Rochdale councillor John Blundell speaks to the NHS Heroes Award-winner about unearthing child sex exploitation

Roughly one year ago a television programme, Three Girls, hit people’s television screens horrifying the public with a very real and present scandal. Children were being groomed and sold for sex, sometimes in the full knowledge of the authorities, and it was happening up and down the country. 

As a 24-year-old man from Rochdale, I remember the first convictions in 2012 (five years before the BBC drama was broadcast) having a severe impact upon people of my age. This was taking place right on our doorsteps, on such a scale and to people the same age as us. The scandal then snowballed across the country as authorities scrambled to bring their own practices in line. 

Some were so vulnerable they didn’t realise they were being abused...

In Three Girls, Bolton-born actress Maxine Peak plays a woman called Sara Rowbotham who was instrumental in unearthing the horrific plight of these young women. 

Sara was the manager of an NHS sexual health clinic in Rochdale and documented multiple cases of exploitation which she took to the authorities (who largely ignored her) and eventually to her Member of Parliament. The evidence she compiled was used to convict the active sex ring, potentially saving hundreds more children from suffering similar abuse.

She is now Deputy Leader of Rochdale Council, Cabinet Member for Health & Wellbeing and has just been awarded an NHS Heroes Award for her part in exposing the scandal.

We met to discuss the Rochdale grooming case, why it happened and whether we'd learned our lesson...

Maxine Peake Sara Rowbotham Three Girls
Maxine Peake playing Sara in BBC drama, 'Three Girls'. BBC

Why did it happen?

SR: "It was a combination of things. Social worker legislation says it is their role to assess and intervene if a child is being abused by a family member or neglected by the parents. The assessments they undertook showed that parents were doing their best, and they were, so the children weren’t removed. There's also an environment in which social workers believe the care system to be much worse.

"The police would say 'bring us a victim and we will investigate'. However, the children didn’t have the knowledge, the individual skills or language to put the case forward. Some were so vulnerable they didn’t realise they were being abused. It was nobody’s job to action."

So how did it become your job to action?

SR: "We were a sexual health service, which is more than just preventing infections and unplanned pregnancies. Being sexually healthy means you are making healthy decisions about your sexual relationships. As far as I am concerned sex is not for children. They cannot consent to an adult."

Sara Rowbotham Itv Twitter
Sara Rowbotham receiving her NHS Heroes Award in May 2018 ITV Twitter

Still, sexual health services are much diminished. Are the practices of the authorities any better?

SR: "What has changed is that every Local Authority has a child sex exploitation strategy. Lots of areas have a dedicated team, with police and social workers working together."

So, are we past bad practice?

SR: "No, are we 'eck! The resources don’t exist, low threshold sexual health services, no youth services or learning mentors, education welfare services all gone. There is a huge rise in using the internet and social media to groom children. The resources to investigate and prevent these crimes are just not there."

Seven Sisters Rochdale
Rochdale's child sex ring was exposed in 2012

Some people have lost faith in their society. How do we get that back?

SR: "This is a difficult one to answer. We can't simply say 'we've learnt the lessons', we have to demonstrate that as a society we're going to look out for our vulnerable children, especially teenagers.

"We have to challenge that this is solely about ethnicity, because child abuse, child sexual abuse, happens in every community, every society, every town. If you can't see it in your town you're not looking hard enough.
"We also have to actively challenge men’s attitudes toward women and girls. We are better at supporting girls and making them more ‘resilient’, but there's still 
consistently high rates of domestic violence."

What was it like to become an NHS Hero?

SR: "It was emotional. Everybody mentioned their teams that night, we all rely on one another. There is no I in team and it wasn’t just me, I couldn’t have done it without them."

John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills & Employment on Rochdale Council. He is a graduate of Economics from the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Council at just 20 years old.