Reflections on Rotherham (1): How one community in Rochdale took control to protect its children and young people

Initially the report on Rotherham came as a shock to me – 1400 children raped and abused in one town. Then I read the report and the figures on an annual basis are very similar to those in my home town of Rochdale. But do I believe that things are any different in Oldham, Bolton or Sheffield? These are all similar towns with similar issues. I am clear that just because a town has not identified a problem does not mean that it does not exist.

Moreover, the one lesson that many council chief executives and leaders will have learnt from Rotherham is not to commission an independent report. The second QC’s independent report into child abuse in Rochdale has already been put on hold. For the local police, social services and councillors there is a real incentive to brush things under the carpet. This alone is sufficient to justify national government intervention and leadership. Separate but related to the child abuse situation is the record number of children being taken into care. Rochdale alone has 450 now in care.

Part of my frustration in this is that I have been attempting for the last few years to get people with power and authority to take this seriously and investigate, intervene to make the necessary changes. My clear conclusion is that you could quadruple the resources that the police and social services place in this area and have a considerable increase in the number of convictions – but you will not stop the scale and the extent of the abuse until someone starts to deal with the factors that leads us as a society to produce so many vulnerable young people. Vulnerable young people who have no trust in institutions that are there to protect them and no access to anyone with power.

So what is my experience in this? This is my community. Where I was born and bred and where my family live now. Sure I went off to get educated and my accent is no longer as broad, but Rochdale like most northern towns is still a close community. However, my real education came when as a councillor I came into contact with community groups who were on the front line of dealing with vulnerable young people. For many years I dealt on a daily basis with these sort of issues.

It should be said, of course, that lots of urban northern kids have a perfectly normal childhood. There is a concern that people only hear the bad news. There are, though, a considerable number of children for whom this is not the case. Sometimes it is just one thing that is not right, but usually it is a combination of factors. Inappropriate parenting, lack of parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, parent partners, debt, financial mismanagement, poverty, etc, etc.

Running parallel to this is a complete lack of trust in the protective services of the police, schools and social services. Especially social services. This lack of trust is the key to understanding how to solve the problem. You cannot be both poacher and gamekeeper. The children and their families know that as soon as the file gets opened it rarely gets closed. People know the questions that are going to be asked and they know the answers that they need to give. This does not mean that there are not a whole load of professional, well-meaning and caring people in these professions – but if you are not trusted you cannot enable change.

So on one of my estates people took a different approach. Local people came forward who were sick of the crime and anti-social behaviour. As a newly elected councillor I tagged along and helped where I could, but it is important to emphasize that this was their project. They made the decisions, they made and learnt from mistakes, and they rightly took the credit for their achievements. Within 18 months the estate went from one where the police were there every night to one where crime and anti-social behaviour almost disappeared. And if it did kick off we knew within a few phone calls what had gone off, by whom, and the reason why.

The project helped the whole community, but most importantly children and young people had somewhere to go and someone who they trusted to speak to when things were not going well. Moreover, parents with young children also had someone they could trust and confide in. In a way we acted like a trade union with the community protecting itself in a collective way.

As a Liberal I loved this way of doing things; people acquiring power over their own lives and collective assistance and mutual support. Working-class people taking control over their lives and taking responsibility for those around them. But it also worked. As far as I am aware no child from this area of Rochdale has gone into care over the last 10 years. It should be in double figures if it were like other, similar areas. And whilst I fear that sexual abuse within families is still too common it is not of the ‘grooming’ type as recently reported in Rotherham.

It worked politically as well. Twice 800 people from the estate tuned up to a council committee that I used to chair and many times people from other estates wanted to set up similar schemes. It will perhaps come as no surprise that the people who hated the project were the Labour Party and the council’s children’s services. They have to control and hate it when someone challenges their power. The police and the schools loved us.

So we are the government. We can do things. I am very clear that if we leave it up to the Labour council czars nothing will change. Children will continue to be abused because there are systemic failures in how we support parents and children. Change comes through trust and trust comes from long-term commitment and shared experiences. Plus you can do it all at a fraction of the cost of traditional protective services. And you get better outcomes.

It will come as no surprise that virtually all of the funding has now been cut. We can blame the Labour council, they can blame the Coalition government. We need action from someone and it is not going to come from the council. Will anyone from the Party that I love listen and want to see first hand what is going wrong and what can be done to put it right? Open invitation if you do.

* Elwyn Watkins is an ex Parliamentary candidate and councillor from Rochdale/Oldham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jedibeeftrix,
    I sort od see your point. But the police and politicians also kick allegations made by former residents of children’s homes into the long grass. lose files and whatever. They’ve doing this since way before “multiculturalism” became a buzz word. So maybe the real problem is that authority figures simply don’t take the abuse of vulnerable poor people that seriously and it is more convenient to stigmatise the victims as unreliable, dishonest and even criminal in one form or another.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 29th Aug '14 - 9:49am

    Seems to me that a scheme as described above should be well worth paying for nationally. It would be good timing to put in for that now [while in government] and also take the idea to party conference as it could become a good LD policy.

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