Frances Oldham QC (Photo by Lauren Hurley/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Oldham report shames us all

Victims were failed at every level — could there be more cases to come?

In November 2006, an underage girl visited Greater Manchester Police to report being sexually assaulted. According to the girl, she was ordered to “reattend with an adult when she was not drunk”. Leaving the station, she met two men who:

…invited her into their car “to chill”. These men sexually assaulted her and further sexual assaults by different men took place in a car and a house.

Despite this alleged dereliction of duty being reported to the police, nothing happened.

No institution can eliminate incompetence. Indeed, an institution that attempted to eliminate incompetence could grow paranoid and sclerotic. Yet the horrifying scale of the incompetence, carelessness and downright indifference detailed in two recent reports on the phenomenon of “grooming gangs” turns the stomach. 

Again and again and again, nothing happened, as the police and other officials were incurious or downright inhumane. For example, as we learned this week from an independent review commissioned by Oldham Council, serial child predator Shabir Ahmed continued working as, of all things, a welfare rights officer after facing multiple allegations of abuse because the police never got around to telling his employers. “If…procedures had been followed,” the report suggests, “his offending behaviour could have been addressed at an earlier stage and potentially the abuse of his subsequent victims may have been prevented.”

In Rotherham, meanwhile, as the Independent Office for Police Conduct also detailed this week, the rape of young girls was not investigated, in some cases, because the victims were seen as “consenting” to abuse. A lack of “awareness training” is referenced. It might be true that police officers needed awareness training to appreciate that children cannot “consent” to sex, but damn is it depressing.

The police evidently hated dealing with the girls

Many of the details of the prolific Rotherham paedophile ring were exposed in the Jay Report in 2014 but the scale of police ineptitude still leaves one speechless. An 11-year-old — an 11-year-old — was apparently in a car with one of the perpetrators when it was stopped by police. The perpetrator warned the child to say nothing that might arouse suspicions but they “volunteered information that they were living in a children’s home, their real age, and that the perpetrator was their ‘boyfriend’”. Reportedly, the police did nothing.

Most of the girls came from troubled backgrounds, and many of them lived in children’s homes. The police evidently hated dealing with them. As a comfortable opinion columnist I should acknowledge that working with troubled kids must be very hard. On the other hand, this does not excuse failing to appreciate that young girls cannot be in sexual relationships with adults. Not even close

“We found,” says the report, “there was often a feeling among parents…[that] they were wasting police time.” What did the cops have to do that was so much more important than potential child exploitation? (This was before they had to deal with the terrifying phenomenon of “mean tweets”.)

Both reports touch lightly on the fact that most of the perpetrators in Rotherham and Oldham, as in several other high-profile cases, were of Pakistani origin. A recent Home Office report was hailed in the liberal press for “dispelling the myth of grooming gangs”. As Jonathan Gleadell patiently explained, it did no such thing. Instead, it found that the data is too thin for firm conclusions to be drawn.

Authorities have enabled child predators of all backgrounds. The cases of Jimmy Savile and Ian Watkins are especially notorious. Still, it is terrible to read about how Oldham officials were so frightened of attracting far right attention that they prematurely claimed to inquisitive journalists that “there is no problem with private members’ clubs in Oldham” (informal “members only” shisha bars being a common centre of child predation). With an element of farce, in the same email where a communications officer reported killing a story about the problem, they cheerfully added:

PS. In case you didn’t know: We’ve also won Best City at Northwest in Bloom again today.

How nice. 

It is terrible, too, to hear the claim that parents were told by Rotherham police that having an “older Asian boyfriend” was a “fashion accessory” for young girls. How much “awareness training” did these lads and lasses need? Were they even aware of the time of day?

The Oldham report emphasises that many public servants and police officers did their best to stop criminals and raise awareness. That is fair enough. It is hard to stomach that neither report insists on individual accountability for people who did not, though. Granted, institutional failings were more serious than individual mistakes. But does no one take responsibility for institutions? If not, who has any skin in the game?

Another 2022 report in Rotherham found that safeguarding procedures have been massively improved. One hopes that this is the case across the UK. Still, we cannot simply trust the authorities. Police and council failings that enabled large-scale child abuse were in turn enabled by broader, deeper complacence. Few people took note of rumours that bubbled in the streets. One person who did was a local volunteer from a church in Oldham. She told the investigators:

Okay, so we did see many young girls going in and that’s when for me personally I was a moth to a flame. I wanted to go in and see what these girls were doing. They often looked too young and being a mum, I would say, you, you, you, you, go. You know and I’m big enough and ugly enough to be able to handle myself so that’s why I think I became the bane of whoever owned that place because I didn’t feel it was appropriate and I didn’t feel it was right and I would ask them to leave.

God bless that woman. Eternal shame on people who could have acted and did not.

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