LONDON // Jack Straw, the justice secretary in the last government, sparked controversy yesterday when he accused young men of Pakistani origin in Britain as regarding vulnerable white girls as "easy meat" for sexual abuse.
The Blackburn MP and one of the Labour Party's most prominent figures challenged the Pakistani community in the United Kingdom to tackle a problem that has resulted in "Pakistani heritage men thinking it is OK to target white girls in this way".
Mr Straw made his remarks after two Asian men were jailed indefinitely in Nottingham on Friday for a series of rapes and sexual attacks on vulnerable girls they had picked up on the streets.
An investigation by The Times published last week has exposed what it describes as "a culture of silence that has facilitated the sexual exploitation of hundreds of young British girls" by mainly Pakistani gangs in cities in northern and central England.
"For more than a decade, child-protection experts have identified a repeated pattern of sex offending in towns and cities across northern England and the Midlands involving groups of older men who groom and abuse vulnerable girls aged 11 to 16 after befriending them on the street," the newspaper said.
"Most of the victims are white and most of the convicted offenders are of Pakistani heritage," the report said.
The newspaper identified 17 court prosecutions for "on-street grooming", befriending girls on the streets, plying them with drink and drugs, and then sexually abusing them, since 1997, which had led to 56 people being convicted. Of those, three were white and 53 Asian, the majority of them Muslims from the Pakistani community.
On Friday, Mr Straw told BBC TV's Newsnight programme: "There is a specific problem which involves Pakistani heritage men who target vulnerable young white girls.
"We need to get the Pakistani community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and to be more open about the problems."
Mr Straw said that white girls most at risk from young Pakistani males were those who were vulnerable after running away from home or who had drug or mental health problems.
"These young men are in a western society - they act like any other young men, they're fizzing and popping with testosterone, they want some outlet for that, but Pakistani heritage girls are off-limits and they are expected to marry a Pakistani girl from Pakistan, typically," he said.
"So they then seek other avenues and they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care, who they think are easy meat.
"And because they're vulnerable they ply them with gifts, they give them drugs and then, of course, they're trapped."
However, Mr Straw's comments were rejected yesterday by Keith Vaz, a Labour MP of Indian-Yemeni origin who heads the House of Commons' home affairs committee, as well as child protection groups.
Mr Vaz accused Mr Straw of wrongly "stereotyping a whole community" and said he did not believe there was a "cultural problem" involved.
He told the BBC that there should be a national inquiry into the networks committing these crimes but added: "One can accept the evidence that is put before us about patterns of networks but to go that step further is pretty dangerous."
Martin Narey, the chief executive of the child protection charity Barnardo's, which has carried out its own investigation of on-street exploitation of girls, also rejected Mr Straw's comments.
He said that street grooming was "probably happening in most towns and cities" and was not confined to the Pakistani community.
"I certainly don't think this is a Pakistani thing," Mr Narey said. "My staff would say that there is an over-representation of people from minority ethnic groups - Afghans, people from Arabic nations - but it's not just one nation."
However, Mohammed Shafiq, the director of a Muslim youth organisation, the Ramadhan Foundation, accepted that sexual abuse of white girls was being fuelled by racism in some quarters of Britain's Asian community.
"There is a perception that some of these young men do not see white girls as equal, as valuable, of the high moral standing as they see their own daughters and their own sisters, and I think that's wrong," he said. "It's a form of racism that's abhorrent in a civilised society."
He added: "No community or faith ever sanctions these evil crimes and to suggest that this is somehow ingrained in the community is deeply offensive."