Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale
Last year seven men from Oxford were convicted in court on multiple counts of rape and abuse of young women and girls. They were part of a criminal gang that prostituted the girls for money. They concentrated on needy and vulnerable girls. The rapes usually began when the girls were between eleven and fifteen. The recent official report estimates, conservatively, that a total of 370 girls in Oxfordshire have been abused by gangs since 2005.
All seven of the men convicted were Asian. Six of the survivors testified. The fascist English Defence League has called a national demonstration in Oxford on April 4. They say that the council and the police did nothing because they were protecting Asians.
Unite Against Fascism and the local trades council have called for a mobilisation against the EDL on the same day, to prevent them from using the suffering of Oxfordshire children for their own ends. They are right to do so.
However, we need more than that. The local Labour MP, Andrew Smith, has called for an official inquiry to investigate how abuse on this scale was allowed to happen. He too is right.
But we also have to face the question of who is to blame for allowing the abuse to continue. In this blog we confront the racist arguments about abuse head on. In doing so, we have to say who is to blame for allowing the abuse to continue: the senior managers in the schools, the social services and the police.
Most of this blog is based on an official 133 page report by Alan Bedford, published in March 2015. In a moment, we will consider the strengths and weaknesses of the report. But first, some of the statements Bedford quotes from the six girls involved:
It was a bit exciting.
School was bad for me – I was made fun of as a foster child. So I bunked off.
Suddenly the guys were bringing me stuff. They said how lovely I was.
For a while he was my friend – just the two of us.
I believed they were my friends. Nothing was more important.
It all began when I was about 12 years old.
It started with him taking an interest in me.
The next thing it wasn’t nice anymore.
They took us to a field where there were other men who had come to have sex with us. I tried not to do it. There were five of them.
They threatened to blow up my house with my Mum in it.
I was expected to do things – if I didn’t they said they would come to my house and burn me alive. I had a baby brother.
I took so many drugs. It was just a mish-mash.
I wouldn’t ever have said no – they’d have beaten the shit out of me.
I hate them … all they do is rape you … all they want is sex.
When we were at the flats I knew I was there to have sex with whichever men were brought there.
He urinated on me.
The fear is still very real for me – though they are in jail I still check the cars.
And here is some of what the girls said about the response of adults in different organisations.
If a perpetrator can spot the vulnerable children, why can’t professionals?
Social workers asked me questions which showed they knew.
Why would a 13-year-old make it up?
People were reluctant to see what was in front of them.
Social services knew what was going on – they always asked questions that showed that they knew.
[A police officer] tried to get people to listen, but she was banging her head against a brick wall. The same officer was kind, supportive and showed me the humanity and respect that so many officers seemed to lack at the time.
No one believes me, no one cares.
I couldn’t sleep or eat.
The Police never asked me why – they just took me home.
I was put in a secure unit because I kept going missing – I thought I was being punished – they should have done something to the men, not me.
[On returning from London] no one spoke to me about the men in London. There were hundreds of them – untouched.
I said ‘I will get burned alive’. She said come round for a coffee.
The old sergeant was great. He has a cigarette with you, and chatted about anything. He didn’t make me feel bad and treated me like a person.
Social services washed their hands – ‘it’s your choice’ I was told.
I turned up at the police station at 2/3am, blood all over me, soaked through my trousers to the crotch. They dismissed it as being naughty, a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody.
Bedford summarises the abuse of the six girls:
The sexual abuse included vaginal, anal and oral rape and also involved the use of a variety of objects such as knives, meat cleavers, baseball bats … It was often accompanied by humiliating and degrading conduct such as biting, scratching, acts of urinating, being suffocated, tied up. They were also beaten and burnt. This sexual activity was often carried out by groups of men; sometimes it would go on for days on end.
All this was so the men could make money. What are we to make of this?
The full title of Bedford’s report is Serious Case Review into Child Sexual Exploitation in Oxfordshire: from the experiences of children A, B, C, D, E, and F. It contains a great deal of useful information, and was clearly written by a humane and decent person. We rely on it heavily for everything we say in this post. However, it is also a management job.
Bedford is an outside consultant who wrote the report for the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board. He was a Chief Executive Officer in two NHS trusts for a total of 13 years. In preparing the report, he had 15 meetings with an overseeing committee of 14 senior managers from across the police, the local and county council, the NHS and the prosecutor’s office. For evidence he relied partly on interviews with the six young women who testified, and their parents, but mainly on reports drawn up by the managers of the different services involved. In this sense it is also an inside job.
Bedford’s conclusions are that no individual manager or person can be blamed. The senior managers did not know, he says. He says, almost everyone involved did not understand the concept of CSE (‘criminal sexual exploitation’) and therefore could not make sense of what they were seeing.
Let’s stop a moment here.
No one involved understood that it was possible for pimps to dominate vulnerable teenage girls? And no one understood that pimps sometimes operated in groups?
A girl covered in blood was turned away from a police station in the middle of the night. She went to the police station to report a crime. No one has been named. No one has been disciplined. No one has lost their job. The senior managers in charge have shamelessly refused to resign.
This is unacceptable.
A proper independent inquiry is needed, with a remit to compel witnesses, investigate, cross-question, and name names. At the time of the trial, the government considered, and rejected, a proper inquiry. The managers of the city council, the county council, the police and the prosecution service do not want an inquiry. This is a cover up. That is why we have to have an inquiry.
Heroes and Heroines
Reading the report, it looks as if Bedford is trying, within the constraints of his position, to tell us a great deal about what really happened.
Why was that girl covered in blood ignored?
Bedford gives us another telling example, the case of one girl, aged 14/15. During a period of just three weeks in 2006, the police and social services learned the following about this girl:
Frequently missing from care home.
Gave addresses where abuse happened
Admitted ‘underage sex’ with a group of Asian males
Drank a bottle of Jack Daniels
Admitted to hospital, alcohol poisoning
Describes rape by two men convicted in [Operation] Bullfinch six years later
Told residential home staff she had sex with at least seven Asian men aged 17-33, with two older
Told police she had oral sex with eight men in return for alcohol
‘These men are my protectors’
In a crack den with Asian males
Strategy meeting planned but did not happen
Eventual meeting talks of ‘paedophile ring’
Thought to be having sex for drink drugs, lifts
Tells police she had sex with several Asian men
Twice stopped by police with an Asian male later convicted in Bullfinch. Told Police she was afraid of him, and that he and his friends knew her age
Found with the same man a week later and alleged rape
People knew. There were several reasons the abuse was allowed.
One important reason was the teachers, social workers and police thought that these girls were trash. This was a class judgement. These were also girls from known, and troubled families. From 2005 to 2012, the police had 1,561 ‘recorded contacts’ with these six families. The social services were equally involved. From 2005 to 2007, three of the girls were reported as missing persons a total of 359 times.
All the services failed to protect these girls. But not all the services were alike. The workers in the secure units did the best. One girl says:
The staff in the Secure Units were good. They knew how to deal with hard cases. If you told them to f-off 20 times, they would still ask if you were OK and wanted a cup of tea.
Several of the girls remembered the comradeship of particular police officers with gratitude. The social workers were worse, often unreachable, and condescending. This was a class difference. The kind cops and secure unit staff treated the girls as fellow members of the working class.
The only service that failed the girls utterly was the schools. The girls’ vulnerability and distress before the abuse was met with detention, suspension and exclusion. Several of the girls were on the streets all day at a young age, obvious prey, because they had been expelled. This problem cannot be fixed by requiring teachers to notice and report abuse. The schools do the damage before the abuse. Girls like this can only be protected by ending suspension and exclusion of all girls.
This would create problems for the schools. They would need more staff, it would be harder to teach to tests and compete in league tables. Tough. It has to be done. Exclusion from school is always betrayal of a child. [See our earlier post on the punishment of black boys in an American primary school.]
But the important variation was not between services, but within each service. As Bedford says:
What later emerged in the Bullfinch [police] inquiry and trial was led not by leaders and strategic bodies but by more junior staff working nearer the coalface. A drugs worker for the City Council, a social worker, and a detective inspector, on their own initiative, and in the absence of any strategic work, each led a number of meetings which were unknown to the OCSB [Oxford Child Safeguarding Board] or top managers.
These meetings were disguised in their diaries as meetings of other groups. Managers were not informed, and no minutes were taken. More than a dozen junior staff from a wide range of agencies were involved. Detective Inspector Simon Morton was key, because he was the most senior person involved. But he was one of many heroes.
We need to stop a moment and emphasise this point. The staff who wanted to stop the abuse knew they had to keep their meetings and plans secret from senior management.
Think about that a moment.
And why was this so?
Because of the bullying, because they were afraid.
Because there had been whistle blowers before – a council nuisance officer, a councillor, a police officer in charge of missing persons – and they had been sat on. But also the years of cuts and austerity in social services had taken their toll. Social workers had learned that to complain upwards made managers angry, and they treated you as a failure.
Dermot Norridge, a noise officer for Oxford city council, complained to everyone he could about the situation of one 13 year-old girl in 2007. He sent emails copying in senior managers. He went to County Hall and demanded to see the director of Social Services. He was fobbed off with a deputy director who did nothing.
According to Oxfordshire BBC, Norridge ‘said afterwards the county council complained to Mr. Norridge’s boss about his behaviour, and we has told senior staff did not like being criticised by a junior person.’ Nothing was done.
But there was something more.
We have argued elsewhere that since survivors began pushing child sexual abuse into the public arena in the 1980s, senior managers all over Britain and beyond have faced an acute problem. They, or their institutions, had all covered up abuse, harassment and rape of children and adults. Now they are in danger of being exposed for ‘historic’ crimes. So to protect the institution, and their jobs, they keep covering up. [For more on this, see our post on Sexual Violence and Class Inequality.]
There is a growing movement against these cover-ups, which we have written of elsewhere. [For instance, here and here.] This movement is always organised, often informally, as it was in Oxford. In several ways it is an example of that old fashioned thing – class struggle. The survivors and workers are forcing the management to act. But also, the reason the abuse is permitted in the first place is that working class children are regarded as trash.
It is striking how often, all over the country, the girls and boys abused are in care. Care homes do not make children safer. Five of the six girls in Oxfordshire were taken into care at some point. Three of them were then abused by staff in the care home. This is common across the country, and part of what senior managers are concealing.
There is a connected point. As one parent wrote in a paper submitted to the review:
I don’t blame Social Services for not understanding exactly what went on – the street grooming by groups was an ‘unknown unknown’, but I would criticise them for (among other things) only working with one model of abuse – intra-familial.
This is important. One reason the girls were unprotected was the widespread theory that most sexual abuse happens in families. It does not. All experts in the field, as soon as they say in writing that most abuse happens in the family, almost immediately qualify this by saying the abuser is someone known to the family. Well, duh. Yes. But that does not mean abuse by a family member.
It may be the case that the majority of abusers are fathers abusing their children. But each of these people accounts for only a small number of cases. Priests, politicians, care workers, criminals can and do abuse twenty, a hundred, or more over a lifetime.
The idea that the family is the main problem is a blind that conceals managers and institutions. [We discuss this matter at more length here.]
In the spring of 2011 Simon Morton formally began Operation Bullfinch. By the summer of 2012 the trial began. Morton and his team went to the frightened young women for evidence last. They began by collecting other forensic evidence, interviewing witnesses, following suspects, and generally harassing and ‘disrupting’ the suspects. This worked.
The success of Operation Bullfinch shows that it could have been done long before. And it could be done anywhere. It is also testimony to the heroism of the young women who had told so many people what was happening to them, and had the courage to testify at the trials.
The Bullfinch trial also has consequences. It makes other abuse less likely. One reason the abuse happened was that the abusers knew they could act with impunity. Bullfinch also means staff and police in Oxfordshire and across the country will be able to see more clearly what is happening. It gives the many girls trapped right now in other towns more courage. And it has given at least 300 more survivors in Oxford the courage to ask for help from Kingfisher and other new specialist services.
Bless the courage of those six young women.
These are also the reasons why an independent inquiry, with hard hitting terms of reference, would make a much greater impact, and make girls (and boys) safer around the country. Of course privacy has to be protected, which means there are problems with a fully public inquiry. But the actions of managers and whistle blowers can certainly be made public, to scare other managers and embolden other whistle blowers.
An inquiry would also help us to understand the wider criminal networks. The abused girls from Oxford were sent to London, Bournemouth, and several other cities to have sex with large numbers of men. And men from elsewhere came to Oxford to have sex with the girls. The networks of pimps and punter-abusers, travelling around the country, moving abused children around, is a pattern also seen in Rochdale and elsewhere.
The Wider Context – and Race
We also need to pay attention to the wider context largely missing from the Bedford report.
First, almost everything written on the abuse of children and teenage girls ignores what happens to adult women who have been raped. There are problems with the statistics, but the best estimates we have are that one in twelve rapes of adult women are reported to the police. Of those, 7 in 100 result in a conviction. So about one rape in a hundred results in a conviction. This is why women are reluctant to report rape, and why it continues. The criminal justice system provides effective impunity.
Young girls are vulnerable for the same reason that adult women are.
Second, Operation Bullfinch happened because there is a much wider movement growing against rape and abuse. There have been prosecutions in Rochdale, Rotherham, Bristol, Derby, and several other towns.
There is also a growing storm of protest about organised abuse at the top by upper class gangs of white men. The now public cases of Cyril Smith, Jimmy Saville, Leon Brittan, Elm House and Dolphin Square all involve such gangs. These three men are all now dead. But living MPs, Lords, judges, cabinet ministers, senior diplomats, and top managers in the intelligence services have all been involved.
The cover up has gone much more widely. Margaret Thatcher was a central figure, but there are many more. Pressure is growing for a national inquiry into ‘historic abuse’. Theresa May, the justice minister, has been trying to nobble and postpone any such inquiry. The argument over an inquiry in Oxford is part of this larger battle over the national inquiry.
At the heart of all this is class. This has a long history. Though there are exceptions, many members of the upper classes in this country consider, and have always considered, that the lives of working class people are worth little, and that our children, our sisters, our neighbours are available to men of their class to do with as they will.
This attitude is now linked to a growing atmosphere of racism, and particularly Islamophobia, coming from the top of society. Here, it is important not to pussyfoot. In the several recent abuse trials, all of the defendants came from immigrant backgrounds. From many countries. Some of them were from Muslim families, and some were not. What they almost all had in common was that they were not white. And in Oxford, as elsewhere, the abused girls were white.
These are the facts. They have provided a field day for the right and the far right. Much of the national and local press has reported the abuse and trials in racial terms. The easy way for the press to do this is just to show photos of the accused. But also, they have been pilloried as Muslims, especially by far right organisations, but also by the Conservative government.
Several things need to be said here. The great majority of the men recently prosecuted for organised abuse of children and young people are non-white. These are a tiny minority of non-white men in the country.
Meanwhile, the great majority of guilty men who have not been prosecuted, but protected at the highest level, are white.
None of this abuse has anything to do with Islam. One fact shows this very clearly. The gang members abused no Muslim girls. This is because they knew the girls’ families would have reacted with effective fury. It was also because the abusers own extended families, and their communities, would have found out and disapproved deeply.
Moreover, the motives for the abuse were criminal – to make money illegally. Look at the example of the United States. There organised prostitution has long been controlled by the Italian Mafia, the Irish mafia, and the Jewish mafia, and the Russian mafia. Immigrants are poor, many routes are blocked to them, and some always turn to crime. It is not an accident that Tony Soprano is shown owning a titty bar, and that his life is full of goombas. It reflects how the sex trade works in the US, and how some of it now works in Britain.
Finally, the trade in young people in care was until recently the work of white people. For example, Simon Danczuk, in his biography of Cyril Smith, points out that Smith was involved in a ring of white abusers in Rochdale for many years that prostituted boys to people who visited from many other towns. As Danczuk has pointed out, the men of immigrant background recently convicted of gang abuse in Rochdale are only continuing a long local tradition.
However, it is not enough just to say defensively that non-white people and Muslims are not the problem. In the current situation, we do have to say that. But it is also necessary to go on the offensive, to stop abuse by gangs of poor men and rich men alike.
There is currently a serious fight under way inside many councils, police forces, news rooms, and many other institutions. Some of us are pushing hard from below for an end to the cover- ups. Revelations come daily. From the top, others try to dam the flow of truth. This abuse goes right to the top, and the cover-ups have involved hundreds of the most powerful people in the land. If and when the truth comes out, it will be a deep crisis for the establishment. And every vulnerable child will be safer.
More to Read
One of the striking things about the Oxford abuse was how cruel it was. It is one example, among many, or how much cruelty is required in the sexual violence that keeps gender inequality in place. For another example from an American prison in Iraq, click here.
This is one of a series of blogs on the politics of sexual violence and child abuse. To download a pdf of a longer paper on Sexual Violence and Class Inequality, click nljn31jan15final.
For a post on organised resistance to rape by students in many countries, click here.
For a post on resistance by police officers to cover ups inside the Metropolitan Police, click here.
For a series of posts on Islamophobia, click here.
To download Bedford’s report on Oxfordshire, click here.
For good coverage of elite abuse nationally, go to Exaro News here.
And there is no end to the cover-ups. On 13 March 2015, two days after we posted this blog, The Guardian headline about a Greater Manchester police report was ‘No Police officers to be disciplined for failings over Rochdale abuse’.
This was an internal report looking into the conduct of thirteen officers between 2008 and 2010. The report was done under the supervision of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and took four years to complete, only to have publication delayed a further six months. Girl A, the courageous survivor at the heart of a trial which saw nine paedophiles jailed in 2012, said in fury of the report: ‘It reads like a whitewash. These police have done wrong and yet none of them has been named …’. In anodyne words we have heard before, the assistant chief constable, Dawn Copley said there was ‘a widespread lack of understanding about the complexities of child sexual exploitation. But she insisted that lessons had been learned.’