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Child Sexual Exploitation and Safeguarding in Oldham

Volume 717: debated on Thursday 30 June 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

May I say how moving I thought the closing of that debate was, and your contribution in particular, Mr Deputy Speaker?

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Opposition Chief Whip for granting me permission to bring this important debate to the House of Commons Chamber. As those in the House will be aware, it is rare for a Front-Bench spokesperson to take to the Back Benches to lead an Adjournment debate. It reflects the issue of safeguarding and child sexual exploitation in Oldham, and allowing this debate to be had highlights just how important that is. The debate builds on the joint statement issued by me, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner). I intend to use this time to focus on victims and the report’s findings; focus on safeguarding challenges during the period covered by the review; and touch on the disinformation campaign surrounding that.

Child sexual exploitation is a painful reality that both sides of this House recognise. It is in every community and we must fight it together. The report of the national independent inquiry into child sexual abuse chaired by Professor Alexis Jay was published in February. Its stark conclusions demonstrate that children are sexually exploited by organised networks in all parts of the country, in the most degrading and destructive ways.

Last week, the independent assurance review into historic child sexual exploitation in Oldham was published. It is important the House has an opportunity to debate it. I place on record my thanks to those who led the independent review team, notably, Malcolm Newsam, who I am sure the Minister will know from his work with the Home Office, and former senior police officer Gary Ridgway.

On the report’s release, Mr Newsam said:

“We found that throughout this period, especially services tackling child sexual exploitation provided by Oldham Council and Greater Manchester police were strategically ahead of those available in many of the local authorities at the time. However, these did not always translate at an operational level into the effective safeguarding of children experiencing sexual exploitation.”

He went on:

“Our own review of a sample of children has exposed significant failings in the protection provided by the statutory authorities to those children. We understand that Oldham Council and Greater Manchester police have agreed to review the management of these cases to consider whether any further action can now be taken in respect to the man who exploited these children.”

In that context, it was right for Greater Manchester police and the council to accept the findings in full and to give a full and unqualified apology to those who were let down.

In response, the council leader, Amanda Chadderton, told the press conference on the day:

“The vast majority of those children received the support they needed and were kept safe. The report references some of the commendable work of our social workers in children’s homes, but what is clear is that that was not true for all children, and one child let down is one child too many. It is absolutely imperative that our residents have confidence in those people who work to protect our children.”

The report included the case of Sophie, whose abuse began in 2006 when she was just 12 years old. There were a further 10 sample cases, which were later referred to the Messenger project, but they were not adequately followed up by Greater Manchester police or by social services. The council has confirmed that, during the review period, 11,000 safeguarding referrals were made to the authority and that the vast majority would have received appropriate support and safeguarding. But let us be absolutely clear: that is of no comfort to survivors who did not get that support.

I know that my hon. Friend feels grief, as I do, at what too many of our young people have been through. I want to commend, as I think he will as well, the victims for coming forward. They have shown courage in retelling their story, and that must have caused them pain. We also condemn the horrific crimes against them. Is he as concerned as I am about the failings in our institutions, including the council and Greater Manchester police, and among certain individuals? Does he, like me, want a reassurance that, if they have been negligent in their responsibility to protect these vulnerable children, they will go through a disciplinary process?

I apologise for this long intervention, Mr Deputy Speaker, but may I also ask my hon. Friend whether he has confidence that what is being proposed under Operation Sherwood will deliver by enabling victims to come forward and ensuring that offenders receive the full force of the law and are punished for the crimes that they have committed?

My hon. Friend makes very powerful points. It is clear that victims have been let down. When they went to the people who were there to protect them—social workers and police officers—they were left standing alone. Even with the passage of time, we need to make sure that the perpetrators, who carried out those disgraceful acts of abuse over a long period, feel the full weight of the law. Frankly, as leaders we put our trust and confidence in the professionals, the police service and social workers to do the right thing and to always step up to make sure that nobody falls through the gap. If there is any evidence that any professional reviewing those cases did not take the action that we would all demand and expect, that absolutely has to be reviewed and revisited, whether they are currently in post or have left. Also, if people have any evidence that has not yet been provided to the authorities that involves criminal allegations or failure, that needs to be brought forward to the appropriate authorities so that it can be properly investigated. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on all those points.

I know that Members across the House have dedicated themselves to supporting survivors of abuse in overcoming the hurdles in accessing justice. As MPs, we do that on a regular basis. In the cases outlined, the courage shown by victims who came forward absolutely stands out.

The report can be broadly separated into two areas of focus: the operational approach to keep young people safe, and political leadership and allegations being levelled online over the past three years that abuse by organised gangs was being covered up for political gain. It is important, therefore, that we do not shy away from the organised disinformation campaign that has sought from the outset to undermine the report and its independence, and that is now going so far as to claim that the investigators themselves are part of an elaborate cover-up. The report does not hold back from highlighting poor practice where it was found. They told uncomfortable truths in Manchester and Oldham, and they will do the same in the next stage as the review moves on to Rochdale. Will the Minister join me and others, such as the Mayor of Greater Manchester, in condemning the abuse that the authors have received, and underline the integrity and independent nature of this report?

For my part, the independent report is clear that, during the period from 2011, when I became leader of Oldham Council, I did absolutely everything possible to publicise the threat of child sexual exploitation and

“sought to tackle the issue head on.”

That was a hard and drawn-out battle to improve safeguarding support, and the battle continues today.

It is important to set out the journey. In the year before Labour gained control of the council, children’s safeguarding had been hit by a budget cut of £720,000, including £100,000 cut from the specialist CSE Messenger programme and £100,000 cut from the CSE residential home, removing dedicated police security that was in place to protect highly vulnerable girls from the abusers who sought continued access. The recruitment and retention of social workers was under significant pressure, with almost half of all posts covered by agency staff, with a high turnover of vacancies. The long-promised IT system was late in being implemented and demand for the service increased year on year.

The change in administration took place two months after the Rochdale grooming gang was charged, with Shabir Ahmed—an Oldham resident and former council employee—as its ringleader. Oldham immediately put safeguarding at the top of the priorities for the council and the police. His association with the council was reported in national newspapers as the case progressed through the trial. The council believed strongly—this was reflected in its actions—that it had to use all that was available and take whatever option was needed to tackle CSE and learn from the experiences elsewhere to raise public awareness.

When concerns were raised about the risks associated with the growing number of shisha bars, the council did all that it could to close them down and ultimately succeeded, publicly sharing concerns about high-risk venues in the Manchester Evening News and in an in-depth feature on BBC Radio 5 Live. Crucially, that also involved giving professionals in schools and colleges and others working with children updated guidance through the Project Phoenix practitioners’ handbook on CSE, which identified shisha bars as high-risk venues. The report highlights that the disruption activity was ahead of its time.

When the report into abuse in Rotherham was made public, Oldham Council carried out a full review of taxi licensing. The increasingly robust approach was challenged, including through successful appeals in the magistrates court, but in the end, we had the toughest regime in the region, addressing head on licences that were issued to people we believed posed a risk to the public. Although the report concluded that there was no widespread grooming in taxis or shisha bars, it demonstrated that Oldham’s concerns were legitimate and, although progress was made, at times the situation, frankly, was frustrating. The determination to reduce the risk of harm was absolutely clear. Oldham never shied away from either the scale or complexity of CSE or, for that matter, of forced marriage, female genital mutilation, online harms, radicalisation and extremism. The risks were fast-moving and evolving all the time, and they still are today.

By 2014, all social workers were employed by the council, except a single member of staff who was covering maternity leave on agency contracts. The new IT system had been brought in, ending gaps in records on complex cases. Oldham was one of the first councils in the country to establish a multi-agency safeguarding hub and to grant access to the police national computer to boost intelligence sharing. Oldham had developed a public campaign, including holding educational plays in schools that resulted in 70 victims and witnesses coming forward to tell their stories. It held stalls in the market hall and article after article set out the full scale and nature of abuse that was taking place in the community, often in plain sight.

The council also actively debated CSE in full council and was open about the scale, nature and risk that it presented in Oldham. By 2014, the Project Phoenix programme was rolled out across Greater Manchester, with ongoing campaigns under the “It’s not okay” banner, supported by dedicated local charities, including KOGS, which stands for Keeping Our Girls Safe. That is important because, ultimately, creating the space for victims to come forward is vital to securing justice. Ofsted inspections, peer reviews and internal reviews all pointed to Oldham leading the way in CSE. That was reflected in feedback from the Home Office, too. The fact that the report now points to significant gaps in support has been met with dismay and quite frankly with frustration, and I am deeply sorry to all those young people who were let down by the services that should have been there to protect them.

The report shows that there is much that political leadership can achieve, but it also lays bare its limitations. The political environment, then and today, is important. While I am supportive of the review and believe strongly that it needed to take place, my deep frustration is that the continued undermining of the independence of the report diverts focus away from justice for CSE victims and is in danger of eroding confidence even further. My town has seen that before, with far-right protests taking to the streets, smearing whole communities and setting out to divide.

That has increased significantly with the rise of social media and conspiracy theorists’ platforms such as Recusant Nine, led by Raja Miah, who seeks to make financial and political gain by spreading hate, racism and disinformation. We need to be clear with the people of Oldham about the motivations that sit behind that. They have little to do with being a victims’ champion. Why am I being so direct in this debate? Because as chief executive of the Collective Spirit Free School, he presided over a catalogue of serious safeguarding incidents, ranging from violence against pupils to child abuse in school. Not only that, but—unbelievably—he responded to the catalogue of abuse at the Collective Spirit Free School and referred to it as all lies, dismissing the experience of the victims who were abused.

In one of the most serious cases, which was confirmed by a serious case review by the Manchester Safeguarding Partnership, failings at the school prolonged the sexual abuse of a victim. To add to that, there are allegations that teachers were sexualising children, that basic measures such as background checks were not being carried out and, even worse—if it could get worse—that the safeguarding register was falsified during an inspection to cover up the failings at the school. To preside over that is one thing, but to deny it—those are not the actions of somebody who puts victims first. I am proud that as a Member of Parliament, I stood up to give a voice to pupils, parents and staff, expose the corruption that took place and, eventually, see the closure of those schools that were a risk to our children. That was what sparked the current campaign of targeted abuse, harassment and division in Oldham as he set out on a self-declared campaign of revenge. It is no accident that his campaign began within a week of being named by the Department for Education’s investigation.

My hon. Friend is making such a powerful speech. I pay tribute to him for having the strength and determination to call out what has been quite disgraceful behaviour. The malicious statements that have been made by this person and the misinformation that has been spread have contributed to division and hatred in our town, which we have both received.

This is not something that is confined to Oldham. I put that important message to the Minister, and I would welcome her response. If these malicious statements that have taken hold are not tackled, this will spread beyond Oldham. They must be tackled.

I agree. After three years of this cloud hanging over our town, I can see the damage that it has caused, not only to the individuals who have been targeted by abuse, but to the families having their homes targeted, with death threats being levelled and all that brings—the anxiety, the stress and the strain. It is very difficult even to talk about that in a conversation like this, when we are reflecting on such a damning report. Victims have been through far, far worse and they need to be our focus, but the context is important.

It is important that this is called out, because I can see and feel that my town of Oldham is not just being divided; it is hurting. That was evident at the special meeting of the council that took place on Monday. It is true that some who are central to the campaign are driven by hatred and by politics, and that some have links to the far right. It is also true that some have been central to the spreading of lies and smears and the constant harassment of those whom they oppose. However, we need to be clear about the fact that not everyone who shows concern, who expresses disagreement, who attended that meeting and who make references online is part of that. There are many people with legitimate concerns, and it is important that we address those concerns head-on.

It is clear from that meeting that there are victims who have been let down and who, when they came for support, were turned away. It is clear that some people have loved ones who have been victims, and that others are horrified at the reality of the abuse that takes place in our country. However, I fear that if we do not build trust and a common ground in the mainstream of politics, the conditions for such a sensitive issue to be used to divide a town are set. Hope Not Hate, journalists and others have exposed this, but without action, we face a real risk of returning to the ashes of a town divided, and, furthermore, the risk that the disinformation and hatred will destroy the confidence that allows victims to come forward to seek justice through the proper channels.

For those of us who are genuinely determined to move forward and repair the hurt in our town and the hurt for the victims, the question is this: what are we going to do differently to create an environment where people can come together to work towards fighting against the evil of child abuse? The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said:

“Public confidence comes from a willingness to be unflinching in facing up to these claims. And being honest about the past. However difficult that may be. And it comes also from a readiness to bring perpetrators to justice, regardless of the passage of time.”

I can say to the people of Oldham that we, their MPs, will fully play our part.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne has said:

“As operation Sherwood commits to reopening investigations we will be pushing for action, and in the end that will be the only test to deliver justice for the victims both identified in the report and beyond. There must be a readiness to reopen cases and secure prosecutions”.

I hope that the Home Office will give its full support to that mission, in Oldham and across the country, and that it will join us in encouraging victims to come forward, knowing that they will be given the support that they deserve.

I will leave the final word to the Greater Manchester chief constable, Stephen Watson, who has said:

“My message to those offenders is a simple one. If you think you have got away with it, you are wrong. And we are coming for you.”

I think we can all agree that we have heard an incredibly powerful speech, and a very thoughtful one, from the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on an extremely difficult subject. I have no doubt that victims of these abhorrent and atrocious events will commend him, and his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), for setting out their strong commitment to securing justice for those victims, which is what we all want to see. In that, he will have the full support of Conservative Members and the full force of the Home Office—the Home Secretary, and every single Home Office Minister.

Before I begin my formal response, let me join the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly in condemning what he has alluded to. I have no personal knowledge of the issues to which he has referred, so I cannot give a substantive response in that regard, but I can say from my position as a Home Office Minister that to call into question the integrity of the law enforcement professionals who dedicate their lives and careers to investigating these incredibly disgusting and abhorrent crimes is outrageous. It is completely wrong, and anyone who thinks that there is any question about their professionalism needs to take a good, long, hard look at themselves.

I apologise; this may seem a bit trite after what the Minister has said, but we need to recognise that there were failings at operational level in the council and in Greater Manchester police. The majority of police officers and council workers will be doing their best, but there were failings from some individuals and that needs to be acknowledged, because those children suffered as a result.

I am going to come on to say exactly that. I hope that the hon. Lady is not conflating the two points I am seeking to make. Absolutely, there were failings by professionals who were supposed to be safeguarding vulnerable children, as the hon. Members have set out, but what I am talking about is the work of the reporting bodies: the ICSA report led by Professor Alexis Jay and the other reports that have been taking place. They have the knowledge of what has gone on in an incredible level of detail and they have set that out.

Children in Oldham were failed time and again by those who should have protected them, as is shockingly demonstrated in the ICSA report. The vast majority of safeguarding professionals and those working in law enforcement are good people doing a difficult job. There are bad people in any walk of life and where they exist, we should do everything we can to call it out. Those failings are shameful. The report that the hon. Members have alluded to has made six recommendations and we will publish the Government response shortly. I was appalled when reading of the experiences endured by children who were not yet teenagers in Oldham, and it is in no small part due to the ongoing tenacity of those children—now adult victims and survivors—that those awful failures have been uncovered. To make a personal comment, I really do find having to read those reports and stories the worst part of my job. Some of that information is not in the public domain. I cannot sleep at night when I have read them. I am sure that all Members will join me in paying tribute to those victims, survivors and their families who have courageously shared their experiences in the pursuit of change.

What happened in Oldham has happened in too many places right across the UK, but there have been significant changes in how local authorities and the police safeguard children. I agree with the hon. Members that victims should come forward and report abuse wherever it is taking place because they can have confidence that the police and other frontline services will take them seriously. The best tribute we can make is to ensure that others do not have to endure the same ordeal. I will set out in the time I have left what we are doing.

We are supporting the police to make improvements. Home Office investment underpins strengthened law enforcement capability to tackle these crimes. We welcome the work of Operation Sherwood to bring prosecutions against sexual abusers of children. We are funding specialist training in the vulnerability, knowledge and practice programme, which identifies best practice and shares it with all forces, and I want to thank the College of Policing for what it is doing on this. I want to be clear that political and cultural sensitivity should never hinder these investigations or the delivery of justice for these victims.

We have made it clear to the police that the protection of vulnerable children must be a priority, and to this end the Home Secretary has shown real leadership. She has raised the issue through the primary forum that exists for her, which is the National Policing Board, and we are ensuring that performance is rigorously scrutinised. She has commissioned Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services to investigate how police across England and Wales handle group-based child sexual exploitation. It is right to say that we have been on the front foot on this. Unlike the historical inquiries, this will give an up-to-date picture of the quality and effectiveness of forces’ support for victims and how they are bringing offenders to justice now. We expect findings from the inspection by the end of this year, and I trust that it will give us some much-needed assurance that the policing of these crimes has improved, but make no mistake, should deficiencies be uncovered, we will do what it takes to address them.

As the hon. Members know, our approach is underpinned by the tackling child sexual abuse strategy, which was published in January last year. ICSA will publish its final report very shortly, and we will come forward with a full response to that and set out our actions. More widely, our beating crime plan reaffirms our strong commitment to ensuring that more of these complex crimes end in prosecutions and convictions. We have relaunched our victims and survivors of child sexual abuse fund to support voluntary sector organisations delivering a range of vital services. I want to finish by thanking the hon. Members. I am determined to ensure that we confront these crimes wherever and whenever they occur and leave no stone unturned in our mission to keep children safe.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.