The heightened sensitivities that surround issues of race relations are clouding the clear verdicts that have been reached in Liverpool Crown Court, where nine men were found guilty of grooming under-age girls for sex.
Because the men are all Asian Muslims, and the victims were all white, some right-wing extremists have been attempting to make political capital from the case. And they have been abetted by right-wing newspapers whose anti-immigration agenda is fed by suggestions that under-age grooming is a problem peculiar to the Asian community.
Police and social workers, on the other hand, who are anxious not to inflame racial tensions, insist the crimes are not racially motivated – and, for their caution, have been accused of maintaining a "culture of silence". The result has been violent race disturbances in the area around Rochdale, where the grooming in this particular case occurred.
The Independent has conducted a two-month investigation into the claims that British Pakistani men are to blame for much on-street grooming. In part one, which we publish today, Paul Vallely picks a path through a minefield of racial prejudice and political correctness. It is true that those eager to rush to racial stereotypes can find a handful of cases which appear to suggest the crime is a distinctly Asian one. But the reality is more complex.
Part of the problem is that the data on child sex exploitation in modern Britain is so poorly recorded, inconsistent and incomplete that it is impossible to draw any viable conclusions at all about whether Asian men are disproportionately involved. Similarly, our investigation concludes that the victims, who were targeted in takeaways and taxis, were approached in an opportunistic and haphazard fashion rather than because they were white. And elsewhere several Bangladeshi Muslim girls were also abused.
That said, there are clearly sufficient Asian men involved in such crimes to suggest that there is a significant issue that leaders in the British Pakistani community must address. The second part of our investigation, which will be published tomorrow, goes on to look at what the Asian community is doing – and what more remains to be done.
It is in no one's best interests to refuse to face up to racial or cultural elements in this issue, least of all those of the young girls so horrifically abused. Yet there is also a grave danger in highlighting the problems of just one community. Networks of child abusers are white, Afro-Caribbean and of mixed ethnicity in different parts of the country. And until the authorities improve the data collection on such offences, not only will it be impossible to be sure whether there are particular cultural factors which lead to a propensity for particular types of crime, but racial tension will be exacerbated.
Judge Gerald Clifton, in sentencing the predators from Rochdale in Liverpool Crown Court yesterday, said that one of the factors leading to the disrespect with which the abused girls were treated "was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion". The authorities and community leaders alike need to explore how such attitudes arise and how they are best combated. But police and social workers must not be encouraged by a political firestorm to focus only on the British Pakistani community. If they do, other offenders will go unwatched and unchecked. And, for the sake of all vulnerable children, the appalling crimes in Rochdale must mark a turning point.