Rotherham council is to come under central government control after an independent inspection of its handling of child sexual exploitation concluded it was not fit for purpose and was more concerned about protecting its own reputation than its most vulnerable citizens.
The cabinet of Rotherham metropolitan borough council (RMBC) immediately announced their intention to resign en masse in the wake of Louise Casey’s scathing report commissioned by the communities secretary, Eric Pickles.
The council leader, Paul Lakin, said he would quit both as leader and councillor. He could and should have done more to prevent child sexual exploitation (CSE) when he was in charge of children’s services, Casey’s report said.
On Wednesday Pickles ordered commissioners in to take over the council pending new elections in the borough next year to “renew” its leadership, as the National Crime Agency announced plans to investigate criminal allegations stemming from the latest inspection.
The cabinet resignations came after Casey, the government’s lead official on troubled families, said the council lacked “the necessary skills, abilities, experience and tenacity within either the member or senior officer leadership teams”.
Concluding that the council needs a fresh start, Casey’s 154-page report said: “The council’s culture is unhealthy: bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced ‘political correctness’ have cemented its failures.
“The council is currently incapable of tackling its weaknesses without a sustained intervention.”
She also criticised the council’s deep-rooted culture of suppressing bad news and ignoring hard issues, writing: “RMBC goes to some length to cover up information and to silence whistleblowers.”
Her “reluctant” conclusion was that “both today and in the past, Rotherham has at times taken more care of its reputation than it has its most needy”.
The Casey inquiry was commissioned following the publication last August of another report by social worker Alexis Jay, which said blatant collective failures by the council and police had led to the sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham over a 12-year period.
Yet 70% of current Rotherham councillors, including cabinet members, dispute Jay’s findings. One told Casey’s team: “I would challenge lots of the Jay report, we feel bruised by it. Where is our right of reply? Who is fighting our corner? People are rolling over and just accepting [it].”
Denial of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham remains a serious problem, said Casey. “We have concluded that the 1,400 figure is a conservative one and that RMBC and South Yorkshire police (where some also dispute the figures) would do better to concentrate on taking effective action rather than seeking to continue a debate about the numbers.”
Casey said she considered it an uncontested fact that children in Rotherham were “sexually exploited by men who came largely from the Pakistani heritage community” and that not enough was done to acknowledge this, stop it happening, protect children, support victims and apprehend perpetrators.
Yet on arriving in Rotherham she found a council in denial. “They denied that there had been a problem, or if there had been, that it was as big as was said. If there was a problem they certainly were not told – it was someone else’s job. They were no worse than anyone else. They had won awards. The media were out to get them.”
Casey found that council staff and councillors lacked the confidence to tackle difficult issues “for fear of being seen as racist or upsetting community cohesion”.
She added: “By failing to take action against the Pakistani heritage male perpetrators of CSE in the borough, the council has inadvertently fuelled the far right and allowed racial tensions to grow. It has done a great disservice to the Pakistani heritage community and the good people of Rotherham as a result.”
Though her report focused on failures in RMBC, Casey reserves some opprobrium for South Yorkshire police. “There seemed to be lawlessness in relation to CSE in Rotherham. Perpetrators seemed to face no consequences. Nor were their activities disrupted,” she wrote.
The report gives a number of examples of insensitive policing, such as the officer who consoled one victim by saying: “Don’t worry – you aren’t the first girl to be raped by XX and you won’t be the last.”
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is already looking into CSE policing in Rotherham. The watchdog is currently investigating 10 officers and has received 20 further complaints, said a spokesman.
On Wednesday the National Crime Agency confirmed it would be examining “a number of potentially criminal matters identified during a recent inspection of Rotherham metropolitan borough council”.