These child abuse failures show that Rotherham is probably not alone
For well over a decade, hundreds of vulnerable children were sexually exploited and abused by men from whom they should have been protected, not just in secret but sometimes in plain sight. What happened in Rotherham was a terrible, extraordinary thing. But what is so unsettling aboutLouise Casey’s report on the aftermath of the scandal, published this week, is that this was made possible by the most ordinary of things.
It’s trite and misleading to portray Labour-led Rotherham as a bunch of loony lefties hamstrung by political correctness, terrified of going after mainly Asian abusers in case it looked racist. As Casey makes clear, some witnesses did describe pressure not to say that most of the perpetrators were Asian men, or to raise a perceived link with local taxi drivers, many of Pakistani origin. But others expressed openly racist views. Politicians’ attitudes towards women were so bullying and chauvinistic that one officer said the very idea of the council being too PC was laughable. The report paints a portrait of people who, far from being overly sensitive to others’ feelings, aren’t nearly sensitive enough; who even now are deep in denial about the damage done.
One officer complained that Alexis Jay, whosedamning inquiry first exposed the scale of grooming for abuse in Rotherham, had got their job title wrong – as if this mattered in the larger scheme of things, or somehow disproved accounts of girls being raped with broken bottles. Several councillors nitpicked at Jay’s estimate of 1,400 victims, as if things would be fine had it been a few hundred less. Others grumbled about the story being exposed by the “Murdoch press”. The wrong people were complaining, apparently. You wonder if some aren’t even now privately dismissing Casey because she works for that bloody Tory, Eric Pickles.
Yet unexpectedly, what leaps out from the report isn’t the influence of politics with a big P so much as office politics: all the surprisingly humdrum, niggling things about status and hierarchy and process that determine who counts in an organisation and who is heard.
It was the way stronger characters in Rotherham bullied weaker ones, and weren’t always held accountable; the way people were shouted down and sworn at in meetings, making it hard to bring bad news. Or the whiff of professional snobbery in the relationship between Risky Business, the youth work project which repeatedly tried to raise the alarm about what it saw on the streets, and trained social workers. (One council staff member sniffed, of a report from the only organisation seemingly to grasp what was going on, that it was the sort of paper you’d expect from “a student”.)
What Casey describes is the sort of petty tensions, difficult personalities and averagely lousy management most of us will experience at least once in our working lives – which isn’t an excuse for failure so much as a worrying sign that Rotherham probably isn’t alone.
So it’s to be hoped that Lowell Goddard, the New Zealand judge finally appointed this week to chair the overarching public inquiry into historic child abuse, reads this report carefully. It is, of course, wholly possible that when she starts unravelling the shameful histories of boarding schools, churches, NHS trusts or the BBC, she will find evidence of cover-ups and conspiracies, or organised paedophile rings in the highest of places. But for every powerful friend to Jimmy Savile, she may also find a surprising number of ordinary people, doing ordinary jobs, ordinarily badly – and, in small unwitting ways, collectively allowing terrible things to happen.
This isn’t what people really want to hear from a public inquiry. We want smoking guns and incriminating memos, identifiable villains and shadowy networks in which the powerful protected each other. When reports into a tragedy or scandal talk blandly about failures of management and communications, “systemic” this and “institutional” that, it sounds limp and feeble – at worst a whitewash, at best too dull to make news.
But not every scandal unfolds as dramatically as a thriller; some result from bureaucratic mistakes and petty human tensions and a refusal to listen to the “wrong” people – to troubled kids, say, who don’t immediately come across as victims. Casey signalled that an unhealthy culture had become embedded partly because this was a solidly Labour council, one where there was not much political opposition, but also officers who knew the same old people would be re-elected next time. It didn’t do to fall out with them. The same will be true not just in solidly Tory councils but in any organisation where people stay forever, where problem employees aren’t confronted but kicked upstairs.
And that’s why all institutions need faintly oddball, stubborn, counter-cultural people who may well be irritating to work with but ask the questions others don’t. Several of the MPs who have campaigned on institutional child abuse have the same quality; so do most of the investigative reporters who have pursued the story and so arguably does Casey.
It is to be hoped that Goddard does too, because if sunlight is the best disinfectant then contrariness – the ability to ask difficult questions, rock the boat, annoy and upset powerful people – is a crucial second line of defence. An organisation that can listen when the wrong people are talking inside it has at least a chance of listening to the wrong people outside too.