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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

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.