It’s not all right, Jack (Straw). Stop now before you get hurt.

by Atul Hatwal

When boxers are past their prime, it’s the movement and speed that go. The power is still there, but when they throw a punch, it’s slower and off-target. Politicians are the same.

When Jack Straw stepped in to the ring on street grooming and the Pakistani community, he swung hard, but what did he hit?

If the intention was to draw attention to the problem, then he was late and missed. The debate was already raging; that’s why he was on Newsnight. If he wanted to add some insight, then he missed again; all he offered was more opinion.

On this issue so far, there has been a lot of comment but a shortage of actual evidence. There are some statistics; the Times cited a study which showed that out of 56 convictions for this type of offence, 53 were Asian men, predominantly Pakistani.

But there’s a difference between statistics and facts.

The study quoted in the Times was based only on two police operations in the North and Midlands. The authors have subsequently questioned the selective use of their findings given the limited number of police operations involved and narrow geographic focus.

Blackburn Engage is a joint project between Blackburn social service, local police, Barnardo’s and youth agencies. It tackles sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people. The co-ordinator of this project has said that 80% of the cases they deal with do not involve Pakistanis.

Numbers this way, numbers that way.

When drawing national conclusions about a community, it might be helpful also to have some national evidence. There might be an issue in some towns with criminality in sections of the community. But it’s a leap further than the distance between Mecca and Jerusalem to say that there is a causal relationship between Pakistani culture and men grooming girls.

If this type of evidence were the basis for policy, there would be a national register for white middle-age males who holiday in Thailand; police surveillance of anyone who choose to work in local authority children’s homes and automatic imprisonment for joining the priesthood.

Jack Straw’s punch didn’t just carve space in the air. It landed on the referee. By wading in as he did, without facts to stand-up his accusation, the casualty was balance. The story will subside in the national media in the next few days, but its legacy will live on over the coming months. Every BNP and English Defence League leaflet will feature Jack Straw’s claims. That a senior Labour politician could say this will be validation enough for many. Pakistani rape gangs will be the new terror stalking white estate across the Pennines.

The reason for this clumsy intervention is debatable. But one factor will be a problem common to many MPs.  Cocooned as they are in the Westminster bubble, their most sustained contact with the public is through constituency duties. The longer they are an MP, the greater the personal distance from every-day reality and the more the real world is mediated through the prism of constituency visits.

Local anecdote and opinion become elevated to the level of universal truths. If it comes up in a surgery and it’s something the Borough Commander has also mentioned, then it becomes a fact. It’s the politician’s equivalent of being told something by a bloke down the pub.

This is how a local constituency problem can suddenly become an issue facing an entire community across the country. It’s a shame for Jack Straw. He was a reforming and progressive home secretary. He set up the Macpherson inquiry, made racially motivated violence a separate crime and incorporated the European convention on human rights into British law. It’s a proud record. No one likes to see an old champ on the ropes in the ring he used to own. The record stands, but the legacy will fade if he continues this way.

Atul Hatwal is a social and community affairs consultant.

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3 Responses to “It’s not all right, Jack (Straw). Stop now before you get hurt.”

  1. Samuel says:

    Where is your evidence that Jack Straw is wrong? You say he is in the Westminster bubble and relies on anecdote – which, by the way, is a form of evidence and in some ways an MP’s duty to raise constituency issues- but you offer nothing to contradict him. Why is he wrong? Why don’t you agree with him? What are you saying apart from you don’t like Jack Straw?

  2. MG says:

    Excellent article.

  3. Richard Scorer says:

    I agree that any discussion needs to be evidenced based, and I would certainly like to see more statistics. Of course, since only around 15% of sexual offences result in a criminal conviction, definitive statistics may be hard to come by. However, as a lawyer I act for kids in care regularly and I see white girls in the care system being sucked into prostitution organised by Pakistani gangs time and time again. My experience is of northern towns and cities like Blackburn, Leeds… etc. What I see may, of course not be representative, certainly of the whole country or even a particular region or community. However it does lead me to think that there is a cultural pattern here that needs to be looked at. Just as there is also an issue with child abuse in the Catholic church. I’ve done child abuse cases for 15 years and I’ve seen vastly greater numbers of cases involving the Catholic church than involving the Church of England. Again there may be a cultural pattern that has to do with the ethos of the Catholic church and issues like celibacy in the priesthood. You can acknowledge cultural patterns without being racist.

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