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Operation Augusta — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:54 am on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 9:54 am, 5th February 2020

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.