Graham Stringer MP: The failure of Operation Augusta gives us reason to doubt improvements on child protection
There is little doubt that grooming and sexual abuse of children is continuing. Local authorities and the police have committed to improving, so must the Home Office, writes Graham Stringer MP.
In July 2017 Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, having watched the BBC broadcast The Betrayed Girls, a documentary about child sexual exploitation (CSE) in different parts of the country including Greater Manchester, decided to commission an independent assurance exercise on the current and future models for child protection. The first part of this review was published on January 14th.
However harrowing an experience watching The Betrayed Girls was, reading the first instalment of Burnham’s review was worse. It leaves one hovering between despair and rage. The complete failure of Greater Manchester Police and Manchester City Council to protect some of the most vulnerable children is brutally exposed.
The focus is on Operation Augusta, initiated in February 2004, following the death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia while she was in the care of Manchester City Council. Since the age of 13 she had been sexually abused and assaulted by mainly Asian men; she died having been injected with heroin by a 50-year-old man.
In essence, Augusta was designed to find and protect children in a similar situation to Victoria and to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators. It did identify 57 girls at risk and 97 suspects before being closed down after 16 months, leaving the perpetrators free to continue their systematic abuse in plain sight. Very few of the abusers were prosecuted, nor were their activities disrupted. Augusta was a litany of poor leadership, lack of resources, territorial disputes within Greater Manchester Police and an overreliance on difficult-to-obtain evidence from victims.
The Greater Manchester Police and Manchester City Council have acknowledged their failings and made apologies with what I believe is genuine regret. They have already changed their methods of working and are committed to better focussed and coordinated work on child protection.
The question is: will these improvements materialise and be sustained? History gives us reasons for serious doubt. Scores of reports with hundreds of recommendations have been produced over the last half century following the abuse and murder of children, yet there is still a failure to give children the protection they deserve, and society demands. Large organisations under stress invariably protect themselves and not the children. Many social workers and police officers knew what was going on but remained loyal, however unhappy. This is clear from the evidence they willingly gave to the inquiry, which stands in stark contrast to senior police officers (two of whom became Chief Constables) who have either not cooperated or claim they can’t remember the events.
A change of culture and stronger incentives and protections for whistle blowers would undoubtedly have made the public aware of this appalling situation. The public would not stand for the abandonment of these children.
That is not to say structural and resource changes won’t help. Virtually every children’s department in the country is under-resourced and there are far fewer police officers than there were 16 years ago.
We know little about grooming gangs. We don’t, for instance, know if there are ‘Mr Bigs’ behind the grooming or if it is a completely decentralised activity. The Home Office are strangely reluctant to do the necessary research, which would enable more effective policing and disruption of this criminal activity. This research should be undertaken immediately. If these crimes are organised on a national and international level they should be a top priority for the National Crime Agency.
The official policy of Greater Manchester Police is to treat a crime as racist if a victim or associated party considers it to be so. This policy was abandoned when it came to these cases because the Chief Constable believed it would damage community relations. The fact that most of the perpetrators were Muslims of Pakistani origin meant some police officers were reluctant to carry out their duties. As the previous Director of Public Prosecutions in the Northwest, Nazir Afzal OBE (a practising Muslim) has said, these crimes are against the teachings of the Koran, and the vast majority of the Pakistani community are as appalled by these activities as the rest of the population.
The death of Victoria Agoglia led to Operation Augusta; it is one of the more shocking aspects of this whole affair that to this day no investigation has taken place. At the inquest into her death the coroner said “there was no evidence of a gross failure to meet Victoria’s needs that would have had a significant bearing on her death”. And that there could be no inference that the events leading to her death were “reasonably foreseeable”. The current coroner has also refused to release relevant documents. On the evidence that the review has published, it makes it difficult to agree with the coroner’s judgement. In the interests of delivering justice for Victoria and her family the five Manchester MPs have written to the Attorney General calling for a new inquest.
Local authorities and the police have committed to improving, so must the Home Office. There is little doubt that grooming and sexual abuse of children is continuing. The commitment to improve must ensure that perpetrators are immediately brought to justice and that today’s children are not the subject of another horrifying report in 16 years’ time.
Graham Stringer is Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton.