: The point that Mr Reckless is trying to make, but it is a very subtle point that you may not have grasped, is: were you responsible for the decision to remove the children from the gentleman who is a member of UKIP?

Joyce Thacker: I was responsible for the decision to remove children from foster carers, yes.

Chair: Was it that particular case? That is what he is referring to, but he is trying to be polite in referring to it. I am being very blatant. You made that decision and he wants to know why you made that decision. Was it to do with the fact that they did not support being a member of the European Union? That is all Mr Reckless wants to know.

Martin Kimber: I am afraid, Mr Vaz, because this is an issue that is subject to live care proceedings, we will be unable to answer that question at the moment.

Chair: But in terms of the principle of what Mr Reckless has asked?

Mark Reckless: I am not fostering children and I am not subject to live care proceedings. I am asking whether my view that we would be better off outside the EU should prevent me or preclude me from being considered even as a foster parent.

Martin Kimber: Preclude you from being considered? Absolutely not.

Chair: No. I think that was the answer he was looking for.

Q740 Mark Reckless: Ms Thacker, you suggested almost as if the question was not relevant to other matters of the proceeding but, as I understand it, a vast proportion of child sexual exploitation is targeted at children who are, in one way or another, within the care system. Is it good practice to remove children from otherwise happy, secure foster placements because of the political views of the foster parents?

Joyce Thacker: I can’t comment on this case.

Chair: Mr Kimber, it is a yes or no.

Martin Kimber: I am not able to comment on the specifics of the case, Chair.

Chair: We understand that, but on the principles-

Martin Kimber: What I would say is that if the authority…..

Chair: Could I just put the question that Mr Reckless said? He is talking about the principle of political affiliation, not the case itself. Is that a relevant issue?

Martin Kimber: I thought I answered that question previously when I said, "Absolutely not", in terms of barring consideration.

Chair: Excellent. Very quickly, Mr Clappison.

Q741 Mr Clappison: Should it be a factor, or is it a factor, that is taken into account in any way? I am not asking about this particular case. Is it a factor that is taken into account?

Martin Kimber: In deciding whether people are suitable as foster carers?

Mr Clappison: Yes.

Martin Kimber: No.

Chair: That is your "absolutely not" repeated? It is a no?

Martin Kimber: I think I have said that on three occasions.

Q742 Chair: You have indeed. Thank you very much for coming in. Can I just say in conclusion that the Committee is very concerned about the record of Rotherham as far as child grooming is concerned. We are very disappointed to have heard some of the evidence we have today and previously about Rotherham. We look forward to receiving those internal reports and indeed we look forward to receiving your vision for the future as to how you are working now as opposed to five years ago, because we accept that some of this is historic, but what is not historic is the fact that last year there were absolutely no prosecutions in South Yorkshire for child grooming whereas, as Ms Blackwood has said, there were 100 in Lancashire, and we can see good practice in terms of the evidence we have received so far. I will be writing to you again, and we may well be calling other witnesses from your council.

Martin Kimber: Chair, in the context of prosecutions, I think your comments have been helpful. I would just like to end with the point that, in the context of changing practice, there was an Ofsted inspection of Rotherham in August of last year that drew attention to a number of improvements but, in particular, the improvements Rotherham had made around the subject of its response to child sexual exploitation. I will be very happy to let you have that document as well as all the others.

Chair: That would be extremely helpful. Mr Kimber and Ms Thacker, thank you very much for coming today.

Prepared 11th June 2013