The lonely journey to justice

Maggie Oliver resigned as a police officer to speak out against the force’s refusal to properly investigate child sex abuse. Now after a new report she feels further vindicated

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An independent report commissioned by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has publicly acknowledged the victims of a paedophile gang in Greater Manchester were let down by the police and local authorities, and as a result of the review, their cases will be newly investigated.

It’s a bittersweet moment for Maggie Oliver, a former police detective for Greater Manchester Police (GMP) who resigned from her job in 2012 to speak out about the repeated failings by the police and authorities to protect victims of child sexual exploitation and bring the perpetrators to justice.

“There’s an arrogance amongst senior officers that they can do what they like without impunity.”

“The fact that pretty much everything I’ve said has been officially acknowledged as truthful is a big deal for me,” says Oliver, who raised four children before beginning her police career in her forties. “I’ve had the most horrific eight years of my life. There was no support, no desire to listen to me. It’s been a completely lonely journey where GMP did their very best to destroy me. I was [considered] a woman who became too emotionally involved. [It was] really shooting the messenger, when in fact they knew what I was saying was 100 per cent truthful.”

Among the serious crimes she investigated were allegations of serious sexual assault on vulnerable white girls predominantly by men of Pakistani heritage in Greater Manchester. This was part of Operation Augusta, an investigation into grooming that was launched following the death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia in 2003 after she was injected with heroin by Mohammad Yaqoob, then 50, who was jailed for three-and-a-half years.

The investigation identified dozens of potential victims and up to 97 suspected members of a grooming gang, a network of older men operating “in plain sight”, picking up girls, some as young as 12, from care and taking them to locations for “sex parties”. But despite the evidence, there were no charges and no convictions, and Operation Augusta was abruptly shut down in 2005 for “resource reasons”, with perpetrators free to roam the streets and reoffend.

Oliver was asked to join Operation Span in 2010, primarily to gain the trust of two sisters at the centre of an investigation involving Asian men abusing girls in Rochdale, and only agreed with assurances from her superiors that Operation Augusta’s failings wouldn’t be repeated.

Nine members of a paedophile grooming ring were jailed in 2012 as a result of the investigation, but Oliver felt the true extent of the abuse had not been revealed, nor had the failure to protect the victims, so resigned from her job in order to expose the flaws she’d witnessed.

She appeared in The Betrayed Girls, the 2017 documentary about the child sex abuse revelations in Greater Manchester, which followed the acclaimed BBC drama Three Girls. Both projects highlighted how the victims had been mistreated, first by the gangs who groomed and raped them, and then by the authorities who deemed them an “underclass” and unworthy of protection.

“I think the public acknowledge and recognise the child victims have been massively failed, so the authorities can no longer excuse their inaction by saying these children are making a lifestyle choice, or that they are child prostitutes, or that they are bad kids. They are not,” says Oliver. “They are children. They need protecting and it is the duty of the police and the social services and the courts to protect them, and that is what they have failed to do for far too long.”

Burnham commissioned the review in autumn 2017 (part two will look at Operation Span and part three, child sexual exploitation in Oldham) “to assure himself and the public that everything possible has been done to protect children today and in the future and prevent it from happening again”.

“I actually feel the review was set up initially thinking I was a liar, and that possibly I was doing a lot of damage by telling lies about an investigation that there was no truth in. Possibly the intention was to prosecute me for misleading the public,” says Oliver, who spent hours talking to child protection specialist Malcolm Newsam CBE and former senior police officer Gary Ridgway, who compiled and wrote the report over two years.

She admits that given her experience, she went into the process with low expectations.

“Pretty much my opening comments to them were that because of my journey to this point, I would hope for the best but I actually expected the worst, so I am absolutely blown away by the honesty of the report, because I never expected that.”

The 145-page report An Assurance Review of Operation Augusta, published on 14 January, says there is much to be commended in Operation Augusta, but it did not address the issue it was set up for: to tackle the sexual exploitation of a number of children in the care system.

Very few of the relevant perpetrators were brought to justice and neither were their activities disrupted. It also states that while Agoglia’s death was investigated at the time, allegations of longstanding sexual abuse that preceded her death have never been investigated and perpetrators not pursued.

 Lesley Sharp as Maggie Oliver in the BBC drama Three Girls
Lesley Sharp as Maggie Oliver in the BBC drama Three Girls

“I am very grateful, actually, to Andy Burnham for standing his ground in insisting this report is published because I do know for a year GMP were fighting to have the report watered down,” claims Oliver.

In a statement on 15 January, Chief Constable Ian Hopkins responded to claims that GMP tried to stop the review being published. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to these reports, we have co-operated fully with the review team and acted with transparency and integrity throughout. At no time has there been any effort from us to prevent the publication of the report and any suggestion that states otherwise is categorically untrue.”

But, notes Oliver: “This review is a review. There is no legal obligation for anybody to do anything as a result of this review. In fact, the review makes clear that some of the officers responsible for closing Operation Augusta had refused to even be interviewed by the inquiry team. It also makes it very clear that the decision to close Operation Augusta down was made at a gold command meeting, which means the highest officers within GMP. How convenient that the minutes, which would identify who made the decision, have been lost. So when they talk about honesty and transparency, that is not what I see. It’s not what they demonstrate.”

The original investigation has been referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Oliver says: “When senior officers are caught out having told lies, having been guilty of negligence, having been guilty of misconduct in a public office, when they are caught and it’s proved what they’ve done, we must now prosecute those people responsible. In my opinion, they must be stripped of their pension, they must be held to account. How can they be allowed to just walk away as though nothing has happened?”

She adds: “There is an arrogance amongst senior officers that they can do what they want to do without impunity. If senior officers knew decisions they make today may result in action, maybe 10 years down the road, where they stand the chance of losing their pension, of being prosecuted, I firmly believe that’s when we’ll start seeing changes.

“While I accept mistakes can be made, this was not a mistake. This was a deliberate intentional decision to bury a job they knew we had evidence to prosecute and that is made abundantly clear because as a result of this review, GMP has been forced to reopen Operation Augusta with the same victims and the same evidence we had and renamed it Operation Green Jacket. But there was no desire to do that. The GMP has been dragged kicking and screaming to the point where they have no choice, and you can’t do that with every investigation without somebody like me who has never let this drop for 15 years.”

In a statement issued on the day the review was published, Burnham referred to the “problematic institutional mindset” where “young, vulnerable girls are not seen as true victims, but as the problem”. His aim is to banish this “old mindset” for good, but there is a long way to go.

“People talk the talk but what is needed is action,” says Oliver. “It needs investment, commitment, and time to encourage survivors and victims to talk about what has happened. There are not enough police officers, and the people at the top of the police are still unprepared to allow officers to put the time and care into supporting and encouraging victims when they do come forward.”

This month the first drop-in centre for survivors of this abuse will open in Rochdale as part of the Maggie Oliver Foundation.

“I want to encourage and empower the girls. They can’t do anything about what they’ve been through, but they can use that pain and the failures they’ve been subjected to and move forward with their own lives and become successful,” she says.

“My role is to continue to be the person who speaks about what I’m learning on this journey and push through the changes we need. I’ll fight to the end to hold those responsible to account in the criminal courts and I feel the pressure for that to happen is increasing.”

You can read our 2015 interview with Sarah Wilson, survivor of the Rotherham abuse ring, in the features section of bigissuenorth.com


‘This exploitation can no longer be tolerated’

Natalie Marrison, partner and head of abuse law at Ramsdens Solicitors and a panel member for the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, says: “The publication last month of the review into child sex exploitation in Greater Manchester may come as a shock to many but unfortunately it seems to be a resurfacing issue.

“Although we can take a positive from the investigation now being conducted this only serves to highlight the severity of neglect that our vulnerable children have been subject to. Moving forward it is vital the local authorities, police and social services adapt their mindset and begin to view these individuals as the victims they are, rather than a problem.

“Regular reviews need to be undertaken to ensure everything is being done to protect those vulnerable to exploitation. They must be provided with a safe environment to report any issues. I see too often children who, after authority intervention, are left in the same geographical location where they are vulnerable to exploitation. The cycle does not break.

“It is especially important that the perpetrators and those in positions of trust who failed the individuals are held accountable to set a precedent. This exploitation can no longer be tolerated.

“Greater Manchester Police and mayor Mr Burnham appear to be tackling the problem head on and are not shy in admitting the shortfalls of the organisations involved but there is still significant progress required. This shift in mindset not only needs to be instilled across the organisations involved, but also needs to be echoed up and down the country in order to reduce risk and support safeguarding.”

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