Sunak and Braverman Sunak and Braverman. Photo: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Shabbir Lakha interviews Dr Ella Cockbain, an Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science at UCL, about the government’s boosting of racist and Islamophobic tropes around ‘grooming gangs’

Suella Braverman has said that ‘almost all’ child-grooming gangs are made up of British Pakistanis and suggested that political correctness or cultural sensitivities are what’s stopping the police effectively tackling this. In your recent article in The Guardian, you described this as ‘misinformation’, ‘exaggeration’ and ‘overt racism’. Could you explain why you think that?

Suella Braverman’s claim that the vast majority of so-called ‘grooming gangs’ are Pakistani-heritage men directly contradicts the evidence from her own department, the Home Office. I say, ‘so-called grooming gangs’ because it’s so racialised as a term: like you see with the convictions this week, they’re not referred to as a ‘grooming gang’, that term is used to racialise offenders.

But yeah, Braverman has not provided the evidence to support the claim she’s making. What the Home Office report actually found was that if you look at what they call ‘group-based child sexual exploitation in the community’, which is basically a kind of more acceptable-sounding euphemism for ‘grooming gangs’, you find that the vast majority are white men. And that’s true for child sexual abuse more broadly as well. The other thing they found is that there wasn’t any kind of reliable, generalisable evidence of disproportionality. So it’s not just a case that the UK is majority white, so of course offenders are majority white. The heavily racialised stereotypes around ‘grooming gangs’ just didn’t stack up when they dug into all the available evidence they could find.

The second problem here is this claim that responses to so-called ‘grooming gangs’ were really poor because of political correctness. And again, there’s multiple issues with claims like this. One of the biggest issues is that responses to child sexual exploitation and abuse in various forms has been really poor across the board. So the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse found a catalogue of failings: in schools, across religious institutions, all sorts of other places.

There have been multiple other inquiries in various places across the country, loads and loads of research show problems in responses, so things like sexually exploited children being criminalised, considered ‘consenting’, so-called ‘child prostitutes’, really awful, awful attitudes and victim-blaming. So saying this is all about political correctness is just massively untrue.

And then what you have is, when challenged on things like this, Braverman and Sunak point to a small number of places where there have been inquiries which have genuinely uncovered issues where people’s fears around upsetting racial sensitivities did play a role, or were reported to play a role. So that’s places like Rotherham, Telford, for example. But if you actually look into the detail of what these inquiries found, none of them say that was the main or the only factor. It’s part of this much bigger picture with problems in responses.

So the political correctness angle, it’s a huge distraction and it diverts attention away from all sorts of issues in the government’s own response to child sexual exploitation and abuse. The really obvious one is that there is massive underfunding of key services. We’ve got victims and survivors who are waiting months and months, even years, to get the support they need, if that support is even available. Huge cuts to grassroots services, issues around mental-health services, issues within the criminal-justice system that mean that waiting times when cases do go to trial are just going up and up and up, which leaves people in limbo for months or years.

So these kinds of big structural problems that need really need to be addressed are conveniently left out of this narrative. And also there’s a broad history of invoking the idea of political correctness which just doesn’t stack up. Like when you think about what we know about institutional racism in the police, for example, right up to the Casey report on the Metropolitan Police that recently came out – this idea that there’s all this evidence of institutional racism in the police and yet supposedly we’re meant to believe that just Asian males got a free pass and responses to white sex offenders are all great.

Sunak and Braverman have announced a new set of ‘measures’ to tackling child sexual exploitation, including creating a new police taskforce. How effective can these measures be, especially if they’re underpinned by these racist assumptions with no factual basis?

The measures are pretty weak when you look at them: there’s a lot of soundbites and not that much in the way of substance. They’re also really law-enforcement heavy. So there’s one which is around mandatory reporting, beyond that, it’s the task force, it’s data collection and sentencing related. They’re hugely reactive and limited in scope, there’s nothing in there at all around prevention or early intervention.

Whether or not it will play out in increased profiling remains to be seen, but I think it’s a very real risk. We know that in some places an excessive focus on stereotypical, racialised ‘grooming gangs’ has reportedly led to the police and probably partner agencies to overlook other abuse: that was documented in South Yorkshire district in 2016 in the Drew Review, for example.

There’s pretty much nothing in the way of well-resourced responses to the issue, and this has been heightened because of Braverman’s intervention, but it’s not new from this government. In late 2020, the Home Office report came out, and that was the one that really challenged the racialised stereotypes around so-called ‘grooming gangs’. And then instead of thinking maybe we should actually respond to child sexual abuse in a nuanced, sensible way, rather than being driven by stereotypes that were established by the right-wing press and politically very useful, Priti Patel did a forward to that Home Office report saying that the findings were disappointing and basically implying the data would show otherwise. And then a few weeks later, the child sexual abuse strategy for England comes out and there’s pages in it on so-called ‘grooming gangs’. It didn’t bother to define what they are, they’re not included in the otherwise extensive glossary. And in it they call for racial profiling, but only in respect of ‘grooming gangs’, not any of the other child sexual abuse issues in this national strategy. It’s just clear dog-whistle racism.

And again, it’s another indication of just how weak the new announcements are. There’s a whole thing in there this week around collecting better data on offenders’ ethnicity: they’ve already been doing that, it’s been in place since 2021. So yes, it’s a lot of bluster and there are very, very real risks of racial profiling.

And another thing is it’s unbelievably disrespectful and damaging to survivors. There’s an assumption it’s just about female victims, which isn’t true, there’s a substantial proportion of boys in the UK who have been sexually abused as well. And this assumption that it’s all about white girls, so there’s this kind of erasure of any victim that doesn’t meet the stereotypes. And even for the victims who do fit the stereotype, there’s been pushback: lots of people have talked about how traumatic they find it to have their abuse weaponised in this way.

It’s just the most disgusting, awful, damaging, unhelpful narrative. Absolute disgrace. 

The far right have often used this myth around Asian or Muslim grooming gangs to organise around, do you think Braverman and Sunak’s words will give them a boost?

In a word, yes. I mean, it’s just really mainstreaming racist, Islamophobic far-right talking points. The right-wing press reinforces the message, reinforces all these stereotypes, obscures and further spreads misinformation. And then even if it’s not true, which it isn’t here, or even if it’s shown at the time or later clearly why it’s not true, the damage is done. The headlines stay up and they keep getting used.

I mean we saw this with the Quilliam Foundation, they did a big report a few years ago that claimed to have conclusively – in their words – established that 84% of ‘grooming-gang offenders’ were Asian. This was one of the worst quality reports I’ve seen in my life, it’s like a case study in bad science. And it has since been debunked, and even though the Home Office has acknowledged it’s not a reliable source, if you Google ‘grooming gangs 84%’, you still get all the headlines telling you that this new report’s come out and it’s found that 84% of ‘grooming-gang offenders’ are Asian. So there’s this kind of legacy to all this misinformation that is really damaging as well.

There is a convergence with ‘grooming gangs’, racist narratives and the demonisation of Asians and refugees. We saw that in Knowsley, with the far-right mobilisation against refugees and people chanting ‘nonces’. You see it in far-right channels on Telegram, people talking about ‘rapefugees’ or ‘they’re all coming over here, and they’re just they’re just gonna rape our children’. These are really, really powerful stereotypes and they’re being boosted by people in the highest office, despite the fact they know they’re not true, which is just unbelievably irresponsible and dangerous.

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Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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