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Independent review into CSE in Oldham finds child protection procedures were not followed

Some children have been failed by the agencies that were meant to protect them because child protection procedures had not been properly followed, an independent assurance review into historic child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Oldham has found.

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, there was no evidence of senior managers or councillors trying to cover-up the existence of CSE or the complexity involved in tackling perpetrators. CSE was not widespread CSE in residential settings, in shisha bars or in the local taxi trade.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “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.”

Oldham Council commissioned the review in November 2019 which 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.

Sophie

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. The letter raised serious allegations that she was subjected to profound sexual exploitation age 12 in 2006 and that Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police failed in their duties to protect her. 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 interventions of both the Council and Greater Manchester Police fell far short of what was required to protect Sophie at the time, the review team said, 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.

The review team recommends that both Greater Manchester Police and Oldham Council publicly acknowledge these serious failures and apologise to Sophie.

Progress was recognised

The review team highlights that:

  • Oldham Council did everything possible to publicise the threat of CSE 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 Council did everything possible to publicise the threat of CSE, 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.

  • There was a public statement by the Leader of Oldham Council in 2014 categorically refuting 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. The review team looked at a sample of ten complex cases and 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.

Structural flaw

A structural flaw in the design of the Oldham Council and Greater Manchester Police multi-agency Messenger service which was developed to tackle CSE was also found by the review team.  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.

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.”

Shisha bars

With regards to shisha bars, 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, 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.

Taxis

With regards to taxi drivers, there was no evidence that senior managers or councillors sought to cover up the potential exploitation of children by local taxi drivers. However, 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.

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.

Residential homes

In terms of residential homes, there was no evidence of 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 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.

A welfare rights officer, seconded to the Oldham Pakistani Community Centre worked for Oldham Council between 1988 and 2006. 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.

Failings

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 Labour Councillor was questioned by the police in June 2007 on allegations of the rape of a young woman but 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.

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.”

The review into historic safeguarding practices in Oldham

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