Grooming gangs taskforce: defying political correctness or dog whistle politics?

Use of ethnicity data to crack down on child exploitation criticised but could prove popular with public

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman unveiling the new taskforce in Rochdale, 3 April 2023
Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman are ‘stepping up the pre-election battle over law and order’
(Image credit: Phil Noble/Pool/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak has attracted support and condemnation over his claims that political correctness has fuelled the sexual exploitation of children by hindering efforts to crack down on grooming gangs.

Ahead of meeting victims and local police in Leeds and Greater Manchester to mark the launch of a new taskforce to tackle the problem, the prime minister said: “For too long, political correctness has stopped us from weeding out vile criminals who prey on children and young women.”

Coming six months after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse highlighted an “epidemic that leaves tens of thousands of victims in its poisonous wake”, the government has announced that experienced specialist officers and members of the National Crime Agency will be sent to help local police forces with their investigations.

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Sunak is “stepping up the pre-election battle over law and order” and his comments, along with those by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, “have sparked a furious row with charities and the opposition”, said the Daily Mail.

‘Cultural sensitivities’

Contentiously, the new taskforce will be able to draw upon data on the ethnicity of offenders, which police forces have been required to collect since April last year. Downing Street insisted that access to ethnicity data on the make-up of grooming gangs will help ensure abusers “cannot hide behind cultural sensitivities as a way to evade justice”.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Braverman claimed the perpetrators of sexual grooming are overwhelmingly “groups of men, almost all British-Pakistani, who hold cultural attitudes completely incompatible with British values. They have been left mostly unchallenged both within their communities and by wider society, despite their activities being an open secret,” she added.

In a subsequent BBC interview she repeatedly alluded to high-profile cases in Rotherham and Rochdale and accused “politicians in Labour-run areas” of absolutely failing to take action because of “cultural sensitivities”, said The Daily Telegraph.

Claiming authorities in the past had declined to investigate suspected grooming gangs “for fear of being accused of racism”, an editorial in the Telegraph said it was “right to point out that it was a misplaced concern about upsetting racial and sectarian proprieties that allowed the abuse in some towns to continue for so long”.

‘Willing to say the unsayable’

Labour, children’s charities and academics have all criticised the proposals and rhetoric being used by the government.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the package was “hopelessly inadequate, belated and narrow” and focused on “short-term headlines”, while Sabah Kaiser, ethnic minority ambassador to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was “very, very dangerous” to turn child sexual abuse “into a matter of colour”.

Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, stressed it was “really important that by raising an issue such as race we don’t create other blind spots”. Tracy Brabin, the Labour mayor of West Yorkshire, went even further, calling the home secretary’s comments “dog whistle” politics designed to appeal to a certain demographic.

“The suspicion remains that the Tories have latched upon the grooming gangs issue again in order to create controversy, rile up voters in the Midlands and north of England and demonstrate they are the party willing to say the ‘unsayable’,” said the Independent.

Is it part of a concerted effort to “stoke the culture war clashes and identify Labour as the home of politically correct ‘woke’ politics?” asked the news site. “If the Tories continue to sound like the nasty, least politically correct party about a group the public hates, they will consider their pre-Easter push against grooming gangs a success,” it concluded.

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