I’ve been reading the latest publication, the ‘Operation Span’ report, part of an ‘Independent Review of the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to Child Sexual Exploitation in Greater Manchester.’
Published January 2024, it is part 3 of a 4-volume investigation into Child Sexual Exploitation in Greater Manchester, commissioned in 2017 by the Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner for Manchester, Andy Burnham. 163 pages long, it contains much detail.
It covers the Police and Local Authority’s actions and investigations over a 20 year period beginning 2002, specifically in the Borough of Rochdale. Various witnesses gave evidence.
The Review team is headed by Malcolm Newsam CBE and Gary Ridgway.
Operation Span, begun in December 2010, was the name of one of several Police investigations into the grooming gangs operating in the town, and it resulted in the conviction of 9 men in 2012. This was probably the first time that the so-called grooming gang phenomenon – actually, the mass rape of young girls – hit the UK national headlines. Some national newspaper reporters conducted their own investigations, such as Andrew Norfolk of the Times.
I have noted elsewhere at HP, that the then UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, stated that three of the guilty Rochdale men who held dual British/Pakistani nationality, would be stripped of their UK passports and deported to Pakistan. This has not happened : the men have continually appealed, eventually to the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld their right to family life in the UK. One of the men managed to get his Pakistani nationality rescinded, so he cannot be deported.
One man who was a major figure in the Rochdale grooming gang and who is referred to in anonymised form in this Review, also featured in the Oldham CSE investigation, which reported that he was, at one time, employed by Oldham Council as a ‘community liaison officer’, despite at the time being know to the Police as a result of allegations of improper behaviour towards young women when driving his taxi.
Shockingly, this Review notes that a further 29 Rochdale men are currently facing trial in 2025 for similar crimes, while 42 other men are being considered in current Police investigations. Separately a further 96 men are still considered to pose a high risk to children.
The Review finds that over time, there were 48 serious failures to protect the children, on the part of the Police and the Local Authority.
The publicity surrounding Operation Span did help to trigger further Police investigations in Rochdale, and the Review sets out a table of results as follows (p122):
Trial 1 : May-Aug 2023
Suspects charged = 8
Total convictions = 5
Total of 71.5 years’ imprisonment
5 trials commenced Feb 2016
Suspects charged = 21
Convictions = 20
Total of 119 years’ imprisonment
Trial 1 : Sept-Oct 2013
Suspects charged = 9
Convictions = 5
Total of 26 years’ imprisonment
This is an astonishing number of convictions, given a town the size of Rochdale, a population of just over 200 000 . And there will be more to follow.
Maggie Oliver is now very media-savvy and has been much in the news following publication of this particular Review. She notes that none of the Police and Local Authority personnel have been individually held to account for their failures to protect the victims. She argues that they should be found guilty of misconduct in public office and failure to carry out their duty in law.
As the Review is non-statutory, there is no requirement for anyone to give evidence, in fact some senior officers in the Police and Local Authority refused to meet the Review team. Oliver is of the opinion that the overriding concern of the authorities was, and continues to be, preventing reputational damage.
From my professional experience and having read many reports and investigations into the grooming gang scandals by now, I agree with Maggie Oliver and I know that Local Authority bureaucracies can be opaque, often secretive and defensive. They do not assist public access or outside scrutiny, and the many layers of decision making (often mixing up ‘strategic’ with ‘operational’ matters) interfere with the reporting of, and timely and appropriate response to, very serious problems .
Reports into other grooming gangs have also noted that there was confusion not only between but also within organisations, sometimes accompanied by acrimonious disagreements – in particular, regarding the remit of Childrens’ Social Care – about ‘who’ was responsible for ‘what’.
This Review notes that prior to 2008, Police and Local Authority Childrens’ Social Care teams ( including the Safeguarding Children Unit ) chose to ignore the increasing number of urgent referrals about Child Sexual Exploitation in the town, made by Sara Rowbotham’s non- statutory Crisis Intervention/Young Persons Sexual Health Team. In evidence to the Review, some witnesses denied ever seeing such referrals or implied that the referrals could not be treated seriously because they were not made in the appropriate format.
In contrast, the Review states:
‘it is not the case that the Childrens’ Social Care Team can abnegate its responsibility for safeguarding children if it (the referral) is not presented in the correct format’ and ‘our analysis of the files shows that the Crisis Intervention Team repeatedly and explicitly shared concerns that were not responded to appropriately…’
In my opinion, this might be considered a prime example of the way in which the bureaucratic response – ‘not filling in the right form’ – was allowed to override any attention to the actual content of the communication.
What comes across clearly in all the reports I’ve read, including the current one, is the sheer professional incompetence and institutional inertia of the responsible authorities. One contributory factor could be the common practice of frequent re-organisations of teams and personnel, and constant re-shuffling of people in senior positions of authority and responsibility, which particularly affect Local Authorities and the Police. ‘Priorities’ are identified and then abandoned at a later date. Perhaps re-organisations are sometimes necessary as a result of new government directives, or lack of funding. But it strains credibility when a team is set up as a ‘priority’, only to be disbanded not long down the line. Worse, teams set up to consider CSE as a priority were usually significantly under resourced , often with inexperienced staff, despite the authorities knowing the scale of child sexual abuse and the challenges involved in gaining evidence and supporting the victims.
In her evidence to this Review, Sara Rowbotham said a health worker in her team was given a contract of just 6 weeks to gather evidence about abuse from a list of 49 young people.
An impossible task.
The Review refers at some length to the Rochdale Sunrise Team, the first ‘official’ multi-disciplinary team in the town set up with the focus on child sexual abuse (timeline January-December 2010):
‘the Sunrise Team had first been approved by the Rochdale Local Safeguarding Children Board in 2008. Despite the urgency, funding was not agreed to commence until April 2009 and then for only 2 years. Team members did not start to assemble until the latter half of the year. A Social Worker was not assigned to the team until the end of 2009, and even then was given a substantial caseload by Childrens Social Care, diverting the social worker’s attention away from the team.
It had been originally agreed that 2 experienced Child Protection Police Officers would be placed in the team but the Division was reluctant to release staff of this calibre.
In early 2010, Police Constable A was placed in the team. Through research into past cases PC A identified a complex network of CSE in Rochdale. This coincided with significant disclosures made by Child 44, initially to the team’s Social Worker, of the widespread abuse of children by up to 60 men… but although a Senior Detective Inspector at the time requested additional staffing to support the operation, resources were not made available. Once more, children were left at the mercy of their abusers because of an inadequate response by GMP and Children’s Social Care…’
I wondered how many staff comprised the Sunrise team , and the Review notes that the Rochdale Local Safeguarding Board specified a staffing level of 2 Police Officers, one Social Worker, and one Health professional – time limited to 2 years.
Given the scale of the problem – already known – it seems foolish to imagine that such a small team could properly do its job in such a short period of time.
Frequent re-organisations , together with the absence of senior support and direction, and general ‘short-termism’, can result in teams and individuals having no time to ‘bed in’ and become familiar with both the needs of their clients and with the often complicated processes involved in carrying out their duties. The imposition of impossible goals usually serves to undermine practitioners’ commitment and enthusiasm, and induces a sense of defeat. Team members may have difficulty building up collective morale and professional competence, and staff members might not have the confidence to challenge decisions they disagree with, and know are wrong. Especially if they are not supported by managers.
Building up professional expertise in working with a very difficult client group such as the grooming gang victims takes time. The girls often presented with so-called ‘challenging behavior’ and it was not easy to gain their confidence and gradually access the appalling abuse they suffered. They were often very suspicious of contact with the authorities, and feared retribution from their abusers.
I’ve heard social work managers justify re-organisation on the basis that ‘X team wasn’t working’ – but I have doubts about public sector organisations having the wit, and the expertise, to understand and carry out a robust evaluation. In my experience, managers were ignorant about the importance of setting achievable, measurable, and cost effective, goals which lend themselves to objective evaluation.
With each re-organisation comes another set of policies and procedures, sometimes written by senior staff who have no responsibility for putting them into practice, and who have little idea of the real life situations confronting front line personnel. (and in some cases, who simply don’t want to know). HR teams and senior managers churn out new policies and procedures to be imposed on front line staff. New projects and initiatives are rolled out with wearying regularity, bringing with them new directives and acronyms.
Do re-organisations, fragmenting teams, lack of leadership and support, and staff ‘churn’, help to create yet more bureaucracy, blur lines of responsibility and accountability, impede prompt action, and contribute to institutional inertia ? I think they do.
Here are some examples of bureaucratic stonewalling from the Review :
‘We asked Rochdale Council in May 2023 for a copy of the unredacted Serious Case Reviews relating to Young Persons 1-6 and Young Person 7…. on 11/9/2023 we received notification from the current chair of the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Partnership that they would not release to the Review Team the unredacted Serious Case Reviews for legal reasons..’
‘… our access to personal and sensitive … information .. had to be negotiated to ensure that the law regarding access to information was being followed and survivors’ rights respected…. The legal advice given to Rochdale Council and Greater Manchester Police … all differed…
we formally requested access to Rochdale Council’s records in March 2018 and the Council agreed to the arrangments for sharing this information with the Review team in February 2021’
And regards lack of action, a continuous theme of the Review :
Some minutes of the Rochdale Local Safeguarding Children Board meetings were made available to the Review team. One such in April 2007 noted members’ serious concerns,
‘ no resolutions were brought forward either by Police or Childrens’ Social Care …’
The Police too showed some reluctance to release information requested by the Review team, but ‘in June 2021 following the appointment of Greater Manchester Police’s new Chief Constable, GMP shared the legal advice it had received in 2020. The legal advice had ‘explicitly stated that there was a legal basis for disclosure by GMP to Review team and that there was no limitation on the extent of the material requested, provided the disclosure was done in an appropriate manner…’
Other CSE reviews and reports have noted Local Authorities’ reluctance to make available key documents and records to independent, non-statutory, reviews.
Those that were produced were not always detailed enough, nor did they always identify action to be taken. The question of accurate recording and safekeeping of important in-house and multi-disciplinary meetings regarding child protection, was a key criticism of the independent Telford report into CSE in the town, for example. Such a lax approach to crucial documentation reflects very badly on Local Authority practice, but in my experience it’s common. It also suggests the professionals knew that their record keeping was poor and would not withstand objective scrutiny. I also wonder if the poor record keeping is sometimes a deliberate tactic to gloss over bad professional practice and operational indecision, perhaps with the aim of evading accountability.
I suspect that many of the Rochdale professionals and responsible Police Officers charged with protecting children and prosecuting the offenders, were either unable, or unwilling, to recognise a serious problem in their area. This includes the elected Councillors who, in the case of children subject to the most serious Care Orders, are ‘in loco parentis’. They seem to have consistently down played the severity and scale of the abuse, and relied too much on the ability of the traumatised victims to give evidence as a means of bringing the guilty to court.
The Review confirms that this was certainly the case with the authorities after 2000 and during the time leading up to the establishment of the Sunrise Team.
If these professionals simply did not know what to do, they must nevertheless have been aware that by law, children under 16 cannot consent to sex. The Review points out that the Police, for example, had plenty of options at their disposal :
‘ …in 2007, Sara Rowbotham’s team alerted GMP and Rochdale Council to the presence of an organised crime gang dealing in the sexual exploitation of children…. GMP identified the two nominal leaders as ‘ prolific career criminals’ (who were) ‘believed to be using children to facilitate the gang’s illicit dealing in class A drugs’ .. and some of the children had disclosed these crimes not only to SR’s team, but also to GMP…’
‘GMP and its partners decided not to progress an investigation against the other men as they believed “the children were too frightened to assist the inquiry..’
‘ there is only limited evidence of GMP using child abduction warning notices and risk of sexual harm orders… and very few examples of GMP liaising with the licensing and environmental health departments to tackle the sexual exploitation of children within the taxi and restaurant industries..’
This is important: these two features of the ‘night time economy ‘ (taxis and takeaway restaurants) were key elements of the grooming gangs which enabled them to network and mobilise, and should have been a clear target for Police to pro-actively employ overt and covert disruption tactics, with the support of the Local Authority.
‘ the information presented by the Crisis Intervention Team (SR) should have initiated a major Police investigation… into the detention and prosecution of the crimes, and the disruption of offending behaviour. Government guidelines at the time advised Police not to rely solely on victim testimony but to seek evidence to support charges such as grievous bodily harm, unlawful wounding, actual bodily harm, kidnapping and abduction, rape and indecent assault, racially motivated crime, drug offences, tax evasion, and social security fraud. Police also had at their disposal the issuing of risk of sexual harm orders and child abduction warning notices…’
That this Review sets out the long list of criminal activities which the Rochdale grooming gang members might be charged with, evidences not only the apparent Police failure to use the legal means at their disposal in a pro-active and preventive way, but it also evidences the kinds of appalling abuse the victims were suffering.
The Review doesn’t make any recommendations, nor does it mention the race and ethnicity of the perpetrators. It concludes that whilst Operation Span was successful in bringing a few perpetrators to trial, and perhaps giving other victims confidence to come forward, the numbers involved, both of child victims and perpetrators, were only the tip of the iceberg.
The Review identifies the main deficiencies of Operation Span :
- no senior management ownership through an ongoing gold command structure (Police)
- successive changes of leadership (Police and Local Authority)
- focus on only a limited number of victims and witnesses who could support the prosecution of a small number of men identified as suspects from the beginning
I await the publication of the final part of the Review, where I expect to see recommendations of the usual sort – more training, more resources, more funding for specialist teams. But Local Authorities and in particular their social welfare departments, have constantly demanded more resources, and blamed lack of funding for major failings in their practice, for as long as I can remember. I think the problem is much wider, part structural and part professional, for example, and I think the fear of being accused of racism was, and perhaps still is, inhibiting the responsible authorities from addressing the scale and nature of the grooming gang phenomenon. The statistics show is that it is mainly just one specific group of men- Pakistani Muslims – who are involved in this kind of large-scale, organised, child sexual abuse.
Were the Police afraid to disrupt gang activities because it could lay them open to accusations of racially targetted harassment? An accusation which they might expect, given that muslim Councillors were members of the Council’s Licensing Committee, for example. Inter-faith panels, and muslim community relations representatives, all with good contacts, were and are already well established. Were Local Authority professionals and managers similarly afraid ?
The Review doesn’t pose these questions, but I have a long memory regards UK social work’s burgeoning involvement in ‘rooting out’ racism, an idea which was carefully nurtured in academia, with the supporting ideology that people of colour are always victims.
The pre-occupation with ‘anti-racist practice’ can be traced as far back as Prof Lena Dominelli’s 1988 influential textbook ‘Anti-racist social work – a challenge’ which rapidly featured on every student reading list. Since then, further titles have appeared from the same author, such as ‘Anti-oppressive social work, theory and practice’ 2002, and latterly, ‘Green Social Work’ . She is not the only influential voice in such matters, and the imperative for social workers to ‘challenge discrimination and racism in all its forms’ has been thoroughly endorsed by social work validating bodies and employing organisations. And it has trickled down into front line practice.
I have constantly refuted the claim that this should be the central mission of social work – it has enough to do already with its fundamental task of protecting and supporting the most vulnerable members of society, and has no mandate to go rooting out racism.
Update : Following a Freedom of Information request by the TV Channel GB News, it can be revealed that the cost of Legal Aid to the 9 guilty Rochdale men now stands at over £2 million and they have been given leave to make repeated appeals against deportation, based on their right to family life under the ECHR;
Most of the guilty served very short prison sentences – some of only 2 years – and are back in the town, ‘bumping into’ their victims in the supermarket.
Note : Local Safeguarding Children Boards (now called LSC ‘partnerships’)
LSCBs were set up following Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie. The Children Act 2004 required all local authorities in England and Wales to set up an LSCB to ‘safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people in their area’.
Recently, the work of these Boards is monitored by yet another government agency, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.
I’m about to read its 2022/23 annual report, 146 pages, published January 2024. Near the beginning, it notes that the ‘multi-agency arrangements continue to be more fragmented and fractured than they should be…’