Telford abuse: Victim numbers 'sensationalised' says police chief
Reports on the scale of sexual abuse in Telford are "sensationalised", a police chief has said.
The Sunday Mirror said it uncovered Britain's "worst ever" child grooming scandal, with up to 1,000 girls abused by grooming gangs since the 1980s.
One victim told how she was abused at a "rape house" and the town's MP Lucy Allan said girls were being traded for sex in a "routine way".
West Mercia Police Supt Tom Harding "significantly disputed" the figures.
"I don't believe Telford is any worse than lots of places across England and Wales," he said.
Who are the victims?
The Sunday Mirror said its report revealed "abuse on unprecedented levels".
"Holly" - a victim of exploitation in the town from the age of 14 - told the Victoria Derbyshire programme she went to a sexual health clinic for the morning-after pill twice a week for three years, but no-one ever asked her any questions.
She said she was beaten with a belt and sold "two or three times a night".
Ms Allan told the Victoria Derbyshire programme that white working class girls were targeted because of their backgrounds.
But reports of the scale of the abuse, and the background of victims, have been questioned.
Supt Harding, who is in overall charge of policing in Telford, said police and authorities in the town were working with "approximately 46 young people" who were victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) or considered "at risk".
He added: "Therefore, I significantly dispute the 1,000 plus figure and do feel it is sensationalised.
"Read the headlines, read the reports. What are they actually discussing? They're discussing cases from 20 or 30 years ago, offending back in the 1990s.
"We've never said there aren't cases, there are always cases we are working on and seeking to prosecute."
Ms Allan said "no-one is suggesting there are 1,000 victims on the streets of Telford today".
Ansar Ali, a spokesman for Together Against Grooming, said he had seen evidence about the background of those affected.
He said: "A study on this issue was done by the Office of the Children's Commissioner which dated back to 2013 and, according to that research, a third of victims were felt to be from a non-white background or black minority ethnic background."
A Telford social worker, who did not wish to give her name, said: "It isn't only girls that are exploited, boys can be exploited in exactly the same way through grooming.
"We work with an age range of 13 to 19-year-olds, we have females and we have males we support.
"We have young people from all different backgrounds, it is not just targeting young girls through working class."
- White working class girls 'traded for sex'
- Telford grooming gangs 'tip of iceberg'
- 'I was sold twice a night'
Who are the perpetrators?
The Sunday Mirror said it found "groups of mainly Asian men" were targeting girls in the town.
Child sexual exploitation in Telford first made headlines in 2012 when seven men were jailed following West Mercia Police's Operation Chalice.
The force said more than 100 girls could have been targeted by the gang between 2007 and 2009.
Victims as young as 13 were plied with drugs and alcohol and sold for sex by men who posed as their boyfriends.
Ms Allan said the men jailed in 2012 "were of Pakistani origin, the victims were of white origin" and "that was the case in Rotherham and in other places across the country".
She said: "We shouldn't shy away from it and we shouldn't bury our heads in the sand."
But Supt Harding disputed claims that offenders are predominantly groups of Asian men, adding: "You look at Operation Chalice and that was a prosecution that happened to be a number of Asian males.
"What I would say is sexual offending across Telford and Wrekin is virtually identically proportionate to the break-down of society, so it is not one particular section over others and we will tackle it wherever it is."
Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who said: "It is self-evident that one of the reasons those kinds of horrific crimes were able to go on for such a long time is too many people in authority felt that they shouldn't say anything because they'd be labelled racist and that's completely unacceptable."
Supt Harding said: "My officers will stop [and] engage with people for a variety of reasons and the race of that person does not enter their minds."
What has been done?
Telford & Wrekin Council and West Mercia Police said they had invested huge resources into tacking CSE in the town.
The council has a dedicated team which deals with young people at risk of sexual assault. Between 2013 and 2016 it dealt with 303 cases.
A spokesman for the authority said: "Our approach to CSE is now very different from 10 - 20 years ago. We have learned lots of lessons and made many changes to our practices, which we keep under constant review."
Assistant Chief Constable Martin Evans of West Mercia Police said tackling the issue was "the number one priority for police in Telford".
"We have specialist officers and resources in place tackling this type of offending, and we are committed to using our resources and technology to pursue anyone who sexually offends against children - whether that offending took place today, last week or years ago," he added.
The anonymous social worker said she did not believe agencies were "complacent" over the issue in Telford and have done large amounts with communities to make sure they are aware of the signs of exploitation.
Ms Allan has repeatedly called for an independent inquiry into what happened in Telford.
"We are going to be focussing on why did this happen," she has said. "That's what the victims want, that's what they need."
She added: "I want an inquiry to tell us why it has happened.
"Is someone responsible? Should we have done something differently?"
Council leader and Labour councillor Shaun Davies backed her plea and said his "absolute commitment is to victims".
The Home Office said the government's Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, set up in the wake of allegations about Jimmy Savile, would be heading to Telford, but it was for local authorities to decide whether a further review was necessary.
Telford & Wrekin Council said: "The council believes another council-commissioned inquiry is not appropriate as its independence and scope could be called into question, hence the need for the government to commission this."
It said if the Home Office would not commission a report, it would continue to push for the IICSA, chaired by Prof Alexis Jay, to visit Telford as soon as possible.
Prof Jay headed the inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, which was ordered by local authorities there in the wake of its own child abuse scandal.