17/09/2017 08:07 BST

Rochdale Grooming Scandal Whistleblower Defends Sarah Champion And Slams Austerity

Council worker played by Maxine Peake said the Labour Party has to encourage debate after race row.

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Sara Rowbotham helped bring about the prosecution of an asian criminal gang in Rochdale who had been grooming young girls

The hero whistleblower of the Rochdale abuse scandal has said Sarah Champion should not have lost her job over controversial race comments she made in The Sun. 

Champion was sacked as Labour’s shadow women and equalities minister after saying “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men” raping white girls in a column in the newspaper in the wake of fresh grooming prosecutions in Newcastle.

But Sara Rowbotham, the woman lauded for exposing a criminal gang who abused young girls in Rochdale, has defended the Rotherham MP. 

Rowbotham, now a Labour councillor, said Champion should not have made “sweeping statements” but told HuffPost UK: “We should be exploring all the issues, not just shutting people down because we don’t like what they are saying.

Maxine Peake playing Sara Rowbotham in the BBC docudrama Three Girls

“Sarah Champion has been a real champion for young people in Rotherham and she has worked hard, but she disappointed me by some of the things that she said, and that she said them in The Sun.”

Corbyn said the Labour Party was "not going to blame any particular group, or demonise any particular group."

Champion was branded "racist" by many Labour supporters but a number of Sikh, Hindu and British Pakistani groups came to her defence, saying in a letter to The Times she had taken a “courageous stand” in highlighting “a clear trend in criminality.”

Asked if Champion should have kept her job, Rowbotham said “yes,” before adding: “We have to encourage debate.

“If the Labour Party is a broad church then those views should be allowed to be heard but also be heard with something substantial that argues back against it, or that encourages the debate further.” 

Rowbotham, who was portrayed by Maxine Peake in the BBC docudrama Three Girls, added: ”[Champion] is a knowledgeable, articulate woman. We benefit from having that debate with her.”

Champion also used the article to call for research to understand why a portion of convicted perpetrators of gang-linked sexual exploitation were of Pakistani heritage. 

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Sarah Champion lost her job as shadow women and equalities minister in Jeremy Corbyn's cabinet

Rowbotham said: “I think [Champion] said something which I had been saying for quite some time, which is that nobody has done any research into the modus operandi of these criminal gangs.

“Only some of the men who were perpetrators were earning money from the situation and monetarising it.

“The rest of them were fellas who had poisoned children to have sex with them, and no one has done any particular research into why those attitudes of those particular men exist.”

Rowbotham was Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team co-ordinator in a specialist unit between 2003 and 2014.

During her time in the post, she began to suspect that girls were facing systematic sexual abuse from a group of older Asian men. The 50-year-old made more than 100 referrals to police and social services, but the victims were often dismissed as unreliable witnesses.  

She eventually persuaded police to launch a full investigation, leading to a string of convictions. 

Any research on the issue not be confined to one group, Rowbotham stressed, saying that would be a dangerous approach.

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Jeremy Corbyn with Sarah Champion, at the launch of the Labour Party manifesto for the General Election.

She said: “Part of it to me is that a criminal gang will share links with each other, whether that is because they live on the same street or if it because they come from the same place. It happens to be Pakistani in some of these cases.

“In Rochdale, there were also some men from the Congo, there were also men from Afghanistan – so we can’t just have a sweeping statement which says this is only about Pakistani men, because then we will miss things. This, again, is why we need more research.”

She went on: “To me, it was about the police not listening to the victims. That is at the crux of it all for me. I live in a street where there is multiple ethnicities.

“People live really well side by side with each other. It isn’t an issue of them and us.

“Integration is really difficult because you’re more likely to live in a street where you feel safe and that, in and of itself, has potential to create a ghetto kind of street which is just made up of one kind of person, and that’s a housing issue and a political issue.”

Rowbotham opened up to an audience at a conference held by the GMB union in Liverpool last week. 

More than 120,000 people have signed a petition calling for Rowbotham’s work be recognised.

Rowbotham, who was made redundant from her post in 2014 after a service shake-up has previously said “half the evidence that led to mass convictions would never have come to light”. 

She said: “I still don’t know what vindication means. I don’t know if all those people going to jail for all those years is justice for us all. I’m not sure what it means.

“How many times do we have to hear it, and Newcastle just said it this week, that lessons have been learned?” 

She also criticised Northumbria Police’s controversial decision to pay £9,680 to a convicted child rapist in order to secure prosecutions. 

Seventeen men and one women have been convicted in four trials at Newcastle Crown Court, involving rape, human trafficking and conspiracy to incite prostitution.

PA Wire/PA Images
Northumbria Police Chief Constable Steve Ashman during a press conference in Newcastle after police paid a convicted child rapist almost £10,000 to spy on parties where they suspected under-age girls would be intoxicated and sexually abused as part of the force's Operation Shelter into child sexual exploitation in Newcastle

The force said the spy helped to secure convictions and infiltrate the grooming network on behalf of police, but Rowbotham said: “I don’t remember anyone being consulted about it. 

“It was cheap. It was cheap to the girl, it was cheap to the force and it was cheap to us to employ a paedophile to act as an informant.” 

Rowbotham also sounded the alarm about the impact of austerity on child protection, with few “easy to access” workers in communities doing the type of job she did in Rochdale. 

She said: “All those cuts to services means there is now less and less of me.

“The youth services have completely deteriorated, learning mentors schools, all those people who went into the job because they wanted to work with young people, they have kind of professionalised it.

“Now it’s simply a social worker, there is no one down at an easy to access level. Those people with a bit about them, they have all gone.

“In every area youth services were the first services to go, sexual health services are almost non-existent. You get to see your doctor and that is the be all and end all. That is the real consequence of austerity.”

Social workers are also under unprecedented pressure, Rowbotham said. 

“The time between training and starting the job is really short,” she said.

“The bar [to qualify] is much lower, and once you get into the job you have to hit the ground running straightaway.

“You are in assessments, you’re in people’s houses and your caseload is likely to be huge. Your caseload should be about 16 but now they are giving them more like 36. How then do they offer a proper, quality service?”

Sara Rowbotham giving evidence at the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2012

Rowbotham told the audience being called to give evidence at the Home Affairs Select Committee - an event which propelled her story into the spotlight and saw her disclose the many warnings she had made to police - only happened because a colleague was unable to attend. 

She said: “We need to change the culture change around the benefits of whistleblowing. It has been proved that whistleblowing makes everyone safer so we need to see whistleblowing as a really positive thing.

“Whistleblowers are always punished, they’re never rewarded. If a young person does something right at school, you give them a star. We need to encourage that kind of culture.”

She added there was “something fundamentally wrong with us not being a caring society,” adding she had received a barrage of emails since the drama from people in desperate need.

She said: “I’m grateful that my story has been told and I know that I am really fortunate. Since the drama, I’ve had about two

and a half thousand emails from people.

“Most of them saying ‘you’re an angel’ but a lot of them were wanting to tell me about something that is happening to them now or that is happening to their child now, and the other section was people wanting to tell me something that happened to them as a child. 

“It’s disturbing because it means that the doors are not open wide enough. If they see me, someone portrayed in a drama, as the right person to seek out as the right person to tell about their childhood abuse, there is something not right with our system there. 

“The other section was workers who wanted to whistleblow. It is absolutely an indication to me that we have not got things right.”