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Operation Augusta — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 9:30 am, 5th February 2020

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 29 September 2003. She died after being injected with heroin by a 50-year-old man. Shockingly, although she died in 2003, the report states that there has been no follow-up investigation into her death, despite the fact that Peter Fahy, the chief constable, told her relatives afterwards that he was quite happy to look at the case again, which led them to believe that it would be. Since then, Peter Fahy has said that he was just being open. I think that is dissimulating to the point of dishonesty. It was clearly the intention to reassure the family that the death of this girl would not be forgotten.

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.