I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Operation Augusta.
This is a story of the gross failure of public policy, and the implementation of public policy, to protect vulnerable children. Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester watched “The Betrayed Girls”, a BBC programme about the sexual abuse and exploitation of young people, in 2017. Afterwards, he set up what became the independent assurance review of the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester. I want to discuss part 1, which is an assurance review of Operation Augusta.
I watched “The Betrayed Girls” on Sunday evening on BBC iPlayer, and it was a harrowing experience. Reading the report, one varies between despair and outrage at the failures of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council to protect mainly young girls, but young boys too, from predatory sexual exploitation.
If we had the same rules as the US Senate, I would ask for the report to be read into the record so that people could read it, but we do not, so I will have to summarise it. Part 1 focuses on Operation Augusta, which was set up following the death of Victoria Agoglia on
There has been no investigation, although there has been a coroner’s inquest. Four of my colleagues from Manchester and I have written to the Attorney General asking for a fresh inquest. Reading the report, it is difficult to see why the coroner came to the conclusion he did. It is particularly difficult because the current coroner is refusing to release documents. In the absence of those documents, we would like the Attorney General to order a fresh inquest.
The coroner’s conclusion was that
“there was no evidence of a gross failure to meet Victoria’s needs that would have had a significant bearing on her death” and that there could be no inference that the events leading to her death were “reasonably foreseeable”. She claimed she had been raped, sexually abused, assaulted and plied with drugs for two years, and the coroner could not see how her death was reasonably foreseeable. The social workers knew what was happening; they had given her recommendations about what to do. I think her death was eminently foreseeable, so I hope that the Attorney General will agree to order the opening of an inquest and that the Home Office will support that.
That was the genesis of Operation Augusta, which was set up to see whether many children—mainly girls aged between 13 and 16—were in the same situation as Victoria Agoglia. A dedicated team of police officers was set up with embedded social workers to look at the situation. Relatively quickly, they found that there were 57 girls in a similar situation and 97 suspected perpetrators of this kind of vile abuse.
The report makes it clear that although Operation Augusta was successful in identifying those girls and suspected perpetrators, it was bedevilled by a lack of resources and territorial disputes between three police divisions in Manchester and about access to HOLMES, the police computer that records cases. The situation was difficult, and it is clear that leadership was lacking. After 16 months, Operation Augusta was wound up.
One of the many worrying factors about this report is that the social workers and more junior police officers have vivid and clear recollections of the operation.
The report is scandalous, harrowing and difficult to read. I quote one thing with reference to what the hon. Gentleman has just said:
“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”.
On its own merits, that is scandalous. That is in the report. I also read—
The hon. Gentleman is underlining and emphasising my point about the lack of resources and leadership.
Two of the senior officers became chief constables afterwards, and their recollection of events is either non-existent or hazy. I simply do not believe that someone who had been in charge of such an operation and received such awful reports would not remember—the junior officers have clear memories of how it was finished. That, of course, meant that the perpetrators, who were known about by the police and social workers, carried on, as the report says, in plain sight. A lot of the abuse took place above Indian restaurants on Wilmslow Road—the so-called curry mile—in south Manchester. Cars were known to pull up with girls, and the police did nothing—in fact, they withdrew from acting on that information. As James Daly said, that is scandalous.
Since the termination of Operation Augusta, the response of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council to this quite shocking report has been to apologise and to say that they are improving co-ordination and intensifying work to identify people, and they have done that. The awful thing is that, for the last 50 years, many of the children who have been abused and murdered have become the subjects of well-known operations. Reports always make 80 or 90 recommendations after such failures, and those are always agreed to, but we carry on writing reports, and children carry on being abused. Although I believe that Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester police are sincere in their attempts to be more effective and to get their act together, we need to understand the issue more deeply by asking why these things have happened time and again and what can be done to prevent a report from being written in 16 years’ time about children who are on the streets now, while we discuss this situation.
I referred to the clear memories of the more junior police officers and the amnesia of the senior officers involved. If there had been a different culture and stronger protections for whistleblowers, allowing those junior police officers and social workers to report such cases in the knowledge that they would not lose their careers, I believe more would have been done. In no sense would the public have put up with what happened if they had known about it—they expect our children’s services departments and the police to protect the most vulnerable young women—but they know about it only 16 years later. We need stronger protections for whistleblowers and an acceptance that bringing such issues to the attention of the public and senior politicians is a good thing.
Although there were disputes about resource allocation in the police force and between Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council, one has to remember that, at the time, police numbers were going up and local government was better funded. That is no longer the case; there is not a children’s department in the country that is not short of resources for the protection of children. We cannot wish, as I do, for better service provision for those vulnerable people without providing the resources. Police numbers have also gone down. However, that decline in resources does not apply to the time of Operation Augusta.
Another point that was made in “The Betrayed Girls” and in the report, and that has been made more generally, is that the vast majority of the men involved were of Pakistani origin and of the Muslim faith. The police, who probably had good intentions, made a mistake in saying, “We will be accused of racism if we point this out.” Nazir Afzal, the previous director of public prosecutions in the north-west and a practising Muslim, said that such activities are against the teaching of Islam and of the Koran, and that the vast majority of Pakistani people are as appalled by what has happened as the rest of the population. That is not to say that one should hide what has happened on Wilmslow Road or in other parts of the country, such as Telford, Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford or Ipswich—one can go on and on listing different towns where such cases have happened.
A final point on resources is that a number of requests have been made for the Home Office to do serious research into grooming. My hon. Friend Sarah Champion recently asked that of the Home Office, both by letter and on the Floor of the House. It is a mistake to think that the grooming of children, as described in the report, is the same as paedophile rings. The Home Office has done good research on paedophile rings. They are understood by the police and the Home Office, which know how to disrupt them. However, very little research has been done on grooming gangs. For instance, we do not know whether there are “Mr Bigs” behind the gangs at a national level or whether the cases represent major crime or decentralised local activity. That is important for our understanding; if it is major crime, organised on a national and international basis like drug crime, the National Crime Agency should be involved in disrupting that activity. I would be grateful if the Minister explained when the Home Office will fund and sponsor research into grooming gangs.
As I said, if people had blown the whistle, a stop could probably have been put to these things, because the public would not stand for them. I want to mention two people who have stayed with this issue and have continued to bring it to the public’s attention since the first Rochdale and Rotherham cases came to light. Sara Rowbotham, who worked in Rochdale as head of its crisis intervention team and is now a Rochdale councillor, and Margaret Oliver, who was a detective on the Augusta team before her maternity leave, have constantly brought it to the public’s attention. Margaret has argued very strongly, alongside the family of Victoria Agoglia, for the case to be re-opened and for the police to take more action against the perpetrators. Those two women deserve serious praise for what they are doing. I do not want in any sense to trivialise this serious debate, but they are more worthy of being nominated to the House of Lords than some of the people who have been put forward by the Labour party, which has put forward a pretty eccentric list, to put it mildly.
I am not sure that I have a good answer for the hon. Gentleman. Some people, such as Pauline Newman, who was in charge of children’s services at the time, have moved on. The senior police officers who took the decision to wind up operation Augusta have moved on and are not co-operating—one is not talking at all, and the other says he cannot remember. In such circumstances, when people are no longer employed by the city council or Greater Manchester police, it is difficult to know what action could be taken or by whom. However, the hon. Gentleman asks a good question. A line of accountability is needed. When one reads the report and some of the reports since, records of meetings or of attendees at those meetings are absent in some cases. That makes things difficult. However, if his point is that somebody should be held accountable, I agree with him. That is clearly right.
The final point I want to make in this sad story is that the police and Manchester City Council have said that they will improve. Today, however, Greater Manchester police have declared a “critical incident” in the introduction of their iOPS computer system, which 90% of police officers rely on to get information. The system cost £29 million and is not working. With the best will in the world, if the officers whose job it is to look into these allegations do not know what is happening, they cannot do their job. We need not only resources—more police officers—but the proper use of resources and computer systems. Currently, when I have no doubt that many perpetrators are still walking the streets of Greater Manchester and other cities, we need Greater Manchester police to do better.
This is an awful and shocking story of the failure to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the country. One of the failures, which was a mistake, is that action was not taken in some cases because the police said that the girls were not reliable witnesses. However, there have been policy statements to the effect that we do not have to rely on the victims to protect themselves in order to take the perpetrators to court. I hope that the Home Office and all the councils in the country will redouble their efforts to ensure that such activities, which I am sure still happen, are stopped.
First, I draw attention to my entry in the register. Secondly, I pay tribute to Graham Stringer for bringing this case before the House. It received very little coverage—a few headlines in the newspapers—and was not mentioned at all in this House. Yet the report was of huge significance, not just historically, but for the lessons that still need to be learned, as he alluded to today: how we are still not dealing adequately enough with child sexual abuse in all its forms; and in particular whether we are policing it properly.
As everyone will agree, the report is troubling and makes for uncomfortable reading, such as the tragedy of Victoria Agoglia, the 15-year-old so badly let down in the care of Manchester City Council. Her treatment has many wider implications for vulnerable young people exposed to child sexual exploitation.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Maggie Oliver, who has been the hero throughout the whole of this sorry episode. She called out the neglect—to put it mildly—in effect sacrificed her career and has at last been vindicated after all that time. I met Maggie at the “Newsnight” studio when this issue came up and we were interviewed, just a few weeks ago. I hope the charity that she is looking to set up to continue her good work will be a great success.
I pay tribute to the Mayor of Manchester for commissioning his review—historical, because it was many years before Manchester had an elected Mayor. This is only the first phase of that review, and four further stories that may make equally uncomfortable reading will come out in future. I also pay tribute to the BBC and the “Betrayed Girls” programme, which highlighted some of the horrors that happened.
I am afraid that the situation is not untypical. When I was Children’s Minister, one of the least enjoyable parts of my job was, every Monday morning, a run-through of all the cases that had come in of child abuse or child fatalities, often at the hands of carers, and of the latest state of play in the court cases. Only a few high-profile issues—the Victoria Climbiés, the Baby Ps and some of these gangs—reached the headlines, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. This was going on wholescale, at an industrial level, and to an extent it still is.
Reading the report, I am afraid that I had such a sense of déjà vu. It talked about the horrendous way in which Victoria Agoglia met her death, stating that “No action was taken” by the police or social care to address the issues. The “scoping phase” of the investigation
“built up a compelling picture of the systemic exploitation of looked after children in the care system in the city of Manchester”,
and found that “97 persons of interest” were
“identified as being involved…in the sexual exploitation of the victims”.
None of those 97, it would appear, has been brought to justice. The report concluded that although “significant information” was
“held by both Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester Police on some individuals who potentially posed a risk to children, the review team can offer no assurance that appropriate action was taken to address this risk.”
Sixteen children in the sample were being sexually exploited, and the review team could offer no
“assurance that this was appropriately addressed by either Greater Manchester Police or…the responsible local authority.”
Evidence was presented and victims—often vulnerable children in the care system—were not believed, even when they were brave enough to present. Victims were almost tarred as perpetrators, for bringing it on themselves. In some earlier studies, comments referred to “child prostitutes”—but there is no such thing as a child prostitute. If you are a child, and if you are engaged in sexual activity at the hands of somebody else, that is not prostitution; that is child abuse. It is child sexual exploitation, plain and simple. That phrase “child prostitution” should have no place in our lexicon. We are talking about children, particularly vulnerable children who were ruthlessly exploited and taken advantage of by some very unpleasant individuals.
The whole thing was therefore all too difficult to handle. There were ridiculous considerations of political correctness—which I am afraid were all-pervading, particularly in those days—and the police and other local agencies did not want to rock the boat, so it was swept under the carpet. Even with those 97 identified potential suspects, the inquiry was prematurely closed.
One phrase from the report about the perpetrators summed it up for me:
“They weren’t viewed as sex offenders per se, just a group of men of all ages, from one ethnicity taking advantage of kids from dysfunctional backgrounds.”
It was almost the kids’ fault; those people just happened to be there and took advantage. There is clear evidence that young people were not served or protected by the statutory agencies. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton made the point that there is no evidence of any misconduct charges having been brought against anyone involved in the failures of this case. There was a clear absence of identifying where the buck stopped. Some of those police officers are still in the police force, in one case at the level of chief constable, and their careers have advanced with apparently no consequences of the failures raised in the report. That must be addressed.
That attitude was all too common before 2011. There was a combination of ignorance, inadequate training, complacency, political correctness and indifference to vulnerable children. However, I believe that there was a sea change in 2011. Operation Retriever, which was the first high-profile operation, identified, prosecuted and jailed a gang of British Pakistani men based in Derby and other cities across the north. It was bravely brought by Sheila Taylor, who at the time was running a charity for victims in Derby. Through her constant badgering of the police to take the matter seriously, she made sure that it was properly investigated. That was the turning point.
That case was about the scale abuse of mostly but not exclusively teenage girls, by mostly but not exclusively British Pakistani gangs of men. Let us be clear: child sexual exploitation is committed by all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Most of those in jail will be white men who have committed various forms of child sexual exploitation, but this was a case of organised, systematic gang abuse by predominantly British Pakistani men and it was not properly called out, identified and prosecuted so that those people could be brought to justice. That sea change came about in 2011.
The report mentioned a 2014 interview in which Victoria’s grandmother said that the men were still walking around in the local community. Nothing happened between 2014 and 2018, when the investigation took place. If there was such a sea change in 2011, can my hon. Friend explain what happened between June 2014 and 2018?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there are still serious shortcomings in this case, but I am trying to draw a picture of why things changed nationally and why there are grounds for optimism, although one would not believe it to look at this report.
The report needs to lead to further investigation into the culpability of the perpetrators and the people who failed to identify and do something about them. Back in 2011, the Government produced the first comprehensive child sexual exploitation plan. I launched it, together with Barnardo’s, and worked with other agencies. It made it clear that that sort of CSE was going on in all parts of society and all parts of our country; it is not just a preserve of northern metropolitan cities such as Manchester. It happens in all parts of town; it is not something that just happens to those sorts of people in a different part of town. It happened to the children of doctors, lawyers and other professionals from all walks of life. The shocking images of gang members started to appear in the newspaper, and people started to wake up to it.
What really caused that sea change was the Jimmy Savile scandal the following year. It became a different world. From October 2012, most people in this country came to realise what child sexual exploitation actually was, and that it was happening. Awareness rose hugely. It was widespread throughout all sorts of society: in the health service, in education, in children’s homes, in the Church of England—I refer to the recent exposure about Bishop Peter Ball. Again, the police just shoved it under the carpet and did not properly pursue it. It happened in politics, with Cyril Smith and Operation Midland, where there were serious shortcomings—that will be the subject of further debate in this House in due course. It was happening in Rotherham, Oxford, Cornwall, Rochdale, Telford and so on. That led to the historic child abuse inquiry, which is still undertaking its huge job of work.
The question is: have things changed? Have the police, and all agencies, got wiser to detecting and taking seriously allegations of child sexual abuse? Have mindsets changed since 2004? The people who should have been looking after vulnerable children were just not; they were questioning whether anything serious was happening to them. Back in 2004 we were focused on cases such as that of Victoria Climbié. We had just had the Laming review. Abuse of children was largely down to carers inflicting violence on vulnerable children. The whole business of gangs and sexual exploitation was not on the radar. Some seven or eight years later, that very much came on to the radar.
What has changed—I saw this in my time as Children’s Minister and subsequently—is that now every single police officer is trained to identify child sexual exploitation. We have better joint working between agencies, although it is still not nearly good enough—I have serious concerns about the successors to the local safeguarding children boards properly joining up all the local interested parties. More cases are coming to court. Indeed, some 50% of cases going through the courts at the moment are to do with historical and contemporary sexual abuse. The problem is that far too little is ending up in prosecutions, particularly for contemporary sexual abuse and rape. It is still a big problem in this country.
I would like to finish with some of the statistics. Last year something like 104,000 children went through the care system in this country. It was estimated by an all-party group led by our former colleague Ann Coffey, who did a lot of very good work, that 11,500, or 11%, went missing at some stage. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimates that a child is abused in this country every seven minutes. There were some 76,000 reported sexual offences—a record level and a big rise over recent years—and 20% of those relate to children under the age of 10. That is down to better reporting and better police recording, but also to the fact that it is still a problem and we are not doing enough about it. It is also to do with children in the care system not being properly looked after.
Too many children are excluded from school— 42 children a day are permanently excluded from school and 410 are on fixed-term exclusions. They end up in gang and knife culture and become vulnerable to predators. Back in 2011-12 we produced heat maps of where children should be placed. Senior police officers and heads of schools from Kent, where a disproportionate number of children in care are placed—largely from London boroughs—came to see me. They told me that they were seriously worried about being overwhelmed by children in the care system who were not properly looked after and were placed in wholly inappropriate areas. We had cases of children being placed in children’s homes on the same streets as sex offender hostels.
We changed the regulations so that where children are placed out of the area of the local authority responsible for them, the director of children’s services will be responsible for a risk assessment of whether the place is appropriate and safe—not just whether the house was okay, but whether the area was okay. Still, 41% of children across the care system are placed out of area. In the case of going to children’s homes, that is over two thirds. Those heat maps are still not being properly enforced. That is part of the reason why too many of our children are still vulnerable.
My plea is that we learn the lessons. We need to know why people were not brought to account, and they still need to be brought to account. Are perpetrators still out there who could be prosecuted? What are we doing for the victims—those children who are still suffering the trauma of having gone through their experiences, which have been brought up again by the publication of this report? Are we properly looking after their interests? What are we doing now to ensure that those vulnerable children are properly looked after by agencies who get it? Agencies must know the extent of the problem, know what they have to do and act together in the best interests of the welfare of those children, so that tragic cases such as Victoria’s never happen again.
Order. Before I call Sarah Champion, let me point out that Tim Loughton referred at the outset of his speech to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but that in itself is not sufficient in a debate. People who are not privy to that register entry need to know the relevance of it, so I will point out that the hon. Gentleman’s register entry includes a reference to the fact that he is a paid adviser to the board of the Outcomes First Group. That is the relevance of it. I remind hon. Members, particularly at the beginning of a new Parliament, that the whole purpose is to promote transparency.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
I am going to be brief, because I have said the same thing for six years. However, I think it needs reiterating, because it clearly is not getting through. I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer for bringing this debate forward. These things need to be heard, because things are still going wrong. I, too, watched the drama “The Betrayed Girls”, but it could have been a documentary and, to be honest, it could have been almost anywhere in the country. Time and again, I meet girls—often, they are now young women—who have been through an identical experience.
There is an almost identical pattern of grooming and then sexual exploitation, which often leads to trafficking and prostitution as the children become adults, so I am concerned that there is still no national strategy for the disruption and prevention of this specific form of child abuse. Why is that? There are incredibly close similarities between grooming and exploiting children for sex, and grooming and exploiting children for criminal activities. My hunch—I do not know this; it is just a hunch—is that those things are probably done by similar gangs of people. Will the Minister please commission research on that?
As my hon. Friend said, we also need a perpetrator profile. Unless the police understand the way these networks operate, they are unable to disrupt them—they are unable to get ahead of the curve and prevent children from being harmed. We absolutely must have that profile. It would be a simple thing to do. A forensic psychologist could be commissioned to do it. Again to be blunt, we have probably 300 perpetrators of exactly the same method of criminality in jail. Please, let us use that resource and use their experience for a positive purpose.
I also want to focus the Minister’s attention on the fact that statutory support for victims and survivors just disappears as soon as they turn 18. That is very important because, under this method of criminality, although children tend to be groomed at around 12 or 13 and the sexual exploitation happens between 13 and 16, it continues into adulthood. Often, because of the mental torture and manipulation that victims have gone through, it takes them years once the abuse has stopped to be able to articulate it, let alone to be believed. That is why it tends to be adults who come forward to speak about these crimes. We need support in place for adults to enable them, I hope, to have the strength to go through the court process.
Next week, I will launch a report by my all-party parliamentary group, the APPG on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, on the impact of this crime and the likelihood of justice. It impacts every aspect of the lives of survivors, from their mental health to their physical health. It affects their likelihood of being addicted to drugs, their ability—or inability—to maintain long-term relationships, and their ability to fulfil their education and therefore their career. I say to the Minister that he needs to work in a cross-departmental way to establish a fund so anybody who discloses this sort of abuse, particularly if they are an adult, can immediately get, for example, six sessions of counselling or support. That would enable them to stabilise their life so they can go on and have a good life, and to be a good witness so we can get the prosecutions we so desperately need.
A number of Members mentioned accountability. Accountability is important because, clearly, people have failed in their duty to protect those children, for whatever reason. Accountability is important because we need to know it will not happen again. If there are training needs or if some sort of disciplinary action should follow, that should be implemented so other children are not let down in the future.
Tim Loughton, who has done so much in this area, said that this issue was not really on the radar of the statutory agencies until 2011. I agree, but he also knows that this model of behaviour has been going on since the early ’60s. That is the earliest I can find it documented. I have people in Keighley, Birmingham and, indeed, Rotherham who can testify that they saw it going on in the early ’60s. It was not on the radar of the statutory agencies, but it was on the radar of the wider communities. There was a lack of trust and respect because people knew a crime was being carried out but the agencies did not act on it. Unless there is accountability now, it will be very hard to bring forward that trust and respect. I therefore urge the Minister, on behalf of the survivors and of children who are still vulnerable, to ensure that we have a fund for survivors and that we see accountability for these crimes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Graham Stringer on securing this important and timely debate.
We remember what Operation Augusta was about: the death of Victoria Agoglia due to a drug overdose inflicted on her by a 50-year-old man. She was in care. She should have had a huge amount of support from the state, but it was not there. It is right that the review commissioned by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, reflected on that, and it is right that we should look at the support for victims and seek to punish the criminals who were there at that time, but we should also challenge the decision makers.
Those people—people in Greater Manchester police, and social workers in Manchester City Council—made the decisions. Those people knew exactly what was going on, but they have not been challenged for their actions, whether they amount to negligence and misconduct or criminal actions. Because of the lack of challenge at the time, and the apparent lack of challenge now, we do not know where those people are. Have they been promoted elsewhere? We know they were involved in a cover-up. It seems clear to anyone who looks at this that there was a cover-up. If those people were promoted elsewhere or moved sideways, did that cover-up and that culture move with them?
A number of colleagues wrote a letter to Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, challenging him on a number of concerns in the report. I think we were all pretty disappointed at his rather supine response. He accepts that Operation Augusta stopped solely due to lack of resource, but the number of police officers in Greater Manchester police increased by more than 1,000 between 1997 and 2004-05. It had 1,000 additional police officers in that time, yet we hear there was a lack of resource.
As my hon. Friend James Daly highlighted, there were a number of live inquiries, and we know the nature of the crime committed against Victoria Agoglia, but we ought to focus on the Manchester Evening News headline, which captures so much: “A paedophile grooming gang was left to roam the streets of Manchester—and police knew who they were and exactly what they were doing”. That is what we know to be true. The people who were involved in the decision making at that time have not been held to account. I am not sure it is credible to say this is only about resources.
It is also incredible that the identity of the gold commander—the person who made the decision to end Operation Augusta—is not known. It is also incredible that, just as his or her identity is not known, the minutes from Greater Manchester police of the meeting where it was decided to end Operation Augusta have disappeared—and, by amazing coincidence, the minutes from Manchester City Council disappeared at the same time. How many people at this stage would not suspect a cover-up?
The report references successes. It has been highlighted that of the 97 individuals under scrutiny for grooming, plying children with drugs and raping children, three were imprisoned—three of 97. That is referred to in the report as a success. In no way can an objective person see Operation Augusta described as a success. It was an utter failure. Its closure was a decision by the gold commander, and in Andy Burnham’s response to our letter and his description of it, he accepts the lack of knowledge. There is no challenge and no sense of an injustice.
Data sharing is incredibly important in these matters. The Mayor watched the television programme, and he started the inquiry in September 2017. In January 2018, Greater Manchester police agreed what access the review could have to that data. In September 2018—a year after the review started—Rochdale Borough Council agreed on access, and a month after that Manchester City Council agreed on access. Considering that we are talking about the production-line rape of children, it is extraordinary that it took Rochdale and Manchester councils a year to agree access to information. This was a serious review, with serious people heading it, and it took a year to reach agreement. I do not see how anyone cannot be aghast at that.
It is a consistent feature that when the Mayor of Greater Manchester ought to be challenging what has—or has not—been done, there is silence. If council leaders or people in the councils were not handing over information or being forthcoming, he should have used not just his position as police and crime commissioner of Greater Manchester police but his public platform as Mayor of Greater Manchester to challenge them to hand it over, but he chose not to.
A huge amount of follow-up work needs to be done. The report should have been in one piece, but it has been split up because of the delays. The sense of a cover-up and everything being kicked into the long grass is clear to anyone who reads the report and the response from Andy Burnham to our letter. The Minister, in reading Andy Burnham’s response, will find he mentions throughout it his lack of ability to act. If he cannot or will not act, I call on the Government to intervene: to look at Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council and to take action where it is needed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer for bringing this important issue to the House. The devastating revelations about Greater Manchester police’s Operation Augusta published last month brought home the shocking truths of institutional failure in the safeguarding of children. That damning report catalogued the failings of Greater Manchester police and Manchester City Council. It identified a grooming gang of up to 100 members in Manchester who were found to have abused at least 57 children, some as young as 12, who were all in the care of Manchester social services. That included 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia.
It is evident from the report that the attitude of the police and council at the time was dismissive. They dismissed Victoria’s account of her abuse and instead focused on her
“propensity to provide sexual favours” thereby painting her and the other girls experiencing abuse as the problem rather than the victims. The report makes for extremely difficult reading, but I welcome its publication and thank Greater Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham. It is only by fully facing up to the facts and past failures that we can correct them and ensure that they cannot not happen again.
Victoria Agoglia’s family have been calling for her abuse to be investigated ever since her death. My thoughts are with them and other survivors of child sexual exploitation. No child, at any age, should be able to slip through the net in society. We have a moral duty to ensure that every child is protected from exploitation. We know all too well that what happened to Victoria Agoglia was not an isolated case. In the last 10 years, we have seen high-profile scandals across the country, from Oxford to Rochdale and Rotherham, and each time the failures of the police and social care services are plain to see.
My concern is that there are even more child sexual exploitation scandals that have not been identified. Just as Greater Manchester police is reopening its historic child sexual exploitation investigations, other cities and towns across the country should look back on theirs to ensure that no victim of abuse has been left without justice.
Thankfully, since the high-profile cases in Rotherham and Rochdale, significant changes have been made to how our institutions safeguard vulnerable children. Lessons have been learnt from historical cases, but we must never again be allowed to forget that the safety of children is paramount. That is why I, along with other Manchester MPs, wrote to the Attorney General, following the review’s publication, calling for a new inquest into the coroner’s verdict on Victoria Agoglia’s death. We are all committed to finally getting justice for Victoria, her family and all survivors of child sexual exploitation. I hope the Minister will support our request.
It is easy to say, “never again will children be subjected to abuse or sexual exploitation,” but sadly that is not within our power to dictate. All we can do is ensure that safeguarding measures for vulnerable children are absolutely watertight. Our institutions must be equipped with the knowledge and resources needed to deal effectively with safeguarding concerns when they arise. No victim should ever go through what Victoria suffered in Manchester 15 years ago. On child sexual exploitation, we must never again choose the easy path over the right path.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Graham Stringer for securing the debate. My thoughts, like those of other hon. Members, are with the family of Victoria Agoglia and the other 25 victims identified in the recently published review, who were so tragically let down, as well as with the many for whom suffering is ongoing.
While the terms of reference of the Operation Augusta assurance review, commissioned by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, indicated its intention to be a forward-facing exercise, the comments on the failures to protect Victoria are damning. Chapter 2.11 sets that out clearly, leaving no doubt that
“Victoria Agoglia was exposed to the most profound harm, at least from the age of 13. Her exposure to sexual exploitation by adult males was known to police and social services and, despite the risk of significant harm caused by the men who were sexually exploiting her, statutory child protection procedures, which should have been deployed to protect her, were not utilised”.
The report is set out as an assurance review, yet, from a sample of 25 children, there are no assurances. In the case of Victoria and 15 others, where there was
“significant probability of child sexual abuse”,
the report gave “no assurance” that that had been appropriately addressed by Greater Manchester police or Manchester City Council.
Those young schoolgirls were known to be being abused. They were not being protected from harm, and yet the investigation, Operation Augusta, which commenced following the death of Victoria in September 2003, was summarily and prematurely closed down on
In the light of the review, I joined other Greater Manchester MPs and co-signed a letter, sent by my hon. Friend Chris Green, to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. I hope to hear reassurance that people who see failings and neglect can bring them to light and challenge the system without fear. It takes incredible bravery to be a whistleblower, but it should not. People who speak out and highlight negligence and misconduct can save lives—people such as Maggie Oliver and Sara Rowbotham, whose actions were instrumental in exposing the failure to protect children and led to the opening of the investigation.
Many whistleblowers who fight uphill battles to get justice for victims too often find themselves becoming the target of retaliation and unfounded allegations to undermine their actions.
We hear about Greater Manchester police and the culture having shifted, but when it comes to whistleblowers and the failure of iOPS—it crashed overnight, and there might be a serious incident in Greater Manchester—off-duty police officers have told me that they are threatened with summary dismissal if they talk to an MP or the press about it. The culture of clamping down on whistleblowers seems to be alive and well in Greater Manchester police.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Without action to tackle that, we will see more of these cases. It is imperative that such issues are taken seriously in Greater Manchester and across the country.
I am not wholly satisfied with the response that we received from the Mayor to our letter. While recognising the bravery of the whistleblowers in this case, he offers no indication of what action he will take to ensure that future whistleblowers are valued and protected. If people are afraid to speak out or suspect they will not be listened to, negligence, malpractice and abuse will continue to go unchallenged.
A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing highlighted the case for having an independent office for the whistleblower and a ban on non- disclosure agreements in whistleblowing cases, as well as protection against retaliation. I hope the Minister will be able to consider some of those potential resolutions.
The Manchester Evening News and its investigative reporter Jen Williams have given this case extensive coverage, and we owe them thanks for their reporting. One of the headlines read: “A paedophile grooming gang was left to roam the streets of Manchester—and police knew who they were and exactly what they were doing”. Amid ongoing concerns that a cover-up took place in the case of Operation Augusta, questions remain. Who knew about the scale of the abuse of those children? Why did nobody speak out? Could it happen again? In the light of today’s revelations that the iOPS system is not properly recording, or allowing officers to access, information on potentially serious cases, that is a live issue.
I welcome the Home Office’s intention to publish a national strategy across law enforcement and government authorities to tackle child sexual abuse. When can we expect that strategy to be published? Will the protection of whistleblowers form part of it so that the shocking incidents of abuse, neglect and abject failure highlighted today are not repeated?
I thank Graham Stringer for setting the scene. I respect him for bringing this sensitive and distressing topic to the attention of the House. I remember the BBC documentary being aired and the girls in the office discussing it in terms of shock, anger and distress. The years have passed, but when I read the assurance review of Operation Augusta, I remained shocked, angered and distressed.
I will not go into the individual cases reported in the document, which hon. Members have referred to, but I highlight the fact that these are not simply cases or numbers: they are the lives of young girls, their families and, in some cases, their children. Those lives have been ruined, a community has been torn to shreds and authorities, even now, at this late stage, must take a long, hard look at the way things have been done. Their inaction has led to loss of life and the destruction of many lives.
Sometimes a series of events merge to create a perfect storm. Without one of the elements present, the storm could not take place. This was not a perfect storm of aligned, mutually exclusive events; this was a series of authorities, and the individuals working for them, simply not acting to protect these vulnerable girls. Different factors played into that: some people did not have the time or resources to do more than nod towards good practice, while others were frightened of rocking the boat, seeming racist or stirring racial tension. Whatever the underlying reason, the result was at least one death and thousands of instances of unaccountable abuse. That is truly unforgivable.
Through my work as an elected representative, I have tried to help a lady who was dreadfully abused as a child and used in the same way as these girls. Her scars are apparent and she has no peace. She cannot get over what happened to her and the lack of justice for those unpunished crimes. The same has happened on a wide scale to these girls. They must not be wandering around at the age of 40, still dealing with the trauma of what happened, without help or support, and with no one saying that it was unacceptable.
In my opinion, the report has been commissioned not only to prevent these things from happening again, in any town, in any local authority and in any way, but to send a message to these girls that a price has been paid, that notice has been taken and that the hurt they suffer will not go unanswered.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for the report to be truly effective somebody has to be held to account? The collective amnesia of the people involved at the highest levels is simply not acceptable.
I wholeheartedly agree. We are all here with the collective impression that that is what we want to see.
The first part of the report clarifies the dreadful litany of failures, which were followed by an investigation that did not achieve its aims and was halted in order to reallocate resources, without protecting the notified vulnerable children or ensuring that the hands that had stolen the innocence of these children—stolen most of the happiness of their future—were behind bars and prevented from harming anyone else. The operation was not brought to a conclusion, but simply concluded. That is not good enough.
I support my fellow MPs who are raising the issue again to ensure that no more children, cases or attacks on the vulnerable fall through the cracks. We must learn from this terrible ordeal, and put in place safeguards that are effective and a structure that does not allow those safeguards to fall like dominos, leaving a child open and vulnerable to abuse. It should not have happened, and it must not be repeated. I look forward to hearing how the Government will make necessary, long-lasting changes to help keep our children in care actually cared for.
My thoughts are with the victims of these crimes. I hope they have had the help and assistance they require to come to terms with what has happened to them, and that they go on to live positive and fruitful lives. I am sure they will.
In the short time I have, I want to make one point. The report is horrific. For 14 years, men in an area of Greater Manchester were allowed to commit the most horrific offences, and it was known to the authorities. That speaks for itself. In the report, individuals are identified who must be held to account. As a Member of Parliament representing a seat in Greater Manchester where police are investigating similar offences, I ask the Minister what the Government can do to hold to account those officers who have taken decisions and behaved in a way that has put young lives at risk and ruined them? Despite those circumstances, nothing seems to have happened.
The underlying tone of the report is that, for too long, nobody cared and nobody had any interest in these girls. I hope that is going to change. One of the ways we can make that change is by ensuring that those who are responsible for the decisions—or the lack of decisions—to protect their interests are held to account. Putting it bluntly, we cannot allow them to get away with it.
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
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.
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?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want to thank Graham Stringer for securing this debate on the independent assurance review on child sexual exploitation in Manchester, and particularly for the serious and effective tone he set for the debate. The subject is clearly important not only to Members for Greater Manchester constituencies, but to Members representing places across the country, given what the review uncovered.
The report of the first phase of the review, focusing on Operation Augusta, was shocking. It told a story that has sadly become far too familiar, of vulnerable young people let down by those whose job it was to protect them. The Government welcome the publication of the report. While it is distressing to read, we must bear in mind that reviews such as the independent review in Manchester are critical. If we do not confront the failures of the past, we risk repeating them. Reviews such as this give a voice to the survivors of abuse and allow their stories to be heard—stories that previously were too often ignored.
I turn to one or two of the points raised during the debate by hon. Members. Regarding the query from my hon. Friend Mary Robinson, we expect the review later this year. However, we as the Government cannot commit to a specific date, because the report is an independent one and therefore the exact date of publication is in the hands of the reviewer. There were particular queries in relation to the coroner’s report; I understand that there has been correspondence between the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the Attorney General, and that the Attorney General is considering the request to look at reopening that particular inquiry.
There were also some comments, not surprisingly, about what is being done to hold to account those who failed so visibly in this investigation. My understanding is that the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which is rightly independent of the Government, has been in discussions with the Greater Manchester authority and is scoping a potential investigation. I hope hon. Members will realise why the Home Office cannot go much further than that at this stage in commenting on particular individuals.
There was also commentary about the iOPS system in relation to Greater Manchester Police. I understand that the Mayor has commissioned Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services to undertake an inspection, and we are awaiting the written report. We expect it to be published shortly and will, of course, closely consider any recommendations that it brings forward.
It was partly because of cases such as this that, in 2015, the Government established the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to get to the truth, expose what has gone wrong and learn lessons for the future. The inquiry is investigating institutional responses to child sexual exploitation by organised networks, with public hearings scheduled to take place from
I am a core participant in that bit of the IICSA inquiry, and unfortunately the Minister has been sold a pup—it would be a nice pup—because it is looking very much at those six organisations and how they deal with the problem going forward. There is no retrospective accountability, and there is not the detailed investigation into the profile of perpetrators that the police really need.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I am sure that my ministerial colleague will be happy to hear her response and discuss it, perhaps at greater length, if there are specific concerns. Obviously the independent review is independent and will scope its own research as it sees fit and appropriate, so the Government are loth to potentially duplicate that. Moreover, the point of having an independent review is to hear the view of an independent source, rather than its being the Home Office as such that is commissioning research. Certainly we would be more than happy to engage perhaps a little bit further than we will be able to do in the remaining six minutes of this debate, if she has particular concerns.
The victims and survivors of these crimes demonstrate enormous courage and strength in coming forward, reporting what is happening to them and sharing their experiences. In some cases, they have to relive those experiences to share them. For too long, the police and other agencies treated vulnerable children and young people as a problem. As my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, they referred to them as “child prostitutes”, when there is no such thing—there is a child being seriously abused.
The victims’ voices were not heard, children were left unprotected and predators were left to continue to abuse those most vulnerable in our society. I want to make it clear that we will not accept that now. Children and young people rely on both Government and local partners for safeguarding and support. It is therefore our duty to protect them from these appalling crimes. Their voices must be heard. We must recognise abuse for what it is and treat victims with empathy and respect, not doubt and suspicion.
The Government have driven change in the way that these crimes are responded to, and it is right that child sexual abuse is now prioritised as a national threat. We are clear that, when victims come forward to report abuse, they should expect every effort to be made to bring offenders to justice. One point I share with the shadow Minister relates to the idea that resources were reprioritised or investigations ended; it is almost impossible to think what could be more important than preventing children from suffering serious sexual offences. What could be more important than that?
The Home Office has therefore provided support through its police special grant fund for investigations relating to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, north Wales, west Yorkshire and other areas. In response to the shadow Minister’s point, we would of course consider any application that came forward from Greater Manchester as well. We are changing the way police respond to crimes against vulnerable people, including child sexual abuse. As part of this, we have worked with the College of Policing to draw up a comprehensive package of training to ensure the police are better placed to respond to child protection issues. We are also funding the Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice programme to develop policing best practice in response to vulnerability as a whole.
Yet, as has been touched on, keeping children safe is not just the job of the police. We have also changed the way police and other agencies work together to ensure an effective response in safeguarding children. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced the most significant reforms in a generation, ensuring that police, health and local authority partners within an area work together to protect vulnerable children. We have also introduced joint targeted inspections of local agencies’ performance in protecting children from threats such as child exploitation. Effective multi-agency working is recognised as the foundation for success.
In 2019, the Government launched a new tackling child exploitation support programme to help safeguarding partners in local areas to tackle a range of threats to children from gangs, sexual and criminal exploitation, online grooming, trafficking and modern slavery. We have already seen some effective multi-agency working, such as the Home Office-funded Lighthouse in London. This ground-breaking service is based on international best practice and under one roof provides child-friendly, victim-centred, multi-agency support to child victims of sexual abuse.
However, we must go further and deprive predators of the opportunity to abuse and exploit our children in the first place. That is why, as part of our efforts to prevent abuse and exploitation, we have launched the Trusted Relationships fund. The fund supports local authority-led projects across England, working with 10 to 17-year-olds identified as being at risk of child sexual abuse or exploitation, criminal exploitation or peer-on-peer abuse, to build their resilience and strengthen their relationships with the trusted adults in their lives. As part of that, more than £1 million will be awarded to Greater Manchester for the four-year programme. The Home Office has also provided funding support for a regional network of exploitation prevention officers, who are helping local partners to join up, spot the signs of abuse and intervene early to safeguard vulnerable children. It is our priority to ensure that all victims and survivors believe they can come forward to report abuse and get the assistance they need.
That is why we have increased grant funding for victim support services across the country: in this financial year, the Government are providing more than £7 million of funding for non-statutory organisations supporting victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, and in September the Government announced an additional £5 million of funding for separate specialist sexual violence support services, including £1 million towards recruiting more independent sexual violence advisers, who play such a critical part in supporting victims through the criminal justice process. The Government have also increased spending from £31 million in 2018 to a planned £39 million in 2020-21 to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse who seek support from sexual assault referral centres.
While we can and must do more, it is important that we acknowledge how far we have come in the years since the closure of Operation Augusta and recognise the improvements in how police forces and other agencies deal with these crimes. Inspection reports tell us that professionals’ understanding of vulnerability has improved and there is now a real emphasis on the safeguarding and protection of vulnerable children across England and Wales.
I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton once more for securing this debate. Vulnerable children, victims and survivors of these appalling crimes, rely on us, both in Parliament and in local communities, to represent their needs and ensure they receive the support to which they are entitled. As a Government, we will continue to work tirelessly across all Departments to tackle child sexual abuse in all its forms.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Operation Augusta.