Our response to Operation Sanctuary

We must all get better at spotting and recognising the signs of grooming, says Peter Wanless

This week we have seen 18 individuals finally convicted for their campaign of exploitation, grooming and abuse of vulnerable young girls and women in the Newcastle area under Northumbria Police’s Operation Sanctuary. The bravery of the girls who lifted the lid on what they have suffered and who helped to bring their abusers to justice is extraordinary. However, it is deeply saddening that Newcastle must now be added to Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and others in the roll call of our towns and cities affected by this appalling pattern of child abuse. 

As a charity that works in partnership with police forces across the country to protect children from harm and abuse, we wholeheartedly congratulate Northumbria Police on their painstaking and determined work over many months which ultimately led to bringing these abhorrent predators to justice. They, like every police force across the country, face an incredibly difficult uphill challenge in gathering evidence, infiltrating networks, and taking difficult risks that will enable them to bring these dangerous individuals to court. It is hugely reassuring to see the significant efforts now being made by law enforcement to investigate these cases. 

That said, much of the media attention in the last few days has been on Northumbria Police’s use of a convicted child rapist to act as an informant and infiltrate the grooming gang, for which he was paid almost £10,000 over 21 months. It is clear that they wrestled with a very tough decision that they did not take lightly. But we have said that we did not think using this informant was appropriate as it could have placed the girls at the centre of this investigation at additional risk. Leading voices in law enforcement including Nazir Afzal, the chief prosecutor in the Rochdale abuse investigation, and former head of CEOP Jim Gamble, have also raised concerns about the decision and questioned whether the benefits outweighed the risks. Others have agreed with Northumbria Police that the means justified the ends and that every possible tactic should have been used to catch the perpetrators in these grooming gangs. 

Jim Gamble has called for a “fundamentally independent, child-centred and transparent safeguarding review” of the use of this informant, which would establish whether it was worth the risk, whether the risks posed by this individual were properly and fully controlled, and what lessons can be learned for the future. We think this is a sensible proposal that should be taken up. 

At the NSPCC we have no issue with the well-established principle in law enforcement of using criminals to catch other criminals, as a valuable source of well-informed intelligence. But there are two fundamental risks with using a convicted child rapist in this scenario. It potentially exposed vulnerable young girls to greater harm. And the unreliability of informants of this nature, with everything we know about child sex offender behaviour, could have jeopardised the court case. 

For instance, while police have said that this informant’s role was to report on the activities of the groomers and abusers, not to mix with the girls, they have also admitted that they ‘could not be 100% certain’ that the informant stuck to these rules.  It is also now a matter of public record that he was arrested for another child sexual offence during the time he was being paid by police, and he had 13 previous convictions for other offences, including 26 offences involving dishonesty. Such issues need to be looked at carefully in the light of Operation Sanctuary before similar tactics are considered again.

Sadly it is already too late to protect those girls who were targeted in Newcastle and across the country. This is only the beginning of a long road to recovery for them and they must receive all possible support to help them get their lives back on track. 

We now need to look at how we put a stop to these deeply disturbing grooming epidemics for good.  

The fact remains that we all must get better at spotting the signs of grooming and recognising it for what it is. Local authorities, police, and charities including the NSPCC must work together with communities to help them to understand and to speak out. We also need to work with young people who are at risk of exploitation, as our Protect and Respect service does with hundreds of young people every year, helping them to recover and to understand that it is never their fault. And we need proper, high quality sex and relationships education in every one of our schools to teach our children about sexual abuse and exploitation and help them to recognise it for what it is, so that it can be prevented before it takes place. 

Working together with our partners we, at the NSPCC, want to play our part in stopping this horrifying pattern of grooming and abuse once and for all.