More than 1,000 children were raped and sexually exploited over 30 years in Telford where police and council officials ‘ignored’ abuse over fears investigating Asian men would ‘inflame racial tensions’, an inquiry has concluded.
It found that children were brainwashed by men using a ‘loverboy method’ to reel them in, as they operated a ‘rape house’ in Wellington.
A public inquiry was launched by Telford and Wrekin Council after a Sunday Mirror investigation in 2018 concluded that around 1,000 children could have been sexually exploited in the Shropshire town over a 30-year period.
The report, published today, makes 47 recommendations for improvement among the involved agencies, after its chairman Tom Crowther QC concluded that the abuse had gone unchecked for decades.
West Mercia Police has apologised to children who were sexually exploited in Telford over the past 30 years, saying their actions ‘fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us’, with Telford and Wrekin Council also apologising.
Speaking on behalf of the force, Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper, said: ‘I would like to say sorry. Sorry to the survivors and all those affected by child sexual exploitation in Telford.
‘While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down.
‘It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the context of the report and the recommendations that have been made.’
Becky Watson suffered two years of sex abuse at the hands of a grooming gang, which began when she was 11 and she died in a car incident when she was 13. Vicky Round (right), a friend of Becky’s, was abused by the same gang. She was just 20 when she died of a suspected overdose.
Lucy Lowe was 16 and pregnant with her second child when she was murdered alongside her sister Sarah, 17, and their mother Eileen, 49, in a house fire in Telford set by Lucy’s boyfriend, Azhar Ali Mehmood
The inquiry concluded that more than 1,000 children were sexually exploited over at least 30 years with men operating a ‘rape house’ in Telford amid ‘shocking’ police and council failings.
Children in Telford were brainwashed for years by men who bought them alcohol and cigarettes in what was described as a ‘loverboy’ method to sexually exploit them, a report found.
Girls who were much younger and vulnerable were targeted by men they would meet on the street or who might be a taxi or food delivery driver and persuaded to become their ‘girlfriend’, an inquiry into decades of abuse in the Shropshire town said.
A police witness told the inquiry, which published its findings today, that the typical perpetrator’s plan was to meet as many girls as they could, particularly those on the edge of friendship groups or who seemed to be craving attention.
The men might start by giving the child a lift, buying them fast food, alcohol and cigarettes and topping up their mobile phones – all in a bid to convince the girl they were in a loving relationship.
It was a ‘by far the most common method by which children were introduced to child sexual exploitation’ in Telford, in what studies have called ‘the ‘boyfriend’ or ‘loverboy’ model’, the report said.
Having done so, the men would encourage the child to become involved in sexual activity and establish control.
Telford’s child sexual exploitation inquiry findings:
- More than 1,000 Telford children were exploited ‘over decades’
- Obvious signs of child sexual exploitation were ‘ignored’
- Exploitation was ‘not investigated because of nervousness about race’
- Information was not properly shared between agencies, with some bodies dismissing child exploitation as ‘child prostitution’ and even blaming the children instead of the perpetrators
- Teachers and youth workers were ‘discouraged from reporting child sexual exploitation’
- Offenders were ’emboldened’ and exploitation ‘continued for years without concerted response’
- Police and the council scaled down specialist teams to ‘virtual zero – to save money’
Inquiry chair Tom Crowther QC said: ‘The nature of the crimes often involved brainwashing young people into believing they were in meaningful, loving and reciprocal relationships, even if such apparent reciprocity involved them engaging in things that deep down they knew they did not want to do.
‘Although some children spoke to professionals about their situations, for some time those professionals failed to understand that these ‘relationships’ were exploitative.’
The inquiry discovered that victims found it difficult to escape their abuse and in many cases did not even recognise themselves as being victims, with the situation having become ‘a way of life to which they had become accustomed’.
Mr Crowther said: ‘This explains exactly the manipulative and powerful hold the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation exerted over their victims in Telford.’
The inquiry also heard that offences took place in various known licensed premises in the area – in nightclubs, restaurants and takeaway establishments, with children being ‘pimped’ out and taken into rooms within the premises to be exploited.
Mr Crowther said one of the most shocking pieces of evidence he had read related to ‘what was described as a ‘rape house’ in Wellington, which it became clear had been operating for years’.
The report highlighted witness testimony suggesting Asian men were not targeted as part of investigations because it would have been ‘too politically incorrect’, with one saying police were found to have ‘dropped the case like a hot potato’ if such complaints were made.
One witness claimed police were ‘frightened to question or challenge’ because of the ethnicity of people involved amid fears they could be labelled as racist.
Girls were subjected ‘in several cases’ to death threats against themselves or their families if they tried to put a stop to abuse, the inquiry heard.
The report said: ‘In some cases, threats were reinforced by reference to the murder of Lucy Lowe, who died alongside her mother, sister and unborn child in August 2000.’
‘Abusers would remind girls of what had happened to Lucy Lowe and would tell them that they would be next if they ever said anything. Every boy would mention it.’
In 2001, the then 26-year-old taxi driver Azhar Ali Mehmood was handed four life sentences when he was jailed for the murders of Lucy Lowe, 16, Sarah Lowe, 17, and 49-year-old Eileen Linda Lowe in 2001.
In 2020, the ‘jealous and possessive’ Mehmood had a bid to be freed from jail rejected.
The inquiry, published today, reported that unnecessary suffering and even deaths of children might have been avoided, had West Mercia Police (WMP) ‘done its most basic job’ in acting on reports of such crime.
For decades child sexual exploitation (CSE) ‘thrived’ in the Shropshire town and went ‘unchecked’ because of failures to investigate offenders and protect children amid fears that probes into Asian men would ‘inflame racial tensions’.
The Police and Crime Commissioner for West Mercia, John Campion, said he could not say with ‘absolute certainty’ that child sex abuse in Telford would never happen again.
Mr Campion said: ‘Victims and survivors, along with their loved ones, have been let down and I am sorry that this has happened.
‘I cannot say with absolute certainty, just because lessons have been learnt, that it will never happen again.
‘This report will no doubt have people questioning their confidence in policing.’
Inquiry chairman Tom Crowther QC, who issued 47 recommendations for improvement, said the evidence revealed ‘appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation’.
He added: ‘The overwhelming theme of the evidence has been the appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation.
‘Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.
‘Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded.
‘They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened. They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed.’
He said that ‘for decades CSE thrived in Telford unchecked’ and agencies, including the council and WMP, were ‘aware of it in detail’, adding: ‘Failure by agencies to investigate emboldened offenders; failure to safeguard put children at risk.
‘So far as both the council and WMP were concerned, a number of features appear to have contributed to this shocking failure to address CSE: a focus upon abuse within the family, at the expense of extra-familial exploitation; over-caution about acting in the absence of ‘hard evidence’ – a formal complaint from a child – about exploitation; and a nervousness that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame racial tensions.’
Azhar Ali Mehmood was jailed for life after being convicted of three counts of murder – but was never arrested or charged over sex abuse
Mubarek Ali (left) and his brother Ahdel Ali (right) from Telford were both jailed after sexually abusing young girls in a child sex abuse ring
The chairman described a ‘culture of not investigating what was regarded as ‘child prostitution’ and said the force turned ‘a blind eye and chose not to see what was obvious’.
He said an absence of police action had emboldened offenders, and added: ‘It is impossible not to wonder how different the lives of those early 2000s victims of child sexual exploitation – and indeed many others unknown to this inquiry – may have been had WMP done its most basic job and acted upon these reports of crime.
‘It is also impossible in my view, not to conclude that there was a real chance that unnecessary suffering and even deaths of children may have been avoided.’
He also criticised the ‘glaring failure on the part of a generation of Telford’s politicians’ not to regard a child sexual exploitation response as an ‘essential service’ in the period before 2016.
In a statement, Telford and Wrekin Council has said it ‘apologises wholeheartedly’ to the victims of child sex abuse.
The statement read: ‘We apologise wholeheartedly to victims and survivors for the pain they have gone through and thank them for sharing their experiences with the inquiry, which must have been incredibly difficult to do.
‘Child sexual exploitation is a vile crime that disgusts us and all right thinking people.
Telford sex scandal: Timeline of abuse
1980s Girls in Telford are targeted by groups of mainly Asian men
1996 A resident goes to police with information about a key abuser selling underage girls for sex
Late 1990s Social workers learn of the problem but do little to help
2000 Lucy Lowe, 16, is killed alongside her mother and sister in an arson attack by abuser Azhar Ali Mehmood
2002 Abuse victim Becky Watson, 13, is killed in a road accident described as a ‘prank’
2010-2012 Police probe Operation Chalice identifies potential 200 abusers but only nine are jailed
2016 MP Lucy Allan calls for public inquiry but police and council officials in Telford write to Home Secretary Amber Rudd saying this isn’t necessary
March 2018 As many as 1,000 victims are believed to have been abused
The independent inquiry acknowledges we have made significant improvements in recent years.
‘We are working very hard, day in and day out, to provide the best possible support for victims of this crime. We will continue to work alongside and listen to victims and survivors.
‘Telford & Wrekin Council commissioned the report that dates back to 1989 and accept the inquiry’s recommendations, many of which we are already carrying out.’
Seven men were jailed in 2013 following Operation Chalice, a police probe into child prostitution in the Telford area.
Girls in the town of Telford in Shropshire were drugged, beaten and raped at the hands of the violent groom gang which was active since the 1980s.
Three people were murdered and two others died following incidents linked to the sickening scandal.
Lucy Lowe, 16, died alongside her mother and sister after the man who had been abusing her, 26-year-old Azhar Ali Mehmood, set fire to their house.
The taxi-driver first targeted Lucy in 1997. She gave birth to his child when she was just 14.
Mehmood was jailed for murdering Lucy, her mother Eileen and her sister Sarah, 17.
However, he was never arrested or charged with any sex abuse crimes over his involvement with the young girl.
Becky Watson, 13, was killed after a car she was in crashed. At the time the incident was reported as a ‘prank’.
However, it was revealed she had suffered two years of sex abuse at the hands of a grooming gang, which began when she was 11.
Vicky Round, a friend of Becky’s, was abused by the same gang.
They forced her into a crack cocaine addiction aged 12. By the age of 14 she was taking heroine regularly. She died aged 20 after a suspected drug overdose.
A victim of a grooming gang in Telford previously revealed how she endured a ‘whirlwind of rape’ on a daily basis, as police, youth workers and medical staff apparently ignored tell-tale signs of her ordeal.
The woman, calling herself ‘Holly’, suffered four years of abuse as the ring sold her ‘countless times’ for sex.
Holly said she only escaped the cycle of abuse by leaving her home in the Shropshire town to live in hiding 40 miles away.
In 2018, West Mercia Police Supt Tom Harding ‘significantly disputed’ claims that 1,000-plus children and young women may have been groomed over four decades in the Shropshire town
Holly was interviewed by police during the inquiry, known as Operation Chalice, which resulted in the 2013 prison sentences, but in the end decided she could not face her abusers in court.
Seven members of the gang were jailed in 2013 after a police investigation.
But detectives said at the time that up to 200 men from across the country had been involved in the ring – with a ‘huge percentage of them’ unidentified.
In 2018, Telford’s police chief said that the number and scale of girls sexually abused there had been ‘sensationalised’.
West Mercia Police Supt Tom Harding has ‘significantly disputed’ claims that 1,000-plus children may have been groomed over four decades in the Shropshire town.
He said at the time: ‘I don’t believe Telford is any worse than lots of places across England and Wales’
West Mercia Police has apologised to children who were sexually exploited in Telford over the past 30 years. File image
It came after then prime minister Theresa May told the Commons has said it is important that an inquiry into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Telford gets under way as quickly as possible.
Mrs May said ‘we have all been shocked’ by the ‘horrific’ case, and said she was pleased that an inquiry would happen.
In 2019, one of the seven prosecuted six years earlier was jailed alongside three other men for abusing a ‘helpless’ young girl who was ‘passed around like a piece of meat’, sold for sex and raped.
The victim, aged just 13 when the abuse began in 2001, told how she was forced to perform sex acts in a churchyard, raped above a shop on a filthy mattress, and violently abused when she tried to refuse their advances.
The inquiry, which has taken three years to conclude, looked at allegations from 1989 to the present day but Mr Crowther said he had also spoken to victims whose experiences dated back to the 1970s.
He warned the ‘dreadful, life-altering crime has not gone away – in Telford or elsewhere – and it must remain high on the radar’ of police and other public bodies.
Mr Crowther’s report highlighted figures which showed WMP received 172 referrals relating to child sexual exploitation in the first six months of 2020, representing a 54% increase compared with the same period in 2019.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper said: ‘While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down.
‘It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the context of the report and the recommendations that have been made.’
The council said it was working ‘very hard’ to provide ‘the best possible support for victims of this crime’ and accepted the inquiry’s recommendations, many of which it is already acting on.
But West Mercia’s police and crime commissioner John Campion said he could not say with ‘absolute certainty’ that child sex abuse in Telford would never happen again, adding: ‘This report will no doubt have people questioning their confidence in policing.’