A charity in Barrow that supports victims of sexual exploitation said many of its clients were reluctant to report abuse to police because they “don’t want to be arrested”, like Eleanor Williams.
As a result, police in Cumbria did not know the true scale of sexual exploitation in the town, a judge has been told.
Williams, 22, was sentenced to eight and a half years in jail this week after being convicted of nine counts of perverting the course of justice.
A jury at Preston crown court found she had lied about being forced to attend “sex parties” with Asian men from the age of 12 or 13. She also falsely accused three young white men of rape, one of whom spent 10 weeks in prison on remand.
The sentencing judge received evidence from Supt Matthew Pearman of Cumbria police, outlining the “far-reaching and damaging” impact of Williams’ lies.
Pearman told Judge Robert Altham that hate crime in Barrow tripled in the months after Williams posted a graphic account of her alleged abuse on Facebook, on 20 May 2020. The post and accompanying graphic photographs went viral around the world and prompted a solidarity campaign, Justice for Ellie.
Levels of hate crime in the town had still not returned to pre-2020 levels, said Pearman, claiming the case “continues [to] impact on Barrow-in-Furness and those who live and work within the town” today.
Pearman also sent the judge a report he compiled in May 2021, a year after Williams went public with her false allegations.
Though the Justice for Ellie protests – which erupted in the weeks and months afterwards – had subsided by then, victims of sexual exploitation in Barrow still cited Williams when explaining why they did not want to report their abuse to the police, Pearman said.
Senior managers at Women’s Community Matters (WCM), which supports more than 2,000 people a year in Barrow, had told police that victims’ reluctance “stems from the social media and community response around Eleanor Williams”.
Pearman’s report added: “A common comment is that they don’t want to report things because they don’t want to be arrested.
“This has led to a lack of reporting of information by WCM themselves to the police despite the processes put in place to ensure that it is treated confidentially.”
Sentencing Williams on Tuesday, the judge said her lies contributed to “an undermining of public confidence in the criminal justice system”.
He told the court: “We are aware that sex trafficking of young females does occur. There is a risk that genuine victims will, as a result of this defendant’s actions, feel deterred from reporting it. People may be less likely to believe their allegations.”
Pearman said the community tensions resulting from Williams’ Facebook post had stirred Barrow “into a state of frenzy which almost stepped over the line into lawlessness”.
He told the court: “It is unclear how much of an effect the Covid-19 lockdown protocols played on the attitudes of others, but it is undeniable that Barrow had not seen such public displays of mass anger for over 30 years.”
The officer said Barrow had “not known public feeling and open anger and hostility to be at anything like those levels since the Vickers shipyard strike of 1988, which lasted 12 weeks and caused angry flashpoints at picket lines”.
Cumbria police recorded an additional 151 crimes that were “directly attributable to the original Facebook post”, the court heard: 73 for malicious communications; 45 for public order offences, including racially aggravated offences; 14 for harassment; and 19 for miscellaneous offences including burglary, damage or assault. “It is unknown how many additional crimes were generated indirectly by way of raised tensions,” he added.
The fallout from the case was continuing, said Pearman: “The impact of this case continues to be felt in Barrow although the direct ramifications are hard to quantify. Barrow police continue to meet weekly with local statutory and third sector partners to monitor community cohesion and tensions throughout the trial.
“We continue to see episodes of far-right leafleting and reported hostilities against recent asylum housing in the town. Hate crime levels continue to be above those seen in the financial year prior 2020.”
He concluded: “This was a crisis and a critical point that the town is yet to fully recover from. The effects of this episode will be felt and remembered for many years to come.”