It’s rare to find a publication so flawed and yet so influential as the Quilliam Foundation’s report on “grooming gangs”. Launched in December 2017 to much fanfare and little scrutiny, it spawned the now widespread statistic that “84% of grooming gang offenders” are Asian. Why should we care about a dud report? It’s simple: bad science makes for bad policy and bad practice. If misinformation isn’t challenged, then the ultimate losers will be sexually exploited children and already marginalised minority groups.
Recurrent photo montages of brown faces convicted in high-profile “grooming” trials have reinforced dubious stereotypes, skewed perceptions and detracted from a much more complex reality. Child sexual exploitation and abuse affects diverse victims, happens in varied contexts and occurs on a vast scale.
I’ve spent years researching child sexual exploitation (CSE), focusing in particular on complex networks in places including Derby, Rotherham, Telford and Rochdale. These offenders committed vile crimes and they’re undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. Yet, recurrent photo montages of brown faces convicted in high-profile “grooming” trials have reinforced dubious stereotypes, skewed perceptions and detracted from a much more complex reality. Child sexual exploitation and abuse affects diverse victims, happens in varied contexts and occurs on a vast scale. In 2016/17 alone, the police in England and Wales recorded over 13,000 child rapes and tens of thousands of other child sexual offences. That’s despite the fact that only a fraction of child sexual abuse is even reported in the first place: studies suggest as little as 3-15%.
Against this context, the Quilliam report’s sample of just 264 convicted offenders over 12 years is clearly very partial. Despite repeated claims to be “academic” and “evidence-based”, the report is quite simply a case study in bad science. For a start, it doesn’t declare any peer review, source of funding or potential conflicts of interest. Such omissions are troubling.
Peer review is vital for quality control and Quilliam’s funders and allegiances give obvious cause for concern. Moreover, the more child sexual abuse is seen as a Muslim problem, the more this self-styled “counter-extremism” think-tank stands to gain. With no relevant academic or professional credentials to draw on, the authors instead foreground their British-Pakistani heritage. Their identity isn’t the issue here, rather the quality of their work: identity politics mustn’t exempt shoddy research from scrutiny.
The “study” also suffers from a glaring lack of transparency: beyond the vague and essentially meaningless assertion that “extensive data mining methods” were used, virtually nothing is revealed about the data and their provenance (e.g. basics like sampling strategy, search terms, sources and inclusion parameters).
Since the authors neither reveal their methods nor list more than a handful of the cases they analysed, their work can’t be replicated or verified. Such secrecy is odd since the data seems to come from open sources (media reports, most likely), which aren’t sensitive per se; they may be commercially sensitive, however, if they reveal the methods to be less than honest. In a move illustrative of the report’s poor quality, much of Quilliam’s own “data” section is little more than a crude rehash of results from another report entirely: a 2013 report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), stripped of all its vital caveats about its limitations.
Despite these major methodological problems, the report is riddled with dramatic over-claims of the kind rarely encountered in credible research. For example, the authors promise to “definitively demonstrate” whether certain groups are over-represented among “grooming gangs” and describe their results are “conclusively irrefutable”. Yet, the report categorically fails to deliver on its claim to be a “comprehensive data analysis of all group child-sex offences committed in the United Kingdom over a period of 12 years”.
After criticism began to mount online, Quilliam made furtive corrections, notably deleting this claim to be “comprehensive”. When challenged on the corrections, they outright denied them, even producing a spurious letter from their IT company. Side-by-side comparison and the reports’ own metadata exposed that lie. Secretly editing published research is highly irregular and unethical but lying about doing so is all the worse.
From my own research, I know that eight of the victims who bravely testified in this case were black or minority ethnicity: to whitewash them out so categorically (and others too, I wonder?) isn’t just untrue but deeply insulting.
Strangely, the “specific crime profile” Quilliam claim to investigate is actually described in three different ways: “all group child-sex offences”, “group-based localised street grooming of young girls” and “grooming gang” offences. All have different remits. None are properly defined for measurement purposes and none exist in law, meaning they cannot be easily and consistently delineated from other abuse at scale.
The report’s statistical analysis of the characteristics of “grooming gang offenders” is nothing more than a basic counting exercise. It details offenders’ ethnicity but neither their heritage nor religion, making it quite the leap then to make claims about Pakistani Muslim over-representation.
Without presenting any analysis of victims’ characteristics (which would rarely be detailed in media coverage), how could they reasonably conclude that “the Asian male/white female, perpetrator-victim dynamic is the undeniable prominent feature”?
For me, one of the most problematic claims is that ”all of the victims who have come forward so far and revealed their identity have been white”. One of their ten case studies was from Derby. From my own research, I know that eight of the victims who bravely testified in this case were black or minority ethnicity: to whitewash them out so categorically (and others too, I wonder?) isn’t just untrue but deeply insulting.
The report also fixates on “racial difference.. highlighted through repeated reference to the ‘whiteness’ of the victims”. Since this claim is so central to the report, it’s striking that relevant evidence is provided for just one of the 264 offenders (less than 0.4% of the whole sample). The other two pieces of ‘evidence’ provided suggest the authors were scraping the barrel to substantiate their claims: for example, one is a racist insult from an offender to… a ticket inspector.
From start to finish, the Quilliam report is full of unsubstantiated, misleading, misinterpreted, misattributed and untrue information. The authors cherry pick information to support their central thesis that regressive Pakistani Muslim culture drives grooming, omitting information that undermines it. Whether by accident or design, relevant material from court judgements that challenged this position was conspicuous in its absence.
Despite asserting that “all possible caveats relating to the accuracy of the data” are accounted for, the authors overlook some of the most fundamental biases associated with using crime-related data: for example, whether victims come forward to the police (self-selection bias) and their cases are investigated and prosecuted (institutional bias). If they were indeed relying on media coverage, then more important still is the well-known issue of media bias, affecting whether eventual convictions are publicised.
Part of the issue seems to be the reaction that if even British Pakistani Muslims say that their community is responsible for most grooming gangs, then it must be true (identity politics in action).
It is ironic that a report full of spurious claims and unreliable information should itself contain a warning against “false assurances” that “allow debate to be hijacked by those who may wish to promote their own political agenda and malign entire communities based on the actions of a few”.
Despite failing even to show correlation between offenders’ characteristics and their involvement in “grooming gangs”, the authors go on to make a series of emotive claims about causality. They speculate at length about how their results are linked to hot political issues such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, misogyny, homophobia, women’s rights and integration of migrants. Their treatment of these complex issues as the logical explanation for their (limited) findings is both intellectually dishonest and sensationalist.
For all its glaring flaws, the Quilliam report played in perfectly to established stereotypes around the ‘Asian sex gang predator’. Its intrinsic news appeal was likely bolstered by the organisation’s network of media contacts and ready access to large platforms. The report launched on Sky News, followed by much publicity across The Times, The Independent, The Telegraph, the BBC, LBC and many other outlets. Over a year on, the report has barely been scrutinised by the mainstream media.
I’ve said before, bad evidence makes for bad policy and practice. The apparent ramifications of the Quilliam report and the narrative it feeds continue to be felt. Part of the issue seems to be the reaction that if even British Pakistani Muslims say that their community is responsible for most grooming gangs, then it must be true (identity politics in action).
Mainstream politicians have picked up on the report but their handling of it is sometimes subtle. Labour MP Sarah Champion – famously compelled to resign from the front bench over a race-baiting article on grooming in The Sun and later lauded in the Quilliam report – spearheaded a letter to the Home Secretary Sajid Javid in May last year, calling for research into the “drivers” of “organised grooming gangs”. In a follow up letter to Javid, a group of interfaith politicians led by Lord Singh of Wimbledon echoed her calls, this time explicitly citing the Quilliam report as evidence of “Britain’s sexual grooming gang epidemic”. Javid’s response to Champion outlined his plans in this space. Deviating markedly from this letter’s explicit contents, The Times reported that Javid had “ordered research into why men convicted of grooming-gang sex crimes are disproportionately of Pakistani origin”. Numerous other media outlets then ran this story, enforcing the impression that Home Secretary accepted the basic premise that there was a specific problem with disproportionality.
The report’s 84 per cent statistic, with its veneer of legitimacy, assists Islamophobic agendas and claims of “rape jihad”
If there was a misunderstanding, it appears neither Champion nor Javid tried to correct it. Continuing in a similar vein, Javid later tweeted about “sick Asian paedophiles”. In this dog-whistle of a tweet, he further entrenched a racial stereotype that rests as ever on very shaky foundations. Years of austerity measures have decimated funding for many public services, harming efforts to tackle CSE and support its victims. Throwing out crowd-pleasing rhetoric is easy; addressing systemic problems takes more work.
The Quilliam report has been used more overtly by the far-right. Former Chief Prosecutor Nazir Afzal has argued that grooming is “now the biggest recruiter for the far-right”. The report’s 84 per cent statistic, with its veneer of legitimacy, assists Islamophobic agendas and claims of “rape jihad”: a term favoured by the likes of “Tommy Robinson” (Stephen Yaxley Lennon) and Anne Marie Waters, leader of the extreme anti-Islam party For Britain.
Last year, UKIP’s Alan Craig infamously claimed that the UK was facing “a holocaust…of our daughters”, arguing that Quilliam had “traced a major part of the influence [on abuse] back to the Islamic faith”.
Reading the report, it’s easy to imagine how its talk of “divisive, unevolved cultural identities” might inflame and enrage those already concerned with supposedly irresolvable culture clashes. Indeed, UKIP’s Lord Pearson of Rannoch raised the Quilliam report in parliament, claiming “we are looking at millions of rapes of white and Sikh girls by Muslim men”.
Meanwhile, Tommy Robinson – with whom Quilliam had previously controversially allied themselves – cited the Quilliam report in his defence bundle. It is ironic that far-right figureheads should use “grooming gangs” as a campaign tool, given the disregard both Tommy Robinson and BNP leader Nick Griffin have shown for CSE victims’ welfare in endangering major trials with their attention-seeking antics.
In December 2018, Sikh Youth UK, which has also hosted and promoted events with Tommy Robinson, released their own report on ‘religiously aggravated sexual exploitation’ of Sikh girls. Much like Quilliam’s, it was analytically and empirically very weak: a diatribe that made sweeping claims about large-scale abuse by Pakistani Muslims based on scant evidence.
Worryingly, recent accounts now indicate that the far-right is seeking to infiltrate child sexual abuse survivor groups to add credence to their cause.
I’ve spoken to victims and survivors on social media who say they feel erased from dominant debate around CSE as their abuse didn’t fit the white female victim/Asian male offender stereotype. They felt they mattered less to people. Is that really the message we want to be sending? While there are, of course, other factors at play in these developments beyond the Quilliam report, it has certainly fuelled and legitimised myopic narratives around child sexual abuse. With Tommy Robinson recently appointed UKIP’s special advisor on “rape gangs”, the Finsbury Park Mosque attack remains a grim warning that far-right propaganda in this space can have very real consequences.
Further afield, at least fifty people were tragically killed in a white supremacist terrorist attack at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The killer had “for Rotherham” scrawled on his ammunition and two pages in his “manifesto” dedicated to the idea that “invading forces” were raping “European women”, drawing heavily on CSE cases in the UK. Although not directly cited here, Quilliam’s report has undoubtedly helped advance and affirm such tropes around the rape of white indigenous girls by swarthy foreign men.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with research into crime and ethnicity. The problem here is that Quilliam have launched a piece of inflammatory pseudoscience into the public domain, promoted it heavily as valid evidence and refused to engage meaningfully with legitimate criticisms.
Concerns raised, including my own, have been met with silence, obfuscation or outright attacks. Emotions run understandably high where child sexual abuse is concerned, meaning that responsible research is particularly vital.
Before making claims about “proportionality”, surely we should take into account the way that a whole host of factors – demographic, familial, cultural, occupational, institutional and structural – may affect the opportunities potential offenders have to commit crimes and their interactions with the criminal justice system itself. Some of these may be mediated by ethnicity, but it’s a mistake to assume that ethnicity itself is to blame.
It’s crucial to look at the bigger picture: court data show Asians weren’t over represented among roughly 172,000 men & 27,000 women convicted of any sexual offence in England & Wales in 2016.
The same goes for religion, although it’s worth stressing that data on offenders’ religion simply aren’t collected as standard. Once again, it’s crucial to look at the bigger picture: court data show Asians weren’t over represented among roughly 172,000 men & 27,000 women convicted of any sexual offence in England & Wales in 2016. More specifically, Asians were actually underrepresented (at 4%) among the approximately 6,200 defendants prosecuted in 2015/2016 for sexual offences flagged as child abuse related.
When I point out that Asians are not over-represented in such national datasets, I’m often accused of deflecting. People argue that categories like all sexual offences or even all child sexual abuse are too broad and we need to look at specific subsets. I agree that these are broad categories but surely it’s sensible to look at the most extensive data available? I think it’s right to put more trust in large-scale, national datasets than patchy, small-scale datasets with limited coverage.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that analysis and responses can’t be tailored to the specific characteristics and contexts of particular forms of abuse and geographical areas. Specificity is both important and helpful in tackling crimes. But to be useful – especially in the context of measurement – any ‘types’ should be clearly defined and capable of being consistently applied. They should not be built up around an apparently predetermined racial model, as happened with “grooming gangs”. Moreover, the dominant focus on Asian groups can lead to visibility bias and differential responses, meaning abuse that does not conform to stereotypes may be more readily overlooked. Indeed, the Drew Review of South Yorkshire Police’s responses to CSE emphasised that difficulties arise “if a police force has too narrow a definition of child sexual exploitation”.
Tackling child sexual abuse effectively requires dramatically improved responses, good data, honest research and proper funding. We need evidence, not propaganda.
It suggested a focus on Pakistani heritage offending groups had led police and “possibly the whole partnership to look for signs of exploitation in the wrong places”. Meanwhile, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead on child protection, emphasises that “across all categories of child sexual abuse” most offenders are white, despite disproportionate media attention on Asian “grooming gangs”.
The Quilliam report has done nothing to add to our understanding of CSE. Instead, it has single-mindedly promoted a simplistic position based on shoddy research and apparent self-interest. They must take responsibility and retract this useless report. In the meantime, the rest of us owe it to all children who have been or might be sexually exploited to treat it as the sham it is. Tackling child sexual abuse effectively requires dramatically improved responses, good data, honest research and proper funding. We need evidence, not propaganda.
Dr Ella Cockbain tweets as @DrEllaC and this article builds on her earlier Twitter critique of the Quilliam report.