I thank Nicola Blackwood and my hon. Friend Ann Coffey for securing this exceptionally important debate. I want to talk about cover-ups in relation to child sex exploitation, and I particularly want to draw on two examples from Rochdale. First, let me turn my attention to what I believe was an attempted cover-up by Rochdale council and the council leader. I do not make these points lightly, and I certainly do not make them for party political reasons. Indeed, it is a Labour council and a Labour councillor is its leader.
As the Rochdale grooming case unfolded in the courts, in April, I first sensed a desire to hide the failure that had occurred when I spoke to Cheryl Eastwood, the then director of children’s services. She explained that it was a “new phenomenon” and that guidance had not been received from central Government—in other words, she was saying that no one was aware of on-street grooming, and she was suggesting that social services needed guidance from central Government to know that raping a young child was illegal.
It did not finish there. Soon after the trial Steve Garner, targeted services director for children, told The Daily Telegraph that his department had not let any of these young girls down. If there was any blame for ignoring the girls’ cries for help, he implied, it did not rest with the department in which he had worked for 11 years.
Helpfully, the Home Affairs Committee immediately started examining issues around child sex abuse, and in June called the leader of the council and the chief executive to explain themselves. It was then that the council leader from Rochdale attempted to suggest that it was a failure of information sharing that had led to the problems in Rochdale. Soon after, with evidence mounting that Rochdale council’s social services department had suggested these girls were making “life choices” and were “prostitutes,” the council leader decided to change tack. Indeed, he jumped on the back of an excellent report by the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers, and started suggesting that the problems that occurred in Rochdale should actually be laid at the feet of private care homes. He said:
“They do not protect vulnerable children, they do not rehabilitate them back into the community, they do the opposite.”
He also said:
“Rochdale borough, at the moment, in the current climate, is the wrong place to send these children.”
It was as though Rochdale’s council leader was talking up the failings of children’s homes to avoid having to explain the failings of his own social services department.
The public began to believe that private children’s homes were part of the problem. The reality is that that was not the case, and only one victim had actually stayed in a children’s home. That became apparent months later, when the local safeguarding board published its review. First, it hardly mentioned private children’s homes because they were not part of the problem. Secondly, it pointed out that Pennine Care NHS crisis intervention team had continually tried to share information with the local authority—with the social services department. So the reality is that, contrary to what the council leader had said, people were trying to share information with his local authority, clearly trying to make the point that these girls should be taken into social services care. That was ignored by the local authority.
To bring up to date this sorry tale of an attempted cover-up, only last week the Home Affairs Committee questioned the former chief executive of Rochdale council, Roger Ellis. Throughout the session he denied having known about grooming in Rochdale until the case came to court. He had actually been the chief executive for 12 years. He had served on the local safeguarding board. Indeed, he had been the chief executive of the council when it set up a child sex exploitation working group in 2007 that had identified 50 girls who were at risk or who were experiencing sexual abuse.
Of course, cover-ups happen when reputations need to be protected at all costs. In that respect, attempts to suppress the truth are not new in Rochdale. The culture of cover-ups stretches back much further than the recent grooming scandal and extends right to the heart of our political establishment. If we are to ensure that victims of child abuse are sufficiently empowered to claw back some of the dignity that has been taken from them, we must be open about the widespread abuse of power in our borough. That is why it is necessary to turn to Sir Cyril Smith.
Cyril Smith was a political giant in Rochdale and one of the most recognisable politicians in the country, but his career was continually dogged by allegations that he had abused boys. The allegations even appeared in some of his obituaries. We also know that they appeared in police reports. Lancashire police have recently said that they cannot find those reports, but they accept that they carried out an investigation and it has been suggested that a report was pushed to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1969.
Today, more victims have come forward and the journalist Paul Waugh, who hails from Rochdale, is reporting fresh allegations against Cyril Smith from victims who claim he assaulted them as young boys at Cambridge House boys hostel. The allegations must be properly investigated and the seriousness of the victims’ complaints must be acknowledged.
I have been passed statements that were issued to the police in the 1970s regarding Cyril Smith’s activities at Cambridge House boys’ hostel, and they make grim reading. For some unknown reason, Cyril Smith had a kind of disciplinarian role at the hostel and was given free rein to administer punishments to the boys. This is one example of how he dealt with bad behaviour:
“He told me to take my trousers and pants down and bend over his knee. He hit me many times with his bare hands and I pleaded with him to stop because he was hurting me. Afterward he came to my bedroom and wiped my buttocks with a wet sponge.”
Another of Cyril Smith’s victims, Barry Fitton, has spoken out today in the article published by Paul Waugh on the PoliticsHome website. Another victim, Eddie Shorrock, has also come forward and spoken for the first time about being abused by Smith. This morning I was approached by another victim who does not wish to be named because he feels ashamed about what happened to him and because his wife is unaware of the abuse. He, too, is angry and upset about how Smith treated him.
I have yet to hear any words spoken about the victims of that abuse: young boys who were humiliated, terrified and reduced to quivering wrecks by a 29-stone bully imposing himself on them. What happened to them? How can they ever forget what happened to them? Why was that allowed to happen? We need to be sure that this type of investigation now takes place and that the victims get a chance to have their voices heard.
In conclusion, confronting child abuse is a hard thing to do, but we must never allow reputations or positions of power to deter us from doing what is right. As new victims of abuse in Rochdale come forward to speak about what happened in Cambridge House, Greater Manchester police should consider re-opening the case. I call on the Minister to do everything in his power to bring police files from previous investigations about Cyril Smith to light. For far too long victims have not been taken seriously in our town, shocking allegations have not been challenged and people in roles of trust, power and authority have abused their positions. Let us hope that Britain is now reaching a tipping point where victims are taken seriously and given a voice. It is only by listening to victims that we can start to understand fully the crime of abuse in our communities. Only then can we ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.