Today a jury returned guilty verdicts on 17 men and 1 women who committed abhorrent crimes in our city. The convictions came about because of the bravery of victims in testifying and Northumbria Police’s Operation Sanctuary – a complex, three year investigation into modern day slavery, trafficking and sexual exploitation involving many more offenders and victims. For the last two years I have been unable to comment on these appalling crimes because of reporting and other legal restrictions. Now I can, I want to start by saying how terrible it is that vulnerable young women and girls were raped and subjected to sexual exploitation in our city. I feel personally ashamed that the city in which I grew up, and which I now have the privilege to represent, harboured men who could abuse those they should have protected. I always say to people that Newcastle is the best city in the world. Clearly, for these young women, Newcastle was not the best city in the world. Newcastle can and must be a place of safety and security for girls and young women and I am immensely saddened that so many did not receive the protection which is their due.
I also want to praise the victims’ bravery and perseverance in testifying against their attackers, re-living their terrible experiences, in some cases more than once. To be subject to such abuse is more than anyone should have to bear, to then describe it to a court full of strangers shows the sort of courage we can only hope to equal, courage which will make Newcastle a safer city.
In a number of cases it is members of the abusers’ friendship circle who helped bring them to trial. I am grateful they chose to do so. I am sure many across the city will be wondering how people they knew, friends perhaps, family members or acquaintances could abuse children and vulnerable adults without raising suspicion. It is right that we question ourselves and essential to increase awareness of grooming and sexual abuse, which may be committed by those we would least expect to. I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no excuse, neither ignorance, culture, prejudice nor lack of education which can possibly justify or excuse the abuse of young women. I know that our PCC, Vera Baird, shares this view and has done excellent work in raising awareness and supporting victims.
I want to pay tribute to Newcastle’s safeguarding team which was specifically praised as outstanding and a model of good practise in the recent Ofsted report. Whilst these crimes should never have been committed, once they came to the attention of the authorities, social workers, police officers, council officers and specialists came together to support the victims, identify the perpetrators and ensure justice was done. It was not the case, as we have regrettably seen elsewhere in the country, that victims were disbelieved or not taken seriously.
That said, if there are any victims or their friends and family who are concerned about their treatment or representation I would urge them to contact me so that I can raise their issues. Anyone affected by the issues raised by Operation Sanctuary is encouraged to contact social services, the police or my office. Northumbria have changed their policing model as a consequence of Operation Sanctuary and the Sexual Exploitation Hub will continue to operate although its funding is not secure. I think it is important to observe that resources committed to Operation Sanctuary raise, yet again, the question of police funding and the ongoing cuts imposed by the Government. In addition, and without in anyway taking anything from the criminality of those convicted, I think it is true to say that if there were better provision of youth services in Newcastle and the North East it would be more difficult for evil persons to pray upon the vulnerable. Youth Services have been slashed as a consequence of local authority cuts imposed by this Government.
I want to comment briefly on the criticism Northumbria Police has received for paying a longstanding informant for information even though he had been convicted of child rape approximately 15 years ago, as a juvenile. The use of informants is an operational matter for Northumbria Police and it clear that by securing so many convictions, Operation Sanctuary has helped make Newcastle a safer city.
Nevertheless it is important that no child rapist should gain financially as a consequence of their terrible crime, particularly from State funds. I understand that this is not the case here.
Finally, some are seeking to use the Asian descent and/or Muslim faith of the abusers to divide our city and indeed our country. Anyone who identifies sexual abuse and exploitation crimes with the Muslim community is not only doing Islam and the community an immense disservice, they are undermining the safety of women and girls in this city. Assuming that grooming and child abuse is prevalent in one group helps potential abusers hide in plain sight if they are not part of that group. Crimes of sexual exploitation can be and are committed by members of all communities and indeed it remains regrettably true that sexual abuse is most likely to come from within the family circle.
And those who seek to spread such disinformation are also doing our city a great disservice. Newcastle is only as strong as our communities, our common values and our shared hopes make it. Newcastle has been found wanting in protecting these young women and girls. It is only by coming together as a city that we can hope to ensure it never happens again.