'Huge' numbers of children abused

A child protection campaigner has warned that the sexual exploitation of youngsters is a much wider issue than had been acknowledged.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper says Labour will make it compulsory for authorities to report sex abuse claims
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper says Labour will make it compulsory for authorities to report sex abuse claims

Hilary Willmer, chair of trustees at the charity Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (Pace), said a "huge amount" of youngsters were being abused.

She was speaking out following the report into events in Rotherham, which found that more than 1,400 youngsters were abused over 16 years from 1997.

Asked if similar numbers of children could have fallen prey to abusers in other towns, she said: "I wouldn't want to bandy figures around but it's certainly a huge amount that is going on."

Ms Willmer worked with families in Rotherham in the late 1990s and was a colleague of the author of a 2002 report into the unfolding scandal, which was never published.

The document, by a Home Office researcher, was "effectively suppressed", according to Professor Alexis Jay who wrote the report into events in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.

Ms Willmer told Channel 4 News the report "actually was drawing attention to all the failings of the local council, social care, police and everyone, who were failing to deal with information that was passed to them".

She said: "We were able to identify houses where the young girls were taken as well as all sorts of other places, that there would be a big network operating in places like the shopping mall at Meadowhall.

"It was well known, car numbers and information was handed to them but she was told that it was all anecdotal and therefore not enough to do anything about it."

Prof Jay's report said the work resulted in a c hapter of a draft report on research into the situation in Rotherham which " contained severe criticisms of the agencies" including "alleged indifference towards, and ignorance of, child sexual exploitation on the part of senior managers".

She said: "Had this report been treated with the seriousness it merited at the time by both the police and the council, the children involved then and later would have been better protected and abusers brought to justice. These events have led to suspicions of collusion and cover up."

Ms Willmer said: "I think there was a denial because of the perception that these were errant teenagers who were just a nuisance.

"There were certainly instances of where parents have gone out and found the children and told the police where they are, not just in Rotherham but elsewhere, and it hasn't been followed up.

"Hopefully that is less common now than it was at the time. But certainly there was a perception, the received wisdom, was these girls had chosen this lifestyle, they are going out with these men and they have almost got what they asked for.

"That was really very widespread. It isn't like that now, it would be much more difficult to argue that."

MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee are poised to examine what happened to the 2002 report.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz told the Independent on Sunday: "We would be very keen to get from the Home Office a full and frank response to the research that was commissioned in 2002.

"This is an essential part of the jigsaw to determine why the council failed to act, and whether the Home Office could have done more to ensure that it did act."

He added: "We want to see every piece of information the Home Office holds on this, and I will be writing to the Home Secretary to see what files it holds no this horrific behaviour in Rotherham."