Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Operation Augusta — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 5th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 10:39 am, 5th February 2020

It is of course always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall, Sir Christopher, but today’s debate has been both sobering and searching. I pay credit first to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer for raising these important matters—the events that have flowed from the awful, tragic death of Victoria Agoglia on 29 September 2003 and the extent to which she and many other victims of child sexual exploitation have been let down in the years since.

My hon. Friend put the case for a fresh inquest persuasively, and I am sure that that will be considered in due course by the Attorney General. I think we would all agree that the first duty of Government is to keep the public safe, but there is a particular duty with regard to vulnerable children—particularly those in the care of the state, whether that is under public authorities or, indeed, elsewhere. Clearly there has been a systemic failure in the case we are considering and in others. My hon. Friend made a persuasive point about Home Office research into grooming. I hope the Minister will take that on board and consider it when he makes his remarks.

I am also grateful for the contributions by Tim Loughton, who drew on his well-known expertise from his period as the Minister for Children, and from my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, Chris Green, my hon. Friend Afzal Khan and the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bury North (James Daly). They made powerful contributions. Although he did not make a speech, Chris Clarkson made a powerful and important contribution to the debate in an intervention.

The BBC broadcast in July 2017, “The Betrayed Girls”, was harrowing and seems to have triggered the second phase of investigations. However, serious questions must be raised about why it took so long. Operation Augusta was launched in February 2004, after Victoria Agoglia’s death the previous autumn. Many right hon. and hon. Members have described the report as harrowing, given the talk of abuse in plain sight of officials, and what it says about the death of Victoria Agoglia. As has been said, she died of a suspected overdose, months after telling social workers she had been forcibly injected with heroin and raped. Abusers seem to have been able to pick up girls from care homes in and around Manchester’s curry mile and to abuse them in the city.

However, on 1 July 2005, Operation Augusta was closed down. It had identified 57 girls at risk and 97 suspects. Those 16 months do not seem to have been wasted; they must have been pretty productive to have found that information. That makes it all the more incomprehensible that the operation was closed down. Hon. Members have referred to the review that was made available in January this year. The review team identified 68 individuals known to Operation Augusta who could reasonably be assumed to be part of that group of 97. Instead of the 97 persons of interest being prosecuted, and the victims protected, the operation was closed down. That decision has been described today as scandalous, and I find it incomprehensible why it would be taken, in the circumstances.

The hon. Member for Bury North quoted paragraph 1.18 of the independent assurance review, which said that

“the decision to close down Operation Augusta was driven by the decision by senior officers to remove the resources from the investigation rather than a sound understanding that all lines of enquiry had been successfully completed or exhausted.”

Paragraph 1.16 refers to

“fundamental flaws in how Operation Augusta was resourced”.

However, as the hon. Member for Bolton West pointed out, it was hardly a period that could be described as lacking resources, so it is extraordinary that that should have been the case. Clearly, in considering the matter, there must be a review of how that came to pass in 2005.

The consequences were even more worrying, because the review team examined a sample of 25 children and could offer no assurance at all that appropriate action was taken by Greater Manchester police or even the local authority to assess the risk in relation to 16 children in that sample. That—I remind the House of my opening remarks about the importance of children in the care system—is utterly unacceptable.

The BBC drama that has been referred to, “The Betrayed Girls”, gave rise to the investigation that we have all been quoting from. I understand that the police have accepted their failings in relation to Operation Augusta, and referred themselves to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. There is also the new investigation, Operation Green Jacket. I understand that, to date, the investigation has resulted in one man being arrested and another interviewed under caution, in September 2019, in connection with the abuse of Victoria Agoglia. The men have been released under investigation. I will obviously be careful about commenting on an ongoing investigation, but I think I can make the general point that it is far easier to investigate these things closer to the time than it is to do it 14 years later or, in the case of Victoria Agoglia, 16 years later.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said that there is the same problematic institutional mindset in public authorities elsewhere. He is absolutely correct about that, and it is something we now need to tackle. As we consider the matter today, so many years after the event, there are three things to raise with the Minister. First, can he guarantee that full funding, including special grant resource if necessary, will be provided to Greater Manchester police to ensure that they have all the resources necessary to bring perpetrators to justice, even after the time that has elapsed?

Secondly, there needs to be a reassurance that lessons are being learned. It is all very well saying, “Never again”, but that has to mean something. I would like the Minister to give some assurances. There should never be an expectation that vulnerable children and young people can provide protection for themselves. Also, as has clearly come out in the debate, we must listen to what child victims say, but in considering standard investigative practice, there is also the question of whistleblowers. We have heard today about the powerful testimony of those who have been willing to take risks in coming forward to expose shocking abuse.

Thirdly, and on the broader issue of the exploitation that has occurred, it is still extraordinarily worrying to see the number of children in care who have either been abused or ended up in prison. In the light of Operation Augusta and all the other failings, what consideration will the Government give to an independent review of whether authorities up and down the country, of whatever political stripe, are meeting their statutory responsibility to carry out that most important of tasks—the safeguarding of children in care?