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CEOP to investigate grooming of teenage girls

The grooming of vulnerable teenage girls for sex is being investigated by the country's specialist exploitation unit, it emerged today.

Experts from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) are to carry out the work, which comes after the indefinite jailing of two Asian men for abusing girls aged between 12 and 18.

Former home secretary Jack Straw sparked a backlash after claiming the conviction was evidence of a specific problem among young men in the UK's Pakistani community.

Ceop, affiliated to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, was set up in 2006 and its staff include police officers and members of organisations such as the NSPCC.

On Friday Mohammed Liaqat, 28, and Abid Saddique, 27, were jailed at Nottingham Crown Court for raping and sexually abusing several girls, often after giving them alcohol or drugs.

They were the prime movers in a group of men who befriended girls aged 12 to 18 in the Derby area and groomed them for sex.

Mr Straw, who represents Blackburn, said such crimes were a "specific problem" in the Pakistani community which needed to be "more open" about the reasons.

But fellow Labbour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, rejected his colleague's claims and insisted the case was not symbolic of any "cultural problem".

Children's charity Barnardo's, Muslim youth group The Ramadhan Foundation and a retired police chief also said Mr Straw was wrong to highlight one community.

The judge in the case said he did not believe the crimes were "racially aggravated", but Mr Straw said he thought vulnerable white girls were at risk of being targeted by some Asian men.

While most sex offenders were white, "there is a specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men... who target vulnerable young white girls", Mr Straw told BBC2's Newsnight.

"We need to get the Pakistani community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and to be more open about the problems that are leading to a number of Pakistani heritage men thinking it is OK to target white girls in this way," he said.

Young men were "fizzing and popping with testosterone" but girls from the Pakistani community were "off limits", leading them to seek other outlets for their desires, he suggested.

"They see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care... who they think are easy meat. And because they're vulnerable they ply them with gifts, they give them drugs, and then of course they're trapped."

Mr Vaz said Mr Straw's comments were "pretty dangerous" and signalled that he would confront his colleague over them when Parliament resumed tomorrow.

"I have a lot of Pakistanis in my constituency, so does Jack Straw. I don't think this is a cultural problem," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I don't think you can stereotype an entire community. What you can do is look at the facts of these national cases, give it to an agency, make a proper investigation and see how we can deal with these networks of people who are involved in this horrendous crime."

Barnardo's chief executive Martin Narey said street grooming was "probably happening in most towns and cities" and that victims were Asian as well as white.

And Ramadhan Foundation chief executive Mohammed Shafiq, who has previously raised the issue of sex abuse, said the comments were "deeply offensive".

"I have been clear in instigating this debate that these are criminal matters and should be seen in this way.

"No community or faith ever sanctions these evil crimes and to suggest that this is somehow ingrained in the community is deeply offensive.

"I urge all engaged in this debate to do so with tolerance, honesty and, above all, based on evidence and not prejudiced positions."