Outside Liverpool Crown Court a large group of protesters gathered as the trial began of the nine Asian men from Rochdale who have just been jailed for grooming underage girls for sex. The demonstrators carried printed banners that read: "Our Children Are Not Halal Meat". Some had more improvised, handmade posters saying "Paedo scum", "Lock 'em up" and "Hang 'em".
These were the combined pride of the British National Party, the English Defence League and a couple of other far-right groups – called the North West Infidels and the Combined Ex-Forces. They had been brought together by websites claiming there would be a media blackout of the trial of what they described as "Muslim paedophile grooming gangs" charged with "countless abhorrent sexually motivated charges against children and minors".
Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP and a Member of the European Parliament, was there to give a video interview for the BNP website. "The mass street grooming of young girls from the English community is only being carried out by Muslims. All the paedophile groomers in this particular sort of crime – on the street, in gangs – are Muslims. That's the common denominator," he explained fluently.
"You only have to read the Koran or look at the Hadith – the expressions of what the Prophet did in his life – to see where Muslim paedophilia comes from," he continued. "Because it's religiously justified so long as it's other people's children and not their own." This is pretty poisonous rhetoric. And the BNP website prefaces it with an atmospheric recording of the Muslim call to prayer. Some of the protest placards are written in cod Urdu script. The message is clear.
The overall statistics give the lie to such claims. Greater Manchester Police, in whose area the offences took place, has declared that 95 per cent of the men on its sex offenders register are white. Just five per cent are Asian. But things do look different when the focus is narrowed to crimes involving groups of men grooming girls on the street. In 18 child sexual exploitation trials since 1997 – in Derby, Leeds, Blackpool, Blackburn, Rotherham, Sheffield, Rochdale, Oldham and Birmingham – relating to the on-street grooming of girls aged 11 to 16 by two or more men, most of those convicted were of Pakistani heritage.
With the Independent Police Complaints Commission now investigating the factors that prevented the police from prosecuting the Rochdale gang two years sooner than they did, the underlying question is more pertinent than ever: are there more Asians involved in this kind of crime than might be expected, as a proportion of the population? And, if so, are there any cultural factors that would account for it? I have spent the past two months trying to pick a path through a thicket of racial prejudice, on one side, and political correctness, on the other, to find an answer.
Emma Jackson's story is typical. She was chatted up in Meadowhall shopping centre near Sheffield by a couple of Asian boys a year or so older than her. But then she was introduced to their older friends and then to a glamorous suitor called Tarik, who gave her gifts and drinks, cigarettes and drugs, and rides in his smart car. He encouraged her to try the drugs because, he told her, she was old enough, whatever her parents said. She was his princess. He was the only one who understood her: her parents were just fuddy-duddies who didn't want her to have fun.
But one night Tarik raped her, and everything changed. Confused, and thinking it must be her own fault, Emma was easy prey when he passed her on for sex to other men. She was repeatedly raped, exploited, beaten and told that if she refused to co-operate the men would firebomb her home or rape her mother and make her watch.
Various newspapers have quoted research by two academics at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. Their research, which examined the 18 trials mentioned earlier, showed that of the 56 people found guilty of crimes including rape, child abduction, indecent assault and sex with a child, 53 were Asian. Of those, 50 were Muslim and a majority were members of the British Pakistani community. Most of the victims have been white, although in one case several Bangladeshi Muslim girls were also abused.
However, the picture presented by the academics, Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley, looks less clear. "The citations are correct but they have been taken out of context," says Ms Cockbain. "Nor do they acknowledge the small sample size of the original research, which focused on just two large cases."
So is this a particular problem in the British Asian community? The question touches on so many sensitivities about race in contemporary society that it is hard to find anyone prepared to tackle it clearly and sensibly. Instead, various agendas are being peddled. Statistics and proportions are hard to come by. Yet everyone has got very jumpy in the hidden world of child sexual exploitation.
Perhaps that is not surprising. When the former Home Secretary Jack Straw raised the issue last year – claiming that "there is a specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men ... who target vulnerable young white girls" seeing them as "easy meat" for sexual abuse – he found himself in political trouble. He was criticised by one fellow MP for "stereotyping a whole community".
Lancashire Police have also become nervous about the subject. So much so that they would not even talk about a pilot project which is considered the national model for how to deal with the grooming of unsuspecting children.
All this hyper-sensitivity has led to accusations of political correctness from right-wing newspapers, whose anti-immigration agenda is neatly fed by suggestions that on-street grooming is a peculiarly Asian phenomenon.
Last year, the government's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre launched a five-month investigation into the issue. It took the broadest definition of underage grooming as any situation where a child or young person receives something in exchange for performing sexual favours.
It identified 2,379 potential offenders who had been reported for grooming since 2008. The vast majority were men. Most were aged 18 to 24. It could fully identify only 940 of the suspects. Of these, 38 per cent were white, 32 per cent were recorded as of unknown ethnicity, 26 per cent were Asian, 3 per cent were black and less than 1 per cent were Chinese.
These figures were reported in the media with various degrees of sensationalism. The 2001 census recorded 92.1 per cent of the general population as white, 2 per cent as black, 3.1 per cent as Indian or Pakistani, 1.2 per cent as "mixed" and 1.6 per cent as "other". But what was not prominently noted was that the Centre's findings were heavily caveated by phrases such as "where ethnicity was recorded". What about the cases where it was not? The overall data was poorly recorded, inconsistent, and incomplete, expert academics say.
One of Britain's biggest experts on the ground is Wendy Shepherd, child sexual exploitation project manager with Barnardo's in the North of England. Most abusers are white and most child sex exploitation happens in the home, she says. White males who are predators on the street tend to work alone, though they also prey in internet grooming rings.
"When I started this work 12 years ago," she says, "the problem was mainly young people being put on the street by their older 'boyfriends'. An older man is anyone five years older than the girl. All ethnicities and professions were involved. Today it's much more hidden, with young girls being groomed at takeaways, in parks, shopping malls or bus stations.
"There has been a shift from the men selling children in ones or twos to something that is much more organised in groups and networks. The networks of men come from different backgrounds: in the North and Midlands many have been British Asians; in Devon it was white men; in Bath and Bristol, Afro-Caribbeans; in London, all ethnic mixes, whites, Iraqis, Kurds, Afghans, Somalis. The danger with saying that the problem is with one ethnicity is that people will only be on the lookout for that group – and risk missing other threats."
Martin Narey was the director-general of Britain's prisons for seven years, after which he became chief executive of Barnardo's, the charity which cares for vulnerable children and young people. "When I began at Barnardo's I was resistant to the idea that there was a racial or cultural dimension to child abuse," he says. "If anything, my experience in running the Prison Service taught me that sex offenders were generally white. But some time ago I decided that in not exploring that we were leaving children at risk. I found the picture not to be constant, but certainly in the North, the repetitive evidence of Asian men as perpetrators could not be ignored."
This is not to buy into the British National Party's "Our Children Are Not Halal Meat" anti-Muslim agenda. The BNP refers to this type of offending as 'Muslim paedophilia' but, as Cockbain and Brayley point out: "This is misguided for two reasons. Firstly, it is not paedophilia since the victims are not pre-pubescent. Secondly, religion seems to be a red herring here, in that many offenders seem to be Muslim only in a nominal sense. Prior to arrest many drank alcohol, took drugs, did not have beards, and all of course engaged in extramarital sex with underage girls. These are hardly the hallmarks of a strict Muslim."
The evidence that the Jill Dando Institute has gathered suggests that victims are targeted not because they are white but rather in a haphazard opportunistic manner – with the perpetrators cruising the streets for whatever girls they happen to see hanging about there. Convenience and accessibility, rather than race, appear to be the primary drivers.
Martin Narey agrees. "I have never subscribed to the view that these men have some sort of moral code and would not abuse Asian girls," he says. "They'd abuse any child over whom they could exert power. The reality, however, is that the girls who make themselves vulnerable on our cities, particularly at night, are generally white. Asian girls, more strictly parented, are at home."Reuse content