'300 suspects' in child abuse probe
A new investigation into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham has so far identified around 300 possible suspects, including two former or serving councillors.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said its inquiry into allegations of the rape, grooming and trafficking of hundreds of children in the town over a 16-year period has the potential to identify "thousands of offences".
The agency's Operation Stovewood was set up last year following Professor Alexis Jay's damning report which estimated at least 1,400 children had been subjected to CSE by largely Asian men in the South Yorkshire town between 1997 and 2013.
Today, the NCA's senior investigating officer Steve Baldwin said: " An examination of the material received by Operation Stovewood so far had identified a significant number of potential suspects. At the moment this is around 300. This number is changing on a daily basis as we do more research."
The officer said: "I would say that Alexis Jay's estimate of 1,400 victims is a very good assessment.
"We are focused on identifying who the victims are and putting names to their offenders".
The NCA began investigating the Rotherham abuse in December following a request by South Yorkshire Police, which has been heavily criticised in the wake of the Jay Report for effectively ignoring the victims over more than a decade.
In a briefing in Sheffield today, Mr Baldwin said his team - currently 32 officers - had already identified more than 3,300 lines of inquiry.
He said they had examined 47 boxes of written material, including 1,500 files, from the outreach group Risky Business alone - an organisation which tried to help many of the alleged victims.
The officer confirmed most of the potential suspects were Asian men and most of the victims were white British girls and young women.
Mr Baldwin said : "The abuse that has taken place in Rotherham is horrendous.
"We have gathered a huge amount of material in Operation Stovewood and this details some disturbing events.
"We will use the information as a starting point for developing intelligence and evidence.
"Given the amount of victims there is, there is potential to identify thousands of offences."
Mr Baldwin said: "We will progress this investigation as quickly as professionally possible but it is complex.
"Much of the information we have is not yet in a format that makes it easy to analyse.
"My priority at the moment is to ensure that we fully understand what has happened, and how, so that we can take the most effective action."
Trevor Pearce, the NCA director in overall command of Operation Stovewood, said it was costing around £3 million to £5 million a year to run and could take a number of years to complete.
He said some South Yorkshire Police staff were being used as part of his team but no South Yorkshire Police officers. He said all staff had been vetted to make sure they had no prior involvement in Rotherham abuse investigations.
Mr Pearce confirmed during the briefing that two of those under investigation are serving or former Rotherham borough councillors. But he did not name the men.
Mr Pearce said: "For a large number of girls their lives have effectively been stolen."
Asked how he would judge the success of the operation, he said it was not just about prosecutions.
Mr Pearce said it was also about convincing victims they have been fully listened to and the community of Rotherham that they can be confident the statutory agencies were protecting their children.
But he refused requests to comment on the South Yorkshire Police investigations between 1997 and 2013.
He said it was not the NCA's role to investigate any alleged police misconduct but said his team was liaising with the separate Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry.
Both officers stressed that the operation was not going to rush to make arrests. Mr Baldwin said there was evidence the men involved were sometimes operating as part of organised networks and it was important to fully understand these conspiracies before rushing to prosecute individuals.
He said his team was prioritising those suspects who still posed a threat and had committed the most serious offences.
But he said: "I want to assure all victims that we will examine all allegations of abuse and, most importantly, we will listen to victims."
He stressed that the investigators were being very careful about how they approached alleged victims, liaising with other agencies to make sure support is available to them.
Mr Baldwin said: "Progress will best achieved at present by tackling what we have now and demonstrating through our actions that we deserve the trust and confidence of others."
He said that last week alone the NCA received another 45 boxes of material.
Professor Jay's report, published in August last year, provoked nationwide shock and led to a series of high-profile resignations, including the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, who was the councillor with responsibility for children's services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010.
It led to a further report, by Louise Casey, which further criticised Rotherham Council's actions and led to the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles replacing the local authority's elected cabinet with appointed commissioners.
Karen Froggatt, director for child victims of sexual exploitation at the independent charity Victim Support said: "The scale of sexual exploitation against children in Rotherham is appalling. We know from supporting many of these victims just how devastating and long lasting an impact it has.
"Our priority is to make sure that the victims of this horrendous abuse in Rotherham, and elsewhere in the country, get the respect that they deserve and the support that they need as soon as possible.
"Victim Support helps hundreds of victims of historical sexual abuse every year and runs a vulnerable victims project in South Yorkshire. We are here to help all victims regardless of whether the police are involved or when the crime took place. Call our Supportline team on: 08 08 1689 111 or visit victimsupport.org.uk to find out how we can help."
Barnardo's chief executive Javed Khan said: "Because so many vulnerable children were ignored by the authorities, groomers got away with exploiting them for years.
"Ensuring the cases against groomers go to trial is vital in giving sexually exploited children confidence that the justice system does work for them; that if they come forward, they will be believed and supported.
"We must make sure the same mistakes are not made again. Barnardo's worked with more than 3,000 sexually exploited children last year, so we see first-hand the impact of this terrible crime.
"People working with children need to know how to spot the signs that a child is being groomed, and all agencies working with children and young people must work together to prevent this from ever happening again."