Discover more from The Mill
The ghosts of Rochdale
'I think she’s telling the truth'
Nazir Afzal was in the spare room of his family home in Worsley, watching a DVD. It was May 2011 and Afzal was about a week into his new job in Manchester, as the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West. The video playing on his laptop showed a 15-year-old girl being interviewed by two police officers. It was a few years old. She was describing being befriended and exploited by a gang of men in Rochdale, culminating in repeated incidents of rape. She would later become known as “Girl A”.
Afzal had become inured to graphic descriptions of violence in his 20 years as a prosecutor. What gave him pause was the behaviour of one of the police officers. At one point, while the girl was re-living the worst experiences of her life, the officer yawned.
The next day, at the CPS office on Quay Street, Afzal called a meeting with his colleagues, including Fran Gough, a senior prosecutor, who had given him the tape. “And?” she asked. “I think she’s telling the truth,” Afzal said. A new police team was taking another look at grooming in Rochdale, but Gough had hit a major obstacle in bringing charges. Namely that two years earlier, the CPS had chosen not to, deeming the girl not credible enough to go before a jury. It created a “legal nightmare” for Afzal. Any defence lawyer would make hay out of a Crown case that asked the jury to believe a girl who police and prosecutors hadn’t believed two years ago.
In his entire career, Afzal had never reversed a prior decision by another prosecutor. The legal test for doing so - known as the Wednesbury unreasonableness test - was an extremely high bar. After consulting the new police team, Afzal told his boss Keir Starmer - then the country’s chief prosecutor and now the leader of the Labour party - what he planned to do. In Afzal’s recollection, Starmer said “Ok, get on with it.” In June 2011, eight men were charged with grooming and sexually abusing teenage girls in Rochdale, and three more would be added later.
The story is recounted in Afzal’s new autobiography, The Prosecutor. The book tells the story of his rise to becoming the country’s first Muslim chief prosecutor, and how his upbringing in a Pakistani family in Birmingham shaped his outspoken stances against grooming gangs, honour killings and forced marriages, crimes that he felt especially able to speak up about. The book’s descriptions of his cases are gripping and disturbing, taking the reader back to dark stories we see on the news and never think about again.
But it isn’t just a hero narrative about Afzal’s prosecutorial feats - it’s also a growling critique of how things work. In his telling, the justice system is too bloodless; too focused on systems and procedure rather than right and wrong; and too reluctant to admit its mistakes. “The process-driven bureaucrats have well and truly taken over,” he writes at one point.
Rochdale encapsulates this critique, and is the case he is most famous for, partly because of his depiction in the BBC’s searing drama about the grooming scandal, Three Girls. “It felt like I was just putting right something we had got wrong,” he told The Mill this week. When he came to Manchester to take up the new role, society was waking up to the horror of street grooming, and realising that the authorities tasked with keeping young people safe had failed to do so.
Three Girls appeared on BBC One in 2017. The 3-part series is now available on Netflix.
That failure had to do with an outdated mindset, he says. A series of stories in the Times - published in 2011 - showed how often police and social workers ignored calls from parents and other concerned adults about abuse of teenagers by older men. For many years, these agencies all “had this ridiculous stereotype of what a victim should look like, and these girls were far from that stereotype,” Afzal says. “These young girls were extremely troubled, some of them had mental health issues, they had trust issues with adults, some of them were self-harming, and they were pushed into low level criminality by their abusers. They [the authorities] sort of expected them to come out of a nunnery and to be whiter than white, virgins, going to church on a Sunday.”
Within a few weeks of deciding to prosecute, police officers were knocking on doors in Rochdale, arresting suspects. A small group of workers at a sexual health crisis centre had been studiously gathering evidence of the abuse since 2004 - writing down the names mentioned by the girls who came in. The workers, led by Sara Rowbotham, called it the “boyfriend book”, because the girls sometimes described the men as their boyfriends. Rowbotham noted down the number plates of taxis that picked up the girls and addresses where they said they had spent the night. She recorded when they came in smelling of booze and cigarettes, saying they had spent the night partying in Bradford, and who they had met there. For years the police showed little interest in her pile of notes, but now the information was critical. “Sara is a hero of our times,” says Afzal.
The book recounts the morning Rowbotham got to work to find two shivering girls on the doorstep of her sexual health clinic. They had been thrown out of a car on Saddleworth Moor in the middle of the night, after being violently raped by a group of men. Rowbotham was one of the few people the girls trusted, something the police struggled with. The decision not to prosecute after the first investigation had destroyed their faith in the justice system. Afzal says that in the months before the trial, there was one officer who was able to get through to the girls. If the police or CPS needed to get a message to the victims, that officer was the only one who could do it - even if she was on holiday.
When the trial began in early 2012, hundreds of noisy protestors from far-right groups were a daily presence outside Liverpool Crown Court. One of the defence barristers was jostled by the mob and tried to persuade the judge to stop the trial, arguing that the protesters would prejudice the jury and prevent the defendants from getting a fair trial. Grooming gangs had gone from an ignored crime to a hot-button political issue, and the trial was attracting huge media coverage.
Afzal used one of his regular trips to CPS headquarters in London to sit down with his boss Starmer and fill him in on the case. Starmer asked Afzal if he had the right advocates and if the victims were being properly supported. Afzal said yes. “Nazir, if you're happy, I'm happy,” Starmer told him. This was typical of the man who now seeks to be Prime Minister, Afzal told The Mill, describing Starmer as “a good delegator, and a good people person.” He says the reforms to court procedure initiated after the trial to protect vulnerable witnesses - including limiting the time a witness can be questioned and giving judges and lawyers sexual offences training - were only possible because of Starmer. “Keir was immensely supportive to me,” he says.
Vulnerable witnesses were the hallmark of the case. Girl A was one of the six witnesses prosecutors decided to use at trial, and she appeared via video link from a police station. She had to testify for six days, and was questioned by eleven different barristers, one for each defendant. During questioning from the ninth, she lost her cool, prompting him to remark: “Now we see the real you.” Afzal attended the trial when he could, “willing them on to stand up to the cross examination.” In May, the jury found nine of the men guilty. One of them was sentenced to 25 years. “I was exhilarated,” Afzal says.
The question of what went wrong in Rochdale still feels somehow unresolved. The question of why the victims were ignored for so long - by social services, police and prosecutors - not satisfactorily answered. You can read up about the trial Afzal set in motion, and the three subsequent trials, and you can wade through the turgid official prose of the two local reports into the saga, and still not feel you understand how such a monstrous act of callousness was allowed to happen.
Afzal’s book is positive about the changes to protect witnesses, and the progress society has made recognising the abuse of extremely vulnerable children. But on the phone this week he linked what happened in Rochdale to his wider hypothesis about the criminal justice system. In his telling, the ghosts of Rochdale are a warning - about putting systems and protocols over humanity and common sense. “Local authorities had bureaucratic processes for risk assessment, and if you didn't tick all the boxes...” He trails off. We know what happened if you didn’t tick the boxes. Reflecting on the case at the end of the book, he writes: "Without the admission of failure, we will never learn from our mistakes and address the fact that our obsession with process undermines real justice.”