The independent assurance review into historic child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Oldham, published today [Mon 20 June 2022], has found there were serious failings in the handling of some cases, particularly of the victim, ‘Sophie’. The review team found that some children had been failed by the agencies that were meant to protect them because child protection procedures had not been properly followed.
Evidence of poor practice was attributed to a structural flaw the review team found in the multi-agency system that was set up to tackle to CSE leading to some children not being protected and perpetrators not being apprehended earlier.
However, the review team found no evidence either through interviews or documentary review to suggest senior managers or councillors sought to cover-up the existence of CSE or the complexity involved in tackling perpetrators and nor was there widespread CSE in residential settings, in shisha bars or in the local taxi trade.
The review was commissioned in November 2019 by Oldham Council who requested that the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the Greater Manchester Safeguarding Standards Board’s independent chair conduct a review into safeguarding practices in Oldham.
The independent review was undertaken by child protection specialist Malcolm Newsam CBE and former senior police officer Gary Ridgway, who both worked on the assurance review of Operation Augusta, published in 2020.
The terms of reference for the review were to seek assurance on:
- The risks posed to children from local shisha establishments during 2011–14.
- The nature and extent to which adults had inappropriate access to children and young people resident in children’s homes in Oldham, putting them at risk of harm, during 2011–14.
- The nature and extent of the use of local taxi services to access children and young people for the purposes of sexual exploitation during 2011–14.
- Allegations or concerns expressed in relation to specific cases.
- The review will particularly consider complaints made in a letter by an individual complainant to the Leader of Oldham Council in November 2019, and copied to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, about the handling of her case during 2005/06.
- The cases of known offenders previously employed within Oldham Council and the extent to which historical actions and employment records have been adequately investigated by the council.
The review found that Oldham Council did everything possible to publicise the threat of child sexual exploitation and had consistently attempted to develop best practice in addressing the threat of CSE. Practice at the time was seen as being ahead of other local authorities which Greater Manchester Police sought to mirror. Progress was consistently recognised, including by Ofsted in 2011 and 2015.
The review also found significant evidence that the Council did everything possible to publicise the threat of child sexual exploitation, including developing and rolling out a theatre production about CSE to over 3,000 school pupils across Oldham, and a publicity campaign in 2012 promoting successful prosecutions to increase public confidence that they were tackling the issue.
The review team also found that a public statement by the Leader of Oldham Council in 2014 categorically refutes suggestions that the Leader had any intention to protect those perpetrators from the Pakistani community who were exploiting children in Oldham. They believe he was determined to address the issue publicly and head on.
However, the efforts by the Council did not always translate into the appropriate level of safeguarding for young people at risk of CSE, which was corroborated when the review team looked at a sample of ten complex cases. The quality of casework was generally very poor and characterised by a failure to appropriately initiate multi-agency child protection procedures when these children were known to be at risk of significant harm.
As a result of this assurance review, Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police have agreed to review the management of these cases and consider whether any further action can now be taken in respect of the men who exploited these children.
The review also found a structural flaw in the design of the Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police multi-agency Messenger service which was developed to tackle CSE. The Messenger service was primarily a police resource, with only one qualified social worker acting as a conduit between the specialist team and the mainstream childcare social work teams. It was these latter teams that were undertaking the assessments, safeguarding and planning. The review team believe these were not always undertaken to the required standard, and managers within the mainstream service were not always giving these cases sufficient oversight and direction. By 2015, an independent consultant noted that the position in respect of assessment and planning for children at risk of exploitation had significantly improved.
With regards to shisha bars, the review notes that Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police were aware of the potential threat presented by them by the end of 2010. Numerous patrols and intelligence reports had linked the operation of shisha bars with vulnerable young people and, specifically, young women who were known to be at risk of sexual exploitation. By the end of 2013, most shisha bars had closed and subsequent joint operations in 2014 did not highlight any ongoing concerns in respect of shisha bars.
However, the review team were concerned to note that specific children as young as 13 and 14, who were known to be sexually exploited, were visiting these premises in 2011, and the same children were still visiting them in 2013. This points to a weakness in the Messenger service to safeguarding these children.
In terms of residential homes, the review found no evidence to suggest that there was widespread exploitation of children in residential settings in Oldham, but some children in residential settings were being exposed to child sexual exploitation, with some of the abuse occurring prior to their admission. There is also evidence that some children who had not been exposed to sexual exploitation were drawn into it through the encouragement of other residents. However, the review found that residential staff worked in a professional and supportive way with these children to win their trust and protect them from further abuse.
The review found no evidence that senior managers or councillors sought to cover up the potential exploitation of children by local taxi drivers. However, there is evidence that a small number of Oldham taxi drivers had been accused of or found guilty of sexual offences against children, with two cases presenting the independent reviewers cause for concern where the drivers were accused of sexually assaulting and raping female passengers. While neither driver was criminally prosecuted, the review team’s view is that there were sufficient concerns presented to the Council’s licensing panel in respect of these allegations for it to revoke one of the driver’s licences, and that police officers should have provided the panel with more details about the allegations relating to the other driver.
As a result of the assurance review, the current Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police has informed Oldham Council that he has commissioned a review of the content, application, and senior ownership of the force’s policies on disclosure, after a letter from the Head of Licensing in 2018 to GMP seeking to strengthen the quality of information and intelligence shared by the police with local councils went unanswered.
The review also looked into the case of ‘Sophie’ [not her real name], who wrote a letter to the then Oldham Council Leader in 2019 and copied it to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, which raised serious allegations that she was subjected to profound sexual exploitation and that Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police failed in their duties to protect her. She was 12 years old at the time of the abuse in 2006. Sophie also complained that when these shortcomings were raised with both Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police, they failed to investigate them appropriately and denied any failures on their part.
The review team believe that the interventions of both the Council and Greater Manchester Police fell far short of what was required to protect Sophie at the time, and these failures have been compounded by the denials that were subsequently made to Sophie and created the impression that both agencies were more concerned about covering up their failures than acknowledging the harm that had been done to a vulnerable young person. They recommend that both Greater Manchester Police and Oldham Council publicly acknowledge these serious failures and apologise to Sophie.
Staff employed by Oldham Council
The review team looked into cases of known offenders previously employed within Oldham Council and the extent to which historical actions and employment records have been adequately investigated by the council.
One case was an individual who worked for Oldham Council between 1988 and 2006 as a welfare rights officer, seconded to the Oldham Pakistani Community Centre. In May 2012 he was found guilty of two rapes, aiding and abetting rape, sexual assault and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, and was sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment. In June 2012 he was found guilty of a further 30 rape charges and was jailed for an additional 22 years. The review team believe there were serious failings in how both the council and Greater Manchester Police investigated concerns in relation to the individual. If the procedures had been followed, his offending behaviour could have been addressed at an earlier stage and potentially the abuse of his subsequent victims may have been prevented.
The review also looked into allegations relating to Councillors. One case involved a Labour Councillor who was questioned by the police in June 2007 on allegations of the rape of a young woman – the CPS did not charge him and he has consistently denied the offence. The review’s focus was on the safeguarding investigations which they believe were flawed. Also, as the alleged sexual offence did not occur in the Councillor’s capacity as an elected councillor, no referral could be made to the Council’s standards committee. He had the Labour Party whip removed from him and resigned as a Labour councillor in March 2008.
Responding to the review, Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “Following the airing of the BBC documentary, The Betrayed Girls in 2017, about sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester, I announced shortly after that I wanted assurance to be provided to the public of Greater Manchester that everything possible has been done to protect children, prosecute offenders and prevent it from happening again.
“The independent review team of Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway produced a thorough review into child sexual exploitation in Manchester and have done so again in Oldham. I give them my profound thanks for the painstaking way in which they have pursued this inquiry and for the quality of their report.
“As Mayor, I have made it crystal clear to all public bodies in Greater Manchester that protecting our children will always be our highest priority and that institutional or political concerns will never deflect us from that. It is never too late to face up to past failings nor to say sorry to those who were let down.
“This report continues the process of shining a spotlight on past failures in Greater Manchester. Whilst difficult to read, it has identified a number of wrongs that need to be put right. There were serious failings and victims were let down, particularly Sophie. Whilst there was no evidence of a cover-up, we must not flinch from acknowledging shortcomings. I ask all public servants in Greater Manchester to read this report and its findings and consider what more we must do to strengthen our approach to child sexual exploitation. I will also fully support any actions to prosecute those responsible for these abhorrent crimes and hold to account those whose behaviour fell short of what we require.”
Leader of Oldham Council, Amanda Chadderton, said: “We fully accept the findings of this independent report.
“It highlights clear failings, where our services at the time were not good enough to protect vulnerable young people suffering the most awful abuse. For that I am deeply sorry. I can never fully understand what those girls went through, and I also know that an apology now will never make up for what happened in the past.
“I do hope, however, to offer some reassurance that, as a Council, we haven’t stood still since the time period the review refers to.
“We have learned from reports carried out in other towns and cities across the country, and from changes in national guidance, and have changed the way we do things as a result. The way we work has already moved on immeasurably.
“That said, we are not complacent. We can and will improve further, wherever we need to.”
Report co-author, Malcolm Newsam, said on behalf of the review team: “We would emphasise that during the period covered by our review, the strategic intent of senior leaders in Oldham was to tackle child sexual exploitation, and in that regard, they were ahead of many local areas.
“Nonetheless, our report has uncovered historic failings in the protection offered to specific vulnerable children at that time. There remains an opportunity for Greater Manchester Police and Oldham Council to now work with Sophie and other survivors, to ensure that every opportunity is taken to bring the perpetrators who abused them to justice.”
Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Stephen Watson, added: “The safeguarding arrangements that were in place in GMP during the time period covered by the review were not good enough to protect children from sexual abuse.
“I want to offer my sincere apologies to everyone affected by the events considered in the report. Our actions fell far short of the help that they had every right to expect and were unacceptable. I am sorry for the hurt and on-going trauma they have suffered because of what happened to them.
“I intend to meet directly with Sophie and those that have been supporting her through this very difficult time and I welcome being able to apologise to her in person. However, I would also like to take the opportunity today to state publicly that I am very sorry for the failings in how we responded to her call for help; for how we did not record or sufficiently investigate the crimes committed against her and did not do enough to listen and support her during the subsequent reviews we undertook of her case.
“I offer no excuses but can give assurances that our approach to tackling child exploitation has vastly improved and is now a policing priority”.
Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime and Chair of the Child Sexual Exploitation Steering Group, Bev Hughes, said: “I would also like to pass on my sincere thanks to Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway for their review. They have shone a light on terrible abuse suffered by children who should have been helped and protected.
“I know apologies won’t erase the suffering victims have endured, but it is right that Oldham Council and GMP have acknowledged what went wrong and apologised for it.
“I also want to reassure the public that we take child sexual exploitation and safeguarding with the utmost seriousness. We will never be deterred from doing whatever is necessary to protect children better, including through these assurance reviews and collaborative safeguarding work across the city-region’s statutory agencies. If anyone suspects a child or young person is being abused, I urge them to urgently report it.”
Where anyone suspects a child or young person is being abused in Oldham, Oldham Council strongly encourages them to help make it stop by making a child protection referral to them. They can call the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) on 0161 770 7777 or fill in a safeguarding referral form on our website. If someone is in immediate danger, always call 999.
Every local authority in Greater Manchester has a MASH and details can be found on council websites.
Safeguarding in Greater Manchester
The Greater Manchester Complex Safeguarding hub has implemented an independently evaluated peer review process and outcomes framework to quality-assure practice. The learning from this has enabled Greater Manchester to develop and deliver a strengths-based and trauma-informed approach to supporting young people who are vulnerable to or have experienced exploitation.
A Greater Manchester Safeguarding Alliance also exists which comprises the 10 local authority chief executives, the 10 accountable officers for the Clinical Commissioning Groups and the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police to see how well Greater Manchester is responding to this complex and difficult issue. It is a collaborative alliance which defines good safeguarding practice from learning what works with children and young people and supports the 10 local safeguarding partnerships to achieve excellence.
If you have information relating to these issues and you would like to contact someone about it or if you have been affected by these issues, please contact Greater Manchester Victim Support on 0300 303 0162. If you need support out of hours, call the Support Line on 0808 16 89 111.
Support and advice for children and young people, parents and carers, and professionals about all aspects of child sexual exploitation is available from itsnotokay.co.uk, as well as information about how to report it.
Article Published: 20/06/2022 09:27 AM