This is our truth, tell us yours
If you haven’t already seen Jem’s trenchant reminder that not all abuse is as described in the Rotherham report, then read it now. There is a huge risk that thousands of victims will be ignored, today, and tomorrow, because their experience of abuse does not fit the agenda of a government that wishes to use high profile scandals to undermine the legitimacy of local government, and to hand over services like child protection to moral entrepeneurs. Jem’s post is a powerful reminder that this must not be the case.
Then, when you’ve thought about that, if you haven’t already done so, start with my post yesterday. We’ll still be here.
Surprise, surprise. After yesterday’s scapegoating of individuals, today we have the slightly less strident revelations that South Yorkshire Police were, as a police force, institutionally, just a bit shit, and still are. Is this a surprise to anyone who’s heard of Hillsborough or Orgreave? Probably not.
One of the things that’s always instructive about reports like Alexis Jay’s report into what happened in Rotherham, and to what didn’t happen in Rotherham, is to look for what’s not in the report, and what is. The noise and spin around the Jay report yesterday didn’t mention that HMIC were going to fillet South Yorkshire police for recording practices (investigate to record) that were out of the ark. That omission alone was significant, because it allowed the full fire of the tabloid press, and the full blame game, to be focussed on a political figure, Shaun Wright, and the council leaders and officers who are presented as being to blame. The story is already stale before any structural criticism of the police is allowed to emerge.
You’ll wait quite a while for any account of the economics of Rotherham to emerge. As a good Marxist, I’m always fascinated by the relationship between base and superstructure, so we’ll start there, with the 1980s, and two key events. One was the trend to de-industrialization in the 80s; Rotherham is at the heart of Britain’s rust belt, a town where once steel and heavy industry dominated, and where, in the 80s and 90s, the communities of housing estates where work was part of an ordered and orderly life were shattered by the collapse of many of the town’s major workplaces.
It was also a place where the legitimacy of the police force was shattered by the experience of the steel strike of 79-80, and the miners strike of 84-85. As much as any other UK police force South Yorkshire Police, despised forwhat they did in the service of a government that didn’t seem to care, turned in on themselves, and formed an idea of themselves as isolated cavalry, abandoned in their forts in hostile territory, with only themselves to rely upon and no greater loyalty than to the colleagues who had their backs.
So far, so Rick from the Young Ones eh? Should Jay have included this in her report? As context it is invaluable, and vital to understanding where the culture that made South Yorkshire a dangerous and vile place to be for young women came from. And if you want specifics, into this general picture of a Britain half remembered through rust coloured glasses comes a specific event that was likely to have a huge impact on Rotherham, and which goes unmentioned in Jay’s report.
One thread that runs unremarked in Jay’s report was the involvement of taxi drivers in many of the incidents described. In the 1980s South Yorkshire had the best and cheapest public transport outside of London. In the name of a free market bus de-regulation was introduced throughout the UK. After a brief flurry of competitive activity fares rose, services were cut and bus services began their slump towards where they are today, an almost universally derided and, outside the heavily regulated market in London, almost universally unreliable public service. And expensive. South Yorkshire’s bus network was shattered by the removal of subsidies that took South Yorkshire from the cheapest in the UK to market price or above in just a few years, just as take home pay in Rotherham’s working class communities was being replaced by insecurework or benefits.
Into the gap, in many communities like Rotherham, stepped taxis. Now, I’ll give you a clue. When any report just refers to taxis you know that the author hasn’t given much attention to taxis, because, in the UK, there are two licensing regimes, one for Hackneys, which pick up on the street, and one for private hire cars, which can’t.For hackney drivers, there is always the possibility that they can generate their own work by simply waiting in the right place. For private hire drivers, there is only the long wait for a job to come over the radio.
One of the facts that does emerge in the report is that Rotherham did use its powers to remove some taxi drivers licences. This isn’t as powerful a sanction as it sounds, since taxi licencing is such a mess in the UK that one council (Newcastle) had to sue another (Berwick) in 2010 over the Berwick practice of licencing as hackney drivers almost anyone, irrespective of whether they actually planned to drive a hackney in Berwick. So taking a licence off someone in Rotherham, or refusing to licence them in Rotherham, wouldn’t stop them working as a private hire driver if they could get a licence somewhere else. The power of the operators, who understood how to best use the law to ensure their people got licenced, who had influence with licencing officers, and the language skills to appear before committees to argue for their drivers, gave them a hugely unequal role in determining who could work and who could not. For a private hire driver, being out of favour with the operator, or not being able to get into favour with a operator, was a fatal mistake.
However, that’s not the only significant thing about taxis, and the relationship between their owners and drivers. What’s also significant is how taxis are financed and operated. For many taxi drivers their existence, as a taxi driver, is little better than indentured labour. The car is bought with a loan from the taxi operator. They cannot work without paying their weekly radio fees and insurance, arranged via the taxi operator. If they fall out of favour, especially if they are a private hire driver, they’re simply not given any shifts or booked any calls, and there isn’t a damned thing they can do about it. Contract work, the pre-booked trips to schools or taking pub staff home is allocated to the driver who’s in favour. In an industry where capital is required to set up your own firm, to place adverts, buy radios, rent town centre offices, a private hire driver cannot survive on their own except in rural communities where there isn’t enough work to merit an operator making an investment.
You can’t understand the compliance of some of those taxi drivers with illegal or abusive behaviour unless you understand the complex web of economic ties and informal arrangements that operated within taxi firms. Add in a shared culture, a shared background, an experience of a racist culture in towns where Asians had no political power, and no influence outside of the service industries they owned and controlled, and you might start to understand that to refer to taxi rivers without context and history is to hugely underestimate the problem.
Did I mention the common currency of white working class culture in towns like Rotherham, the way people would despise the taxi drivers because ‘they’re all Pakis’ and ‘you can’t get a job on the taxis if you’re white’? Did I mention the visceral anger of white taxi drivers towards their Asian counterparts who, driven by debt and fear, would work all the hours possible and squeeze out owner drivers who needed rest or family life? Would you like to think about how, just like the police, some of the taxi drivers might have an inward looking, us against the world culture?
You’ll get none of this from Alexis Jay’s report, with its dry as dust chronology and focus on institutions, leadership and accountability.Its terms of reference were rammed in such a way as to conceal as much as it reveals, and to prevent a genuine debate about a fractured society in a fractured town where the abuse of the weak and vulnerable was one of the symptoms of those deep rooted, tectonic tensions.
Of course, if that is the case, that Rotherham was a town torn apart by tectonic forces that are still at work, then scapegoating a few weak, foolish, doing the best they can political figures is worse than pointless. It’s actually misdirection on a theatrical scale, pointing away from the real causes and seeking to prevent a debate about how shattered, impoverished, dangerous towns like Rotherham came to exist in a rich, divided nation like super, soaraway Britain.