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A review criticises a series of failed investigations by Greater Manchester Police in Rochdale.

GirlImage source, PA Media

Girls were “left at the mercy” of paedophile grooming gangs for years because of failings by senior police and council bosses, a report has said.

The review covers 2004 to 2013 and sets out a series of failed investigations by Greater Manchester Police (GMP).

It also highlights the apparent local authority indifference to the plight of hundreds of youngsters identified as potential victims of Asian men.

GMP has apologised and said such cases were handled very differently now.

However, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the review showed the victims involved had been “badly failed”.

He also praised whistleblowers, including health worker Sara Rowbotham and former GMP detective Maggie Oliver, who raised concerns despite facing vocal criticism from authorities.

Mr Burnham commissioned a series of independent reviews after he became mayor in 2017, following the BBC documentary The Betrayed Girls, which highlighted repeated failures to protect children in the region.

One child victim, known as Amber, gave “significant evidence”, but the crimes were not recorded by GMP and perpetrators were potentially left to continue their abuse of other children, the report found.

She was even described as a co-conspirator in the sexual exploitation of other children in one trial without her knowledge – an allegation which she always denied and was unable to defend herself against.

Andy Burnham

Image source, PA Media

The review, which focuses on 111 cases in Rochdale from 2004 to 2013, also concluded:

  • Compelling evidence of widespread organised sexual exploitation of children
  • Statutory agencies failed to respond appropriately
  • The threat of child sexual exploitation was not addressed between 2004 and 2007
  • The probability that at least 74 children were being sexually exploited – and in 48 of those cases there were serious failures to protect the child
  • Child sex exploitation (CSE) was a low priority and under-resourced by GMP

It also found local child sex exploitation (CSE) concerns raised by Ms Rowbotham and Ms Oliver, both of whom were initially criticised, were “substantiated”.

‘Lone voices’

The review’s author Malcolm Newsam said: “During the period covered by this review, GMP and Rochdale Council failed to prioritise the protection of children who were being sexually exploited by a significant number of men within the Rochdale area.

“For several years, Sara Rowbotham and her colleagues were lone voices in raising concerns about the sexual exploitation and abuse of these children.”

He said successive police operations during the period were “insufficiently resourced”.

Consequently he said children were “left at risk and many of their abusers to this day have not been apprehended”.

Maggie Oliver

Mr Burnham described the results of the review as “distressing”.

Addressing the victims, he said: “We are sorry that you were so badly failed by the system that should have protected you.”

Responding to the review, he added: “It is only by facing up fully and unflinchingly to what happened that we can be sure of bringing the whole system culture change needed when it comes to protecting children from abuse.”

Leaders at Rochdale Council and GMP repeated previous apologies, with council leader Neil Emmott saying: “I want to reassure the public that those responsible are gone and long gone.

“Rochdale was already investigating these historical cases when the mayor’s review began in 2017 and a number are still ongoing, and we want to ensure the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice.”

Children ‘criminalised’

The report’s authors highlighted that a “significant number of successful convictions” had been made in recent years.

However these related to only 13 of the 74 children believed to have been sexually exploited, which they described as a “very small proportion”.

GMP Chief Constable Stephen Watson said the handling of CSE across Greater Manchester had been “overhauled since the early-2000s to ensure that victims and survivors are cared for and receive the expected level of service”.

Speaking to BBC North West Tonight, Maggie Oliver said the review “goes further than I had hoped”.

“My only criticism of it is that the terms of reference meant they were only allowed to look at what happened up to 2013.”

She said agencies had “failed generations of children”.

“They’ve criminalised them, they’ve blamed them, they have ignored them, they have failed to prosecute their abusers adequately,” she added. “The numbers in this report are shocking.”

  • If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, assistance can be found on the BBC Action Line website.
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Timeline

Rochdale

Image source, Getty Images

  • 2007 – Sara Rowbotham and her team alerted GMP and Rochdale Council about a gang of men of Pakistani and Afghan heritage engaged in CSE, who also used children for their illegal drug deals.
  • “GMP and Rochdale Council chose not to progress any investigation into these men”, according to the review.
  • 2008 – a girl who was arrested on suspicion of damaging a takeaway said she had been raped and sexually assaulted by its staff.
  • An investigation failed to bring any charges but identified widespread CSE by at least 30 adults.
  • Another child gave evidence about sexual abuse at the same venues, but the detective responsible failed to focus on her account and there was insufficient effort to identify the rapist.
  • 2010 – Matters were reinvestigated, leading two years later to the prominent conviction of nine men
  • 2012 – Both the CPS and GMP apologised for their failures after the conviction.
  • 2023 Five men were jailed for sexually exploiting two teenage girls between 2002 and 2006.
  • 2025 – Another 29 suspects are scheduled to go on trial.
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Monday’s review disagreed with GMP’s description in 2012 of the investigation at the time being “comprehensive and effective, mitigating threat risk and harm”.

It said the case was “a relatively limited offender-focused investigation that primarily addressed a small number of perpetrators who had not been prosecuted following the earlier disclosures in 2008”.

The review also highlighted that Ms Rowbotham and her team were “explicitly criticised” for not following child protection procedures and for not communicating appropriately with other agencies in two serious case reviews by Rochdale Local Safeguarding Children’s Board in 2013.

The serious case reviews focussed on different agencies’ roles with regard to seven children in all who were subject to serious and prolonged child sexual exploitation.

However, more than a year before the publication of those two reports, the multi-agency CSE group, chaired by GMP, were made aware of 127 potential victims referred by Ms Rowbotham’s team that had not been acted upon.

Three months before the reviews were published in December 2013, the list had grown to 260 potential victims.

Mr Newsam said that Sara Rowbotham was “unfairly criticised” by both serious case reviews.

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‘Amber’

  • A child victim, known as Amber, gave “significant evidence” but the crimes were not recorded by GMP and perpetrators were potentially left to continue their abuse of other children, the report found.
  • In December 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service along with GMP, described Amber as a co-conspirator in the sexual exploitation of other children and included her name on the indictment for the 2012 trial.
  • “This was a legal tactical decision by the lead barrister for the prosecution to ensure the jury heard Amber’s critical evidence to the case,” the review said.
  • Amber was never informed and was unable to defend herself against allegations which she always denied.
  • The review team described this failure to protect a vulnerable victim as “deplorable”.
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