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"Child abuse has almost become decriminalised”, warns former DC

Maggie Oliver resigned in 2012 over the Rochdale abuse case. She has set up a charity which advocates for and supports both survivors and those at risk of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.

“Children are way out of their depth when they are approached by these now really sophisticated, well-organised grooming gangs who operate without real fear of ever being brought to justice,” Maggie Oliver tells Police Oracle.

“The criminal justice system has been completely decimated over the past two decades by successive governments. There's a lack of training, a lack of resources, a lack of police officers feeling valued and it’s not just the police – the CPS as well are understaffed, under-resourced, courts are closing and legal aid is unfit for purpose – it’s a national scandal.

“Join all that together with the fact that less than two per cent of all reported rapes ever reach court, obviously excluding those who never reported in the first place, and the message that is sent out to paedophiles, to abusers, is that the chance of ever being caught and prosecuted is so minimal that it is worth taking the chance.”

Ms Oliver resigned from Greater Manchester Police after 16 years with the force in order to speak out about the mishandled Rochdale grooming inquiry (Op Span) as well as Op Augusta – which had identified 97 potential suspects but was closed down in 2005. The detective turned whistle-blower had been one of the investigators into the Rochdale sex abuse ring case. She had been a DC and a Family Liaison Officer in the Major Incident Team. 

Op Augusta was reopened in 2020 as Op Greenjacket and senior officers involved in the original case were referred to the IOPC for investigation.

In August, the IOPC investigation into Op Augusta was discontinued, with the regulatory body saying they had been unable to determine who took the final decision to close the case. The watchdog cited the passage of time, lack of available records of meetings and decisions and that fact that some former GMP employed police witnesses were unable or unwilling to engage as problems. 

On the available evidence  - there was no indication the officers had acted in a way that breached professional standards. 

The current GMP Chief Stephen Watson apologised to Rochdale victims in April. He said that officers had “parked an element of professional curiosity” when it came to investigating grooming gangs.

He described the way the force handled Op Span as “borderline incompetent” – something Ms Oliver had spoken out on previously and been discredited.

Mr Watson said when he was a young officer if a missing child was found with an adult, the focus was on recovering the child, whereas now the adult would “as night follows day” be arrested. It’s something, however, that Ms Oliver says is still not routinely happening - citing dozens of cases that she is currently working with.

Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be an anomaly – an independent inquiry into CSE in Telford identified “shocking” police and council failings across a 30 year period which saw more than a thousand children sexually assaulted.

A report into CSE in Oldham in June, meanwhile, found a failure to protect but no cover up.

Humberside has also recently re-opened an investigation into child abuse in Hull which had originally wound down in June 2021. The Maggie Oliver Foundation had highlighted this case repeatedly to Humberside and Op Hydrant, having worked with victims who said they were being let down.

Ms Oliver says: “There were mountains of evidence to support their claims, which the Foundation were given sight of. The Foundation then  advocated for these victims for almost two years and now finally there is to be a review of progress to date.”

The investigation had been conducted over a two year period and while 34 arrests had been made no charges relating to the allegations have followed.

Now a completely new team of investigators will take on the case.

Ms Oliver tells Police Oracle that her Foundation are dealing with many current cases where victims say they have been pushed away by the police at the first hurdle – they might not understand what has been communicated to them, or they might not have been communicated with at all.

She stresses the importance of the initial response in these cases but caveats - saying that with a lack of trained detectives and a skills gap “that won’t be fixed in five minutes”, uniformed officers are often not properly equipped to deal with these cases.

“Very often that is where a great deal of the damage is done – because cases are being dropped without even being fully investigated,” she says.

“That needs to be addressed, but before you can address it, you have to acknowledge it and be willing to explore where those failures are coming from.”

For those officers on the ground she asks that they treat victims as though they were a sister, a mother or a girlfriend. But she also calls for them to “shout from the rooftops” if their crime queue is too long.

"As long as you are struggling to manage an unworkable workload, those at the top will let you do it – you will be left to carry the can when things go wrong, there will be no acknowledgement that you were trying to juggle an unmanageable workload,” she explains.

Police Oracle asked Ms Oliver for her view on Operation Soteria which  sees academic input into the way rape cases are dealt with by the police. She emphasises the importance of the victim's voice, as well as the voice of those charities who work on the ground with the victims every day which she says are “too often” left out of discussions.

Her Foundation now has six members of staff and almost 30 volunteers – many of whom are survivors, some ex-officers. Ms Oliver insists that the way they get the best results is when everyone shares ideas.

“I do think there was, and often still is, what I call willful blindness. The police and the authorities and the government absolutely knew what was going on –mainly in the northern towns and cities – that predominantly Pakistani Muslim men were targeting, grooming, sexually assaulting and raping very vulnerable white children on an industrial scale.

“Those at the top of these organisations are very much to blame. In my opinion, policing and in particular senior police officers have become a political pawn for successive governments – they are part of the cover up that has now gone on for decades.

“I am not blaming police officers in general on the ground. But for me, the buck stops at the top. It is about the Home Office, about Chief Constables having honesty and transparency and working with organisations like us. They need to start shouting from the roof tops that the system needs a radical overhaul, it needs investment and commitment.

“What we see all too often is Chief Constables insisting these are problems of the past. I totally refute that claim. These are current problems and the whole country knows it.”

She continues to explain that the role of her organisation is to offer emotional support to those victims who are no longer involved with the criminal justice system, but also to advocate for current victims who feel they are being failed. As it’s ex-police officers who work for the Foundation – she underlines that they don’t approach cases with an unrealistic viewpoint regarding available evidence.

Where they feel there isn’t sufficient evidence, they would explain to victims that they don’t know how it can be taken forward, but equally they will ask forces to re-look at cases where they believe there is merit in doing so.

"I know that when we're looking at grooming gangs and the abuse that they perpetrate, those cases are extremely difficult to prove and they are extremely difficult to investigate. But I would say that because the gangs have been allowed to perfect the way they operate, they know how to avoid detection,” Ms Oliver says.

“That does not mean they should be ignored and allowed to continue their abusing. I believe that a society that fails to uphold the law and protect its children is a society that is failing, and in a country like the UK we just cannot allow that to continue.” 

Maggie Oliver was a consulant on the BBC drama 'Three Girls; based on the Rochdale CSE case. She has also written a book 'Survivors' on the investigation. 

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