Rotherham child sexual exploitation: ‘Culture of disbelief’ warning as scapegoating continues

Mandatory reporting of all child sexual exploitation is needed to end the "culture of disbelief" revealed in Rotherham, Keir Starmer has insisted.

His call for the shift comes after South Yorkshire's police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright quit the Labour party following intense pressure to stand aside.

Wright has insisted he is the best person to fix the situation in Rotherham, where child sexual exploitation is ongoing in at least 51 cases.

Professor Alexis Jay's report found the "collective failures of political and officer leadership" had been "blatant" over 16 years in which at least 1,400 children were victims of sexual exploitation.

The media has focused on the pursuit of Wright, after home secretary Theresa May joined senior Labour figures in demanding that he step aside.

Wright's defiant response – to quit Labour but refuse to quit as crime commissioner – means the focus could continue to be away from the fundamental need for reform, Starmer suggested.

"It's difficult to overstate the appalling conclusions in this report and accountability is important," he told the Today programme.

"The general principle is where there's a failure of leadership which is proven, people ought to go. But we're mistaken if we think this is about just a few individuals."

Starmer said the report chimed with other abuse cases in Rochdale, Telford, Oxford, Bradford and elsewhere that victims faced a "wall of disbelief" from authorities prepared to write them off as "promiscuous" or "deviant".

"Unless we grasp that central issue, that cultural shift, we will have further reports like this over the years," he added.

"This is not something which is going to be solved overnight, in a week or a month. We have to accept the enormity of this culture of disbelief."

Jay's report found South Yorkshire police received three clear reports documenting the extent of the child sexual exploitation.

But they were "effectively supressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained", she found.

In one particularly disturbing passage from the report, Jay stated: "We read cases where a child was doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, children who were threatened with guns, children who witnessed brutally violent rapes and were threatened that they would be the next victim if they told anyone. Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators, one after the other."

Starmer called for mandatory reporting because officials could be otherwise deterred from revealing the truth – either because of sensitivities about the ethnicities of the perpetrators, many of whom are of Pakistani origin, or because they wanted to protect the reputation of their organisation.

Meanwhile the focus remains on Wright, who rejected the home secretary's advice he should "heed calls" to resign.

In a statement, Wright, who was a Labour councillor in Rotherham with responsibility for children's services for five years, said: "As a father, and a citizen of South Yorkshire, my thoughts are with the victims and their families and I reiterate my apology to them and take full responsibility for my part in the collective failures which took place at Rotherham council during the time I was in office, and indeed to that end I resigned in 2010.

"I've taken that experience to deliver a major transformation in the way South Yorkshire police deals with horrific crimes such as child sexual exploitation, and much progress has been made since I was elected as commissioner in terms of supporting victims, taking preventive action, increasing awareness of the issue and bringing criminals to justice."

Labour backbencher John Mann is writing to May to ask whether Wright could be forced to quit over a case of misconduct in public office.

Jack Dromey, the party's shadow policing minister, said: "Shaun Wright must resign from his position because the people of South Yorkshire have lost confidence in him. Victims will simply not understand if he clings on to office."