Grooming 'cannot be simplified on ethnic lines'

The sexual exploitation of children cannot be "simplified along ethnic lines where the victims constitute one ethnicity and offenders another", the head of the UK's child protection agency said today.

Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) centre, launched an investigation into on-street grooming after former home secretary Jack Straw accused some Pakistani men in Britain of seeing white girls as "easy meat" for sexual abuse.

The "thematic assessment" will establish "whether it is accurate to identify any patterns of offending, victimisation or vulnerability within these cases", and will report in three to six months, the unit said.

But Mr Davies said: "Child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion - it cuts across all communities.

"Neither can it be simplified along ethnic lines where the victims constitute one ethnicity and offenders another.

"We need to continue to build our understanding about the different types of threats faced by children across a range of environments."

Mr Davies said "a number of recent events" prompted him to launch the inquiry into on-street grooming, including Operation Retriever, which prompted Mr Straw to make his comments.

The Blackburn MP said it was a "specific problem" in the Pakistani community which needed to be "more open" about the reasons behind it.

He spoke out after the ringleaders of a gang which subjected a string of vulnerable girls to rapes and sexual assaults were jailed indefinitely.

Mohammed Liaqat, 28, and Abid Saddique, 27, were sentenced to a minimum of eight and 11 years respectively at Nottingham Crown Court for raping and sexually abusing their victims, 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's comments, on BBC2's Newsnight, sparked a furious backlash from a senior Labour colleague and charities.

Children's charity Barnardo's, Muslim youth group The Ramadhan Foundation and retired detective chief superintendent Max McLean, who led a previous investigation into sexual exploitation involving young girls in Leeds, all said Mr Straw was wrong to highlight one community.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, described Mr Straw's comments as "pretty dangerous" and insisted the case was not symbolic of any "cultural problem".

Today, Mr Vaz said Ceop will be asked to give evidence on its inquiry to the committee.

"A thorough and comprehensive national investigation on street grooming is urgently needed," he said.

"A full investigation will give the police the information they need to target the criminals and criminal networks involved in this hideous crime."

But former Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell said Mr Straw's comments were "true" and the MP was "very brave" to speak out amid fears of being branded racist.

"What Jack Straw has said so carefully is true," he told the Lancashire Telegraph.

"There is a problem with some members of the Pakistani community targeting young women in this way.

"There must be a debate, not on his right to make the comments but on the issue itself because if we can't do that then we can't be honest about the issues that currently affect our communities."

Mr Gradwell added that in the past police and others could not speak out about Asian sex gangs for fear of being seen as racist, especially in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry which said the Metropolitan Police were "institutionally racist".