Shropshire

Telford grooming 'tip of the iceberg', says solicitor

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Media captionTelford abuse: 'I was sold twice a night'

A lawyer who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford has said those cases were the "tip of the iceberg".

Former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal, who also oversaw similar high-profile cases in Rochdale, said he knew "more would come out".

Speaking amid calls for a new inquiry, he said there were probably thousands of street grooming victims in the UK.

West Mercia Police said it took all allegations "extremely seriously".

A Sunday Mirror investigation said the scale of sexual exploitation in Telford made it the UK's "worst-ever child grooming scandal".

The paper claimed abuse in the town has been widespread since 1980, when it began with "groups of mainly Asian men" targeting vulnerable white teenagers.

Mr Afzal led several prosecutions concerning offences in Telford, including one against two brothers convicted of trafficking girls for sex.

Speaking on the Victoria Derbyshire programme, he said: "I prosecuted, when I led nationally, the Telford original issue, I knew then that this was a bigger issue not just in Telford but everywhere."

Image caption Nazir Afzal said he thinks abuse of this nature is happening all over the country

He appeared alongside "Holly" - who spoke out anonymously about her abuse at the hand of gangs in the town.

"Now, seven or eight years later, I see stories like Holly's where she is not being listened to, she's not being believed, her abusers have acted with impunity because they think the authorities are not going to do anything about it.

"She is one of probably one of thousands of young girls and young boys who are being abused in street grooming up and down the country."

Ansar Ali, a spokesman for Together Against Grooming, also appeared on the programme and was asked why Asian gangs are often blamed for child sexual exploitation.

"These gangs that operate are not what you call your classic, typical paedophile, that's not their motivation," he said.

"Yes they are sexual predators but it is more that they use these girls as a sexual commodity and it is about making money off them.

"That is their main driver.

"I don't think there is a link to their heritage because most people from their background don't commit these sort of acts.

"The vast majority of people find their actions reprehensible, including the communities from which they originate."

Telford MP Lucy Allan has asked for an urgent question in Parliament about the situation and called for an urgent inquiry.

Operation Chalice

Image copyright Police and Getty Images
Image caption Seven men were jailed in 2012 as part of West Mercia Police's Operation Chalice, including brothers Ahdel Ali and Mubarek Ali

Seven men were jailed in 2012 as part of West Mercia Police's Operation Chalice, including brothers Ahdel Ali and Mubarek Ali.

The force said more than 100 girls could have been targeted by the gang between 2007 and 2009.

Many of the seven men worked for or had connections with fast food restaurants across Telford.

Victims as young as 13 were plied with drugs and alcohol and sold for sex by men who posed as their boyfriends.

The men initially won the girls' trust by giving them presents such as mobile phones in an "almost boyfriend-girlfriend scenario", police said.

Speaking in 2013, Det Ch Insp Neil Jamieson said: "It then spiralled into them being shared with other men."

The girls were moved around the country for the purposes of sexual exploitation, he added.

Mubarek Ali was released in November last year after serving about five years behind bars. He was banned from returning to Telford and Shrewsbury.

Mark Berry, a volunteer who helped to run a night cafe in Wellington said he witnessed signs of the abuse in the town before Operation Chalice began.

In about 2012, he said, groups of young men were hanging around nightclubs without entering them, and approaching girls who exited the venues alone or in small groups.

"We began talking to the girls, as you do when looking after people and we started to hear things that were going on," he said.

"At that point we didn't know what to call it."

Girls 'blatantly' approached

He said the group reported what they saw to anti-trafficking teams, who at the time were focusing on women being brought into the UK.

"We weren't calling it CSE, there was a different language," Mr Berry said.

"We raised concerns about what we were seeing and asked if there was anything we could do to help.

"Really, at the time, there were things going on that felt not normal.

"Chalice then took off and it all became clear it was bigger than we thought."

'I don't let my daughter go to nightclubs'

Reacting to the news, locals in Wellington, Telford, said they were saddened, but not surprised that organised sexual abuse was occuring.

One woman, who did not wish to be named, said: "We know it has being going on for a long time but it is disgusting.

"I hate to think of it, innocent children having to put up with it, it has been going on for years but it has not come to light.

"There should be more done about it, but I don't know what they can do."

Carer Tracy Shaw, 40, and her daughter Amber, 20, said they feel fearful living in the town.

Tracy said: "When I am working, I always have something in my pocket. I don't let my daughter go to nightclubs."

Amber added: "It makes me not want to go out.

"You don't expect it to happen anywhere but especially not in Telford."

Mr Berry agreed with Mr Afzal's assessment that the cases so far had been "potentially just the tip of the prosecutions".

He also backed calls for a new inquiry, and called on the authorities to get local organisations involved.

"Often community groups know more about what is going on on the ground," he said.

In 2016, street pastors claimed that men were "blatantly" approaching young girls in Shropshire for sex.

A recent meeting of a Telford and Wrekin Council scrutiny committee heard evidence of "gang-related" child sexual exploitation was no longer being found in the wake of Operation Chalice.

The vast majority was now found online, councillors were told.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ahdel Ali and Mubarek Ali targeted vulnerable girls in Wellington, Shropshire

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