Nazir Afzal: Responding to Rochdale

This is the third part of a four part interview with Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor and activist for women and children’s rights.

‘I watched her interview and I believed her.’

This is what Nazir Afzal said after he took over the Rochdale child sex grooming case. Women and girls had been dismissed at every stage by those people expected to safeguard them against sexual abuse. ‘Every single victim requires care and support. Whether we’re actively helping or not, they’re still suffering. There’s no room for prejudice or making assumptions,’ he said.

It was after he moved to Manchester in 2011 as the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the Northwest England that he realised that the child sexual abuse was rampant and that grooming gangs were the perpetrators. His public profile exploded beyond his expectations.

‘Almost immediately I became aware of the issue of grooming gangs which was clearly coming to the fore but no one had really grasped. I was aware of grooming gangs previously in ad hoc prosecutions up and down the country. My sense was that there was something going on here that perhaps others hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to. Andrew Norfolk of The Times had been absolutely phenomenal in pursuing the case with vigour. He had literally been given a carte blanche to go up and down the country to identify these types of cases. I had been reading what he had to say. I felt there had to be something much, much, deeper here. When I moved to the North West, the first thing I did was to ask my team about any cases involving young girls and large groups of grooming gangs. Maybe I wouldn’t have asked these questions if it wasn’t for my background. The issues centred not upon race but upon crime, upon predators and their prey and the difficulties of eking out evidence for these ‘hidden crimes’, which wouldn’t have even reached the court otherwise. My Pakistani heritage helped cut through barriers within the black and minority ethnic communities. White professionals’ oversensitivity to political correctness and fear of appearing racist may well have contributed,’ he explained.

‘What struck me was firstly that all the young girls had not been believed despite the fact that they had obviously been abused. The view was that the young girls had very chaotic and troubled backgrounds and the jury wouldn’t believe them or maybe they wouldn’t want to give evidence. There were all sorts of excuses made which prevented any prosecutions from starting. But I decided it was important that we did do that. So I brought the first prosecution in Rochdale in 2011. The men were convicted in 2012. All hell broke loose because the UK discovered that it was a bigger issue than they had imagined,’ he says.

‘I personally realised it wasn’t enough just to prosecute again. I was doing a great deal of awareness work in education in children services to get everyone else to improve the work they were doing to ensure that the perpetrators were brought to justice. Now we have more prosecution of child abuse than ever in our history in this country.’

The aftermath of the Rochdale child sex abuse case

Afzal did think things were better than before the Rochdale case and the resultant inquiry.

‘But that said, there are still many, many children and women and others who are being harmed. Nobody can be complacent. When I left the CPS in 2015, we had the highest number of successful prosecutions of child sexual abuse in our history. People forget that. This case was landmarked in a number of ways. Most importantly, it was before Saville, Smith, Hall. It was before Operation Yewtree. This changed the landscape of how we deal with child protection. But sadly, today, as we speak, a child is being abused either by one man or by a group of men. That’s something we need to be reflecting on and do something about. But whenever someone says that lessons will be learnt, my response each time is, why not get it right the first time?’

Nazir Afzal’s landmark achievements came at a personal cost. ‘I hope my work has led to this journey. But it didn’t come without a cost. The far-right decided that they didn’t like me and that all people from the minority group are the same. Therefore, if one of our members abused a child, then we are all child abusers. I damaged their narrative by being the person that brought these Muslim perpetrators to prosecution. The far-right set up what were probably very early examples of fake news using websites and the likes which claimed that I was not responsible for the prosecutions.’

Afzal explained that he had been the victim of persistent threats and abuse from the far-right. For some time they ran a letter-writing campaign calling for the Prime Minister to sack and deport him. ‘One day I received 17,000 emails from their supporters, calling for me to be sacked and deported. I came from Birmingham, I was born there. It got worse. I had English Defence League (EDL) thugs demonstrating outside of my home. I had to introduce a panic alarm inside my house. I needed a police officer outside my home for two weeks. I had to reassure my children about what was happening. They had to go to school in a taxi every day. Nick Griffin of the EDL was door-stepping me outside of my office. I was being targeted because of their lies. But the vast majority of people, including the Prime Minister of this country, totally understood that I was the one who brought these perpetrators to justice, if anything, I was the hero. It got worse for the EDL because the BBC made a three hour film with somebody playing me in the film.’ The three-part film, Three Girls, aired in May, 2017, was based around the Rochdale grooming gang scandal and it won critical acclaim.

‘From their perspective, they will see that it shows Asian men doing nasty things but it also shows that justice too was delivered by an Asian man. I was only targeted because of my ethnicity, my colour and my faith. But people don’t know this story. The far-right do not like the fact that we’re not all the same, we’re not all criminals and that actually some of us are the good guys.’

Issue of ethnicity in child sex grooming gangs

When the child sex grooming gangs story exploded onto the national consciousness, Afzal couldn’t accept the media hysteria over the ethnicity of the abusers.

‘I became the national lead for tackling child sexual abuse after this trial so I was looking across the country to see how everything could be improved. The more I became aware of this type of group grooming the more I understood that it had something to do with the night-time economy. Young girls in the evening are looking for warmth, transport, food, and mind-numbing substances like alcohol and drugs, and they are going to find that in the night-time economy. In many parts of this country, Kashmiri, Muslim and Pakistani men are disproportionately engaged in the night-time economy. Predators hide amongst them, so that’s why the young girls were being targeted by these men in those areas. That in part explained why so many Asian and Pakistani Muslim/ Kashmiri men were involved. But there should be no blanket assumption that Asian/Muslim men are offenders.  There were predators hiding in that environment the same way there were predators hiding in organisations such as the BBC, schools, worship areas and homes. Ninety per cent of sex offenders are British white men, so people need to put that balance in place. I led and prosecuted Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, for example. There are lots of white Christian men who are offending children. Lots of people like teachers, doctors or people you wouldn’t hear about are offending. It fell to me to talk about it.’

‘There is no religious basis for this. These men were not religious. Islam says that alcohol, drugs, rape and abuse are all forbidden; yet these men were surrounded by all of these things. So how can anyone say that these men were driven by their religion to do this kind of thing? They were doing this horrible, terrible stuff, because of the fact that they are men. That’s sadly what the driver is here. This is about male power. These young girls have been manipulated and abused because they were easy prey for evil men. When people are able to access young girls or boys, they’ll take advantage of that. It was more a case of the fact that these girls were young, vulnerable and these men were taking advantage of that simply because they could.’

‘Incidentally, a few weeks after the Rochdale case, we dealt with a case of ten white men in North Yorkshire who had been abusing young girls, and they were all convicted and received long sentences. It didn’t get the level of coverage,’ he points out.

Dealing with the Pakistani community

Nazir Afzal had to also contend with members of the Pakistani community in the wake of the Rochdale case prosecutions.

‘The Pakistani community took it badly. A number of them were in denial and most people did not know what was happening. Some people thought maybe we should focus on something else. After the Rochdale trial, I remember I had a town hall event, in fact it was portrayed in the film, where hundreds of people from the local council, largely from the Pakistani/Muslim community were there. I was trying to explain to them that it’s their responsibility. If you witness, or even by chance become aware of some suspicions, you have a duty to do something about it. I remember somebody shouting at me at that town hall event saying “Nazir, do you want us all to be whistleblowers and grass each other up?” And I responded: “No, I want you to be a nation of good neighbours. I want you to look out for your children and everybody else’s children.” And that is ultimately what it’s about. All of us taking responsibility and not simply expecting the police and the authorities to do this.’

However, despite having to deal with criticisms and contentions from all sides, Mr Afzal saw a silver lining.  ‘I think if you are getting it from both sides, you are doing something right.’

Protection and rights of victims at the core

“When I left the CPS, I was the chief prosecutor for Northwest England, I was the national lead for tackling child sexual abuse. I was the national lead in tackling so-called honour-based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, antisocial behaviour and anything else they wanted to throw at me. I was very lucky that I was able to develop and train people. I built very strong relationships with police colleagues, with ministers and government colleagues. Ultimately it was about improving the services to victims.”

The protection and rights of the victims has been at the core of his work throughout. Afzal ensured that the language and attitude towards the young female victims of child sexual abuse be changed and that the main focus ought to be on the incompetence of every agency that had failed the child victims rather than political correctness gone too far. ‘The law was calling the child victim a prostitute till 2015. That was finally changed in March 2015. But in 2008, the government was issuing circulars to police colleagues to talk about the child prostitution issue again.’

‘It’s not just simply about changing the law or prosecuting offending, it’s also about changing the culture in which organisations operate. I have struggled with that, as have some other people, because the easiest thing to do is to blame the conspiracy of silence and say the only reason they didn’t prosecute these guys was because they were scared of being accused of being racist. It’s easy to blame a conspiracy. It’s harder to admit the fact that you’re incompetent. Social workers, health professionals, doctors, lawyers and prosecutors were rubbish at their jobs. Every agency in charge of safeguarding children failed them for all sorts of reasons – in my view, mainly because of incompetence. Those who were working in social services, education, police and prosecution and every other agency really did not take this as seriously as they should have done for all sorts of reasons. That has to be the main focus. I’ve tried to bring that back to what the reality is.’

‘Key to dealing with these hidden crimes is looking for them, believing the victims and then for agencies to join the dots, to consider what that information they have might mean if it’s added to something somebody else holds,’ he says.

Afzal has a pragmatic approach to analysing the aftermath of the scandal. ‘People need to appreciate that it’s not about the blame culture. I call it the Black Box mentality. The only industry, in my view, that has got it right about learning is the airline industry.’ He explained how he aimed to instil the black box mentality in his work after taking inspiration from the airline industry. He believes that reporting concerns and acting upon concerns as opposed to automatically looking for heads to roll, as is the usual norm in other agencies the world over, is the way forward. ‘I’m trying to instill this Black Box culture in the organisations up and down the country and around the world,’ he says.