The horrific details of the child sex abuse scandal emerging from Rotherham and elsewhere have led to an extensive national debate on why so little was done so late to protect some of the most vulnerable members of these communities. For one child to be sexually abused or raped is horrific, but for this to happen to more than 1400 children in Rotherham alone is an extraordinary national scandal. Quite rightly, attention has focused on the failures of key agencies such as social services, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. However, it is our politicians who are elected to hold these agencies to account, and their inaction has received less scrutiny than expected – perhaps because our expectations are so low.
One whistleblower reported the Home Office knew at least as early as 2002 but did nothing; and they should shoulder some of the blame. In contrast, and to her credit, it was Labour MP Ann Cryer representing the town of Rochdale, where the pattern was eerily similar, who first alerted the Times newspaper. It was their fine example of investigative journalism which first brought to the nation these child abuse scandals.
Parliamentary politicians had an important role to play but the crimes reported in Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere were committed in and around ordinary communities, under the noses of councillors. It is they who should stand up for and represent communities first and foremost, and act as the “eyes and ears” of national parliamentarians. Such networks underpin the party political system of governance in the UK on which we depend. However, at this distance, the collective failure of both councillors and their national colleagues seems to have been absolute. Leaving aside difficulties around race, some Rotherham councillors claim they didn’t know what was happening or were never told the full story. But there can be no excuses for councillors not knowing of the abuse of hundreds of children picked from the streets of their town.
What this scandal also underlines is the importance, which cannot be underestimated, of electing the right councillors. For there is little to vex or challenge the senior partner in a law firm, the hard-working entrepreneur, or the university professor quite like the scandals we are now reading of each day in England. Challenges in local government come in all shapes and sizes, and Edinburgh has seen more than its fair share in recent years, and an old quotation (possibly from Michael Heseltine) comes to mind. “Politics is too important to leave to someone else”. In Rotherham, Rochdale and elsewhere, it is unfortunate too many talented people left to someone else the oversight of the systems keeping their local children safe.
Jim Orr, is an Independent councillor at Edinburgh City Council