‘I’d rather be called a racist than turn a blind eye to child abuse’

September 2 2017

The Labour MP’s article about sex gangs caused a furore

It was the calm after the storm.

For a few days last month, Sarah Champion found herself centre stage as a whirlwind of accusations came hurtling in her direction.

Labour’s equalities spokeswoman was blamed for exacerbating racial tensions in an article she wrote for The Sun after the conviction of a sex-grooming gang in Newcastle upon Tyne who were largely of Pakistani origin.

The loudest howls of protest came from fellow Labour members and supporters.

After a brief fight to keep her shadow cabinet role, Ms Champion stood down. It was a sacking disguised as a resignation.

For the first interview since her return to the back benches, the Rotherham MP has chosen to meet in the grand surroundings of Wortley Hall, a country house in the rolling South Yorkshire hills between Sheffield and Barnsley.

This is a world of classical statues and sunken gardens, but the former seat of the Earl of Wharncliffe is no playground for the rich.

It is owned by the trade union movement and for more than for 50 years has proudly boasted of its status as the workers’ stately home.

Union banners are at every turn.

The hall today is a Labour education, conference and recreation centre.

It seems that Ms Champion has chosen her venue wisely.

She is likely to be among friends. There is soon proof of this.

We find a table in the corner of a bar room heaving with guests at a Labour wedding reception.

For two hours, barely five minutes passes without someone offering the MP their solidarity and sympathy.

They tell her that she has been sacked for telling the truth, that it’s a disgrace, that she has their support and that the Labour front bench will be poorer for her absence.

Ms Champion’s crime was to address a subject that is deeply uncomfortable for many on the left.

It was a sin compounded by her doing so in a tabloid newspaper that many in her party loathe.

It’s not an opinion, although people would like it to be.

It’s based on the facts of this very specific form of grooming In undeniably blunt language, under a headline that read “British Pakistanis ARE raping white girls . . . and we must face up to it”,

Ms Champion, 48, tackled head on a crime with which she has become all too familiar since her victory in a 2012 by-election.

Wedding guests praise her because for most of them Rotherham was home.

They know that a 2014 inquiry found that over 16 years 1,400 girls from the town were abused by groups of men who were said to be “almost all” of Pakistani heritage.

A similar pattern was seen in prosecutions of groups of men across England, including Rochdale, Oxford and, most recently, Newcastle upon Tyne, where 14 of the 17 Asian men convicted of multiple sex crimes last month were British-Pakistanis.

Ms Champion’s experience in Rotherham prompted her to lead, with the children’s charity Barnardo’s, a parliamentary inquiry into gang-related child sexual exploitation.

She knows her subject.

Asked why she chose to express her opinion in such forthright terms, she is swift with a correction. “It’s not an opinion, although people would like it to be,” she says. “It’s based on the facts of this very specific form of grooming of girls by gangs of men.

“It’s a very consistent model of recruitment, manipulation and exploitation, and when you look at the figures of the people who’ve been arrested and convicted, the vast, vast majority are British-Pakistani men.”

She refuses to criticise Jeremy Corbyn for her sacking and will not discuss the role played by the leader’s office and by Naz Shah, a fellow Yorkshire Labour MP.

Police, social workers, children’s charities, health professionals were getting in touch and saying, ‘Thank God you’ve said it’

It is no challenge, however, to imagine the betrayal that Ms Champion felt when a parliamentary colleague that she had regarded as a friend publicly accused her of making “racialised, loaded statements” and “demonising every Pakistani man as a racist”.

The Labour leader weighed in, accusing The Sun of inciting Islamophobia and stigmatising “entire communities”.

Ms Champion seems genuinely fond of Mr Corbyn but less enamoured of his closest advisers.

If the political backlash was brutal, the former hospice chief executive was heartened by the very different response she received from child-protection professionals.

“My email inbox went nuts with overwhelmingly positive messages. Police, social workers, children’s charities, health professionals were getting in touch and saying, ‘Thank God you’ve said it; now maybe we can actually start dealing with this’.

The relief they were expressing was extraordinary,” she says. Ms Champion found it equally extraordinary that some within Labour circles reserved their fiercest criticism for her choice of newspaper.

“I don’t understand that and I think it’s very damaging for Labour if there are national newspapers we are or are not allowed to speak to, because if we’re a government in waiting we need to be able to reach the whole of the country, not just certain sections of it.

“I made a conscious decision to choose The Sun. Once you make the decision to be open and upfront about what’s going on in this country, you want to get the broadest number of people to hear that message.”

In the same article Ms Champion stressed that gang-related sexual exploitation was one of many models of child abuse, that 90 per cent of all abuse happened within the child’s extended family and that the vast majority of convicted abusers were white men, usually acting alone.

It is one thing to recognise a crime model. Understanding why it has planted such deep roots is a different challenge altogether.

The members of most of the sex gangs were “friends or extended family members and they’re trafficking those girls to other groups of friends or family members”. You wake up the next day and realise the world didn’t collapse and the sun did come up, and you realise you can move forwards

“I want to know why and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for that research,” she says. “There are hundreds of perpetrators of the same crime behind bars now for this type of offence. Is is about sex? Power? Viewing these children as a money-making commodity? Is it cultural attitudes towards women and girls?

“We don’t know and we need to know, because otherwise we’re just waiting for the next town to come along and all you can do is pick up the pieces of young girls who’ve already been abused and had their lives shattered. The police need to understand so that they can stop it.”

Ms Champion graduated from Sheffield University and began her career in arts charities. For most of her working life it would have been unthinkable to voice the comments she made in The Sun.

“I genuinely don’t know how I first knew that to be racist was the worst thing I could possibly be, but I somehow knew that it was, and that attitude stayed with me for most of my working life. Today, I’d rather be called a racist than turn a blind eye to child abuse.”

The days that preceded her sacking were evidently traumatic.

“You know in your heart that you’re not a racist, but then suddenly the worst thing in your life that you thought could possibly be levelled against you, has been.

“But you wake up the next day and realise the world didn’t collapse and the sun did come up, and you realise you can move forwards. It actually becomes quite liberating.”

Freed from frontbench constraints, Ms Champion seems to have no intention of seeking less sensitive issues on which to campaign.

“What I’m really interested in, and this type of CSE [child sexual exploitation] comes into this, is misogyny. It occurs in many different forms, but the most obvious forms are happening within some ethnic minority communities. “I’m thinking female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour-based violence and this type of child exploitation. I really want to look into these sort of areas.”

A common theme, she says, is men blaming women and girls for the crimes committed against them.

“They say the girls were drunk, or they were out late at night, or they were almost 16. With honour-based violence it’s the woman bringing shame to the family, not that’s it’s shameful to murder your own daughter. “With FGM it’s, ‘Oh, it’s the women who are doing it to themselves’. But the women are doing it because they’ve been told their daughters will not have a husband or a future unless they do it.”

I treat people as I find them. A lot of people I meet at parliament are trying to do the best they can Ms Champion, who became a Labour member in 2010, insists she is not interested in politics.

What motivates her is “making change and making a fairer society”. Politics just happens to be “the best vehicle, at the moment, to do that”.

Her parents are Daily Mail readers, “lifelong Tories with working-class ethics”. “I come from a family of people who aspire to do better, who work really hard and who see voting Tory as a way to demonstrate that aspiration,” she says. “I get those people, I understand where they come from. It’s not that it’s wrong; it’s just that I think we morally have a duty to support people, not at the expense of ourselves, but I want to know there’s a safety net.”

Her family roots perhaps explain why she is “no empathy” for the opinions voiced recently by the Corbynite MP Laura Pidcock, who said it was inconceivable she would ever become friends with a Tory MP.

“I treat people as I find them,” Ms Champion says. “Some people’s values are so odious it seeps through their every pore, but a lot of people I meet at parliament are trying to do the best they can. “They come at it from a very different direction to me, but that doesn’t make them evil.

You learn very quickly in parliament that the way to make change is by collaborating with people.”

Does she allow any time for relaxation and a life outside politics? Cooking, walking her two border terriers and “hanging around with friends” get a mention but it seems that her greatest escape is gardening.

“I like the complete contrast of being covered in mud, of not needing to worry about make-up or how anyone perceives me. Sometimes, just digging a hole is very nice.” Some critics might see that as a reflection of the present state of her political career.

Should that be so, it seems inconceivable that it will take long for her to climb out.

Sarah Champion’s website dare2care.org.ukgives advice on how to identify and prevent all types of child abuse.