Police watchdog fails to uncover why probe into grooming of looked-after children was closed down

The police watchdog has been unable to discover why a 2004 inquiry which identified dozens of alleged child grooming victims and nearly 100 potential suspects was closed down a year later.

In January 2020 a damning report revealed the authorities suspected girls aged 12 to 16 were being abused in “plain sight” in south Manchester by Asian men, but nothing was done to protect them.

The report, ordered by the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, centred on Operation Augusta, set up by police and social services in 2004 after the death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia.

Victoria, who was under the care of Manchester City Council, had reported being raped and injected with heroin by a 50-year-old Asian man. She died of a drugs overdose two months later on September 29, 2003.

Operation Augusta identified at least 57 victims and 97 potential suspects, some involved with Ms Agoglia, and a “compelling picture of the systemic exploitation of looked-after children in the care system” was established by detectives, the 2020 report found.

But senior officers at Greater Manchester Police (GMP) chose to under-resource the investigation and a decision was made to close it down in 2005.

In the wake of the 2020 mayoral review, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) started its own inquiry into the decision-making process of Operation Augusta and the conduct of three former GMP officers.

A “significant amount” of evidence was gathered from witnesses, including officers who worked on the operation and senior social services employees, said the IOPC.

However the watchdog said it could not determine who took the final decision to close Operation Augusta in July 2005, nor the rationale for doing so.

It said among challenges it faced were a lack of available contemporaneous records of meetings and decisions, with some former GMP employees unwilling or unable to co-operate.

The IOPC concluded there was no indication the three officers had acted in a way that may have breached standards of professional behaviour.

IOPC director of major investigations, Steve Noonan, said: “While we found evidence that arrangements were put in place for the future safeguarding of survivors of child sexual exploitation, unfortunately we, like the mayoral review team, were not able to locate evidence showing who took the decision to close Operation Augusta and, more importantly, why.

“We have identified several areas of potential learning for GMP to consider and now await further information on how practices have changed since 2005, which will inform our decision on whether to issue any statutory recommendations.”

GMP deputy chief constable Terry Woods said: “The Greater Manchester approach to tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation is now thankfully entirely different to the timeframe of this report.

“In GMP we have a dedicated CSE (child sexual exploitation) unit who are committed to pursuing perpetrators and seeking justice for victims of CSE, regardless of the passage of time.

“This team work alongside the multi-agency safeguarding hub in every district, actively safeguarding vulnerable children and providing specialist support to anyone who comes forward as a victim of CSE, wherever they are in the region.

“This multi-agency response to safeguarding and tackling CSE is incomparable to the practices of 2005, and we will continue to engage with the IOPC on how practices have substantially changed since then and fully consider any recommendations they put forward.”

GMP has launched another criminal investigation into the case of Miss Agoglia and others identified by Operation Augusta.

In November 2020 GMP said the probe, codenamed Operation Green Jacket, had identified 126 suspected paedophiles and 71 suspected victims.

It added six arrests were made, including one man who was originally arrested following the death of Miss Agoglia.

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