A row around race and sexual exploitation flared last night as opponents and supporters reacted to a suggestion by Jack Straw that Pakistani men were grooming white girls for sexual abuse. The former home secretary was accused of attempting to "stereotype a whole community" after he suggested that some Pakistani men in Britain see white girls as "easy meat". He was also criticised for not speaking out on the issue when his party was in power.
The Blackburn MP made his comments on Friday night after two Asian men were sentenced that day for a series of rapes and sexual assaults on vulnerable young girls. Abid Mohammed Saddique, 27, was jailed for a minimum of 11 years at Nottingham Crown Court and Mohammed Romaan Liaqat, 28, was given eight years. The men were ringleaders of a gang who befriended girls as young as 12 in the Derby area and groomed them for sex.
Mr Straw told BBC's Newsnight it was a "specific problem" in the Pakistani community. "These young men are in a Western society. In any event, they act like any other young men: they're fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that. But Pakistani-heritage girls are off-limits and they are expected to marry a girl from Pakistan, typically. So they seek other avenues and they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care... who they think are easy meat."
Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was among the first to criticise his Labour colleague: "I don't think you can stereotype a whole community... One can accept the evidence that is put before us about patterns of networks, but to go that step further is pretty dangerous."
Christine Beddoe, director of End Child Trafficking and Prostitution, added: "It's totally inflammatory for him to use a phrase like that. It's going to narrow the focus to looking at a minority group rather than the bigger issue of how we deal with violations and sexual exploitation."
Sheila Taylor, chief executive of Safe and Sound Derby, said: "In some aspects Jack Straw is right, as sexual exploitation needs to be looked at, but it's unfortunate that he's said it in that way. The benefit of him raising the issue, though, is that it gives it a public platform when we're facing reduced services because of the cuts."
Mr Straw came under fire for not speaking about the issue earlier. Mandy Sanghera, a human rights activist based in the West Midlands, said: "I think Jack Straw has made a point, but I wonder why he left it until he was in opposition, with no power, to make it. We have to also remember that vulnerable children from all communities can be groomed, and not just on the street."
Not everyone was critical of Mr Straw's outspoken speech, however. Atma Singh, from the Sikh Community Action Network, said: "Well done to Jack Straw for being 100 per cent honest and saying what many people already know: that there are pockets of youngsters in the Pakistani Muslim community who treat girls from other communities as 'sexual objects'."
The radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir sought to make capital out of the row, with its spokesman, Taji Mustafa, saying: "Rather than examining the root causes of the serious and growing problem of sexual exploitation of women in Britain, politicians and media commentators, led by David Cameron and Jack Straw, started to generalise the issue to 'Muslims', Pakistanis and Asians."