Now, I'm the first to admit that I have no special insights regarding the policing culture or operational challenges facing South Yorkshire Police. Though readers will be familiar with the awful testimony given by abuse survivors on TV, how the police didn't take their complaints (and those of their parents) at all serious and, in some appalling cases, returned some of them to their abusers. An example of institutionalised misogyny that can be overcome by judicious sackings and better training? That might assist in preventing some cases from going undetected/getting fobbed off in future, but another problem is a contradiction in the law. This doesn't excuse police (in)action, but might help to explain in part why this force, among others, had a care free attitude to the young girls caught up in the abuse.
In the UK, the age of consent is 16. The law rules out the capacity for children under this age (the 1989 Children Act defines a child as anyone under 18) to agree to sexual activity and there are a number of penalties that can be applied to any adult who breaks the law. However, keeping in mind the context that historically the legal risks associated with prostitution fall more on the seller of sexual services than the purchaser, the law introduces a difficulty. 16 may be the age of consent, but under the Street Offences Act 1959 boys aged 10 or over and girls 13 and over can be prosecuted for soliciting. So children in this age range cannot decide to have sex, but they are fully culpable if they try to sell it.
Hence the mismatch between public outrage and police indifference. Media coverage cannot fathom how the police were quite prepared to tolerate the prostitution and abuse of underage girls. Because that's how they were framed, as underage. Whereas in addition to the problematic - to put it lightly - attitudes of the police, they tended to view these girls as prostitutes as per the strictures of the law on soliciting. As a rule crimes against adult prostitutes, particularly women out on the streets, aren't taken terribly seriously. As a prostitute is defined as any girl over 13, then the indifference shown to older sex workers was extended to the younger. The grooming, the rapes, the abuse, the pimping by whole gangs, the inculcation of drug habits, all this was viewed through a filter that was officially backed up by the law of the land. Nothing marked these hundreds of young girls out especially - they were just another group of women to be picked up, fined, and thrown back onto the streets.
It's time the law was tightened up. Legal confusion should not be an alibi for awful policing.