Abuse survivor speaks of grooming horror at fiery debate over damning Oldham child sexual exploitation report

There were turbulent scenes at an extraordinary meeting convened in the wake of the scathing report’s publication, with angry residents accusing the authorities of a cover-up from the public gallery.

A survivor of abuse spoke out about her own grooming horror during a stormy debate over the findings of a damning review into authorities’ handling of child sexual exploitation in Oldham.

The review, carried out by experts Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway, found that vulnerable children in the town had been failed despite efforts to protect them between 2011 and 2014.

A specific case dating back to 2005 involving ‘Sophie’, a 12-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped, was singled out for intense criticism for the way authorities dealt with the investigation into her assaults by strangers, and for the failure to take action when she was being groomed online.

The report stated that it found no evidence of a widespread cover-up of sexual exploitation in the borough, and between the years 2011 to 2014 services endeavoured to prevent at risk young people from being taken advantage of.

But the authors said that while strategies were good on paper, they frequently did not translate into protecting children on the ground from abuse.

Amid turbulent scenes at an extraordinary meeting on Monday night, one woman addressed the council to reveal she had been groomed in the 1980s and was another survivor of sexual abuse.

What did the sexual abuse survivor tell the council?

She told the chamber that in the 1980s she was taken into the care of the local authority, adding: “When I went into the girls home I was warned about the man that worked in Civic Centre. I was horrified.

“I was also taken off the streets of Oldham town centre. I was 16 years old. I was so disgusted with myself. I was taken out of the area, I was taken along the M62 to other northern towns because that’s what happens. It was absolutely horrendous.

“We’re now in 2022, I think it’s about time that you held your heads in shame and realised what’s been going on for 50 years.”

Leaders furiously heckled as public anger is on display

The council chamber was packed with members of the public filling the public gallery, and spilling into another room. Some of them carried matching signs that said ‘cover up’ and ‘how many children’.

Protesters turned their backs on the Oldham civic mayor as she entered the chamber and booed the arrival of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, setting a tone of scathing anger in which leaders were furiously heckled which would dominate the following four hours.

The format of the meeting was amended to allow residents’ questions to be put to a panel made up of council leader Amanda Chadderton, Mayor Burnham, Oldham’s director children’s services Gerard Jones and Chief Superintendent Chris Bowen, the police district commander for Oldham.

In total 35 questions which had been pre-submitted were put to leaders. However many of the answers were almost drowned out by the shouts from the gallery, with many residents calling for resignations and branding responses ‘lies’.

Signs in the public gallery alleging a cover-up at the meeting Oldham Council convened to discuss the CSE report

A member of the public, Debbie Barratt-Cole, asked Coun Chadderton directly: “Who will be held accountable for the travesty happening in our town? And explain why anyone should believe anything you say any more from this council.”

She also called for a government-led ‘public criminal investigation for the children of our town’.

Jackie Stanton, an ex-Liberal Democrat councillor, asked the council leader and chief executive to ‘admit to the public of Oldham’ that none of them are ‘capable of ‘dealing with the horrific findings’ of the CSE report.

She added: “Will they refer themselves to the government for failing thousands of Oldham children?”

How did Oldham’s leaders respond?

Coun Chadderton said: “I’m not here to speak for previous leaders, I’ve been leader of this council for two months. We’ve never shied away from the fact that these extremely evil men are out there who commit these horrendous crimes.

“Keeping children safe is a daily challenge, here and elsewhere in the country. The report makes it clear that we were aware of the issue, we were working to tackle it and we were working to promote the risk of CSE to the public.

“The report does not allege any misconduct in public office by council staff, however we will of course work with Greater Manchester Police who are looking at these crimes again, so should any misconduct be uncovered during that process we will of course take action against anyone found to commit misconduct.

“The two people that carried out this report were independent experts. Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway are often employed by this government to intervene in councils, such as they were in Rotherham.

“While there were failings, and we completely accept the findings of the report, there was no cover up.

“We asked for an independent review by national experts and we’ve got one. The Home Office and other agencies are aware of this review. If the government wants to do anything then that is up to them but we will not be calling for another review into the council.”

Questions asked about the role of licensing

Resident Maggie Hurley asked whether councillors who had served on licensing panels found to have in the past given licences to taxi drivers with sexual abuse convictions had the ‘courage to resign with immediate effect’.

“At what point will any of you take responsibility for your actions?” she asked.

Coun Chadderton replied that they now have ‘tight restrictions’ on who can get a licence to drive taxis, and have ‘some of the most stringent conditions in Greater Manchester’, requesting a DBS check every six months.

She said she also asked for a review of all taxi drivers licensed by the authority, but added that councillors at the time acted on the advice of professionals and followed the national guidance.

“There is no implication that these decisions were taken in bad faith, rather the advice and information should have been better,” Coun Chadderton said.

Why was Rochdale grooming gang leader Shabir Ahmed allowed to work in Oldham?

Questions were also raised on the night about the Rochdale grooming gang leader Shabir Ahmed worked in Oldham unchecked for a year despite being accused of serious child sexual abuse.

Ahmed had worked at Oldham council between 1988 and 2006, and was employed as a welfare rights officer seconded to the Oldham Pakistani Community Centre.

Coun Chadderton said she became a councillor six years after he left the council, and the council was not informed about the allegations against him until two years after he had left the authority’s employment.

“There is no information that the council knew that [Ahmed] had admitted any crimes at the point he was employed by Oldham council,” she added.

“He was not protected by the council either by officers or politicians.”

Questions around the treatment of sexual abuse victim ‘Sophie’

The council meeting was told that the victim known in the report as ‘Sophie’ – who was in attendance in the public gallery – said she had not been approached for an interview as part of the review.

A question stated that it was only due to an intervention from former detective and campaigner Maggie Oliver that she was interviewed which led to the review publication date being delayed from January.

Gerard Jones, director of children’s services, said: “We did ask for Sophie’s case to be included. We’re really pleased actually that she was eventually able to participate in the review.”

Mr Jones said a decision to tell the review team that Sophie’s welfare was at risk if she spoke to them was based on the information of the ‘professionals working with her directly who knew her’. Mr Jones said he has also written to Maggie Oliver about how the decisions were made.

The extraordinary meeting convened in Oldham to discuss the damning CSE report

He told the meeting that they contacted Sophie through her social worker and ‘later on I did make a decision not to re-approach her based upon those working closely with her’.

On the failings identified in relation to Sophie in the review, he added: “Of course we feel that we let her down, and of course we’re very very sorry about it and we’re going to learn the lessons for the future.”

Coun Chadderton said: “If Sophie feels we should have done more to facilitate her involvement then we have to acknowledge that and we have to apologise for that.

“I have also asked that the issue be looked at when we review her contact with the council as an adult. If anybody has been found to commit gross misconduct then that will be dealt with.”

Criticism from opposition councillors

Opposition councillors were also critical of both the findings, and the format of the review itself – with several reiterating their calls for a government-led inquiry.

Conservative councillor Pam Byrne added that ‘no apologies can be enough’ and the administration ‘must be ashamed’ that in ‘naivety, inexperience and lack of empathy in some part that this ever happened’.

“This historical review exposes all the horrors that the victims have been subject to. We need justice for all victims and the full weight of the law on grooming gangs,” she said.

She told the meeting the Tory group are calling again for a ‘further fuller independent report or public inquiry free of the Greater Manchester authority’.

In his response, Failsworth Independent Party group leader Coun Brian Hobin said: “I’m disappointed, I’m upset and I’m angry.

“Apologies won’t wash. Lessons learnt is a phrase I do not want to hear from this council, we’re sick of it. It is not worthy of this chamber and we need more.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Howard Sykes said the publication of the long-awaited report was a ‘hugely significant moment’ for Oldham.

He told the meeting that he was ‘outraged, angry and disgusted’. “Over many years I have asked questions and scrutinised safeguarding matters. I was given repeated assurances and the facts in this report are news to me.

“Why did we not know this was happening? What has changed, and how are things different now?”

Tory Coun Lewis Quigg said the council had been ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to this point of debating the review findings. “This abuse has been going on for years,” he added.

“We are talking about girls being raped, sexually abused and more on top. For too long justice has been denied.

“Sadly tonight Oldham joins an infamous list of towns, from Rotherham, to Rochdale, to Telford. And all because the council and the police failed to take those reporting these horrific crimes seriously.”

Coun Quigg told the meeting he urges survivors to speak to the police and for the CPS to review the cases and see what prosecutions they can bring.

What did Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham say?

Mayor Andy Burnham told the meeting that it would have been ‘easier’ not to have commissioned the overarching review into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in 2017, and into which the Oldham review was incorporated.

“It would have been easier not to do that. But I did it because I wanted to ensure that a spotlight is shone on Greater Manchester Police, on councils involved so that people have answers that they haven’t hitherto received. That is why this debate has been opened up, and not before time.” he said.

“At some point we need to start to bring this town back together, bring confidence to the arrangements in Greater Manchester and follow this process through.”

Mr Burnham said the report had been described both as a ‘damning indictment’ and a ‘cover up’ by critics in the chamber – adding ‘with respect it can’t be both’.

“It’s action, it’s prosecution that the public of Oldham will want to see,” he said. “People are already trying to undermine Operation Sherwood in this room tonight.”

How have Greater Manchester Police responded?

Operation Sherwood is the new investigation by GMP launched this month to support victims of abuse in Oldham and pursue their offenders.

Chief Superintendent Chris Bowen, GMP District Commander for Oldham, told the meeting that the safeguarding arrangements were not good enough to protect children from sexual abuse.

He said he offered ‘no excuses’’ but said that the force is on a ‘journey of continuous improvement’ and tackling CSE is now a ‘top priority’.

“I would like to recognise those who for years have lived with these horrors, hurt and ongoing trauma over what has happened to them. I offer my sincere apologies for the failure to protect vulnerable young adults and for not thoroughly investigating the offences that have been committed against them,” he said.

“GMP has changed since the time covered by this review. We did not wait for the review to remedy the lost opportunities of the past.”

Chief Supt Bowen added there is a unit within GMP that has been set up specifically to tackle child sexual exploitation following £2.3m investment, which now has 106 officers to pursue offenders.

He concluded: “We might not have gotten this right in the past but now is the time to seek the justice that is rightly owed.”