How the long shadow of grooming gang allegations changed Oldham’s politics – and took down two leaders

Posted: 27th June 2022

The appalling findings of a review into cases of child sexual exploitation in Oldham have been revealed for the first time this week. Yet the political ramifications have already been far-reaching, contributing to the dethroning of two council leaders in successive years.

The review, carried out by experts Malcolm Newsam and Gary Ridgway, found that vulnerable children had been failed despite efforts to protect them between 2011 and 2014.

A specific case dating back to 2005 involving ‘Sophie’, a 12-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped, is singled out for intense criticism for the way authorities dealt with the investigation into her assaults by strangers, and for the failure to take action when she was being groomed online.

Speaking at the publication of the report, Oldham council leader Amanda Chadderton said: “On behalf of Oldham council I want to apologise to all the victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) that are referenced in this report. What happened to Sophie is absolutely indefensible.

“I read that report and, I’m sure like everybody else, I was horrified. She wasn’t protected by the police and the council as a 12-year-old but then to reinforce that trauma as an adult as well is absolutely appalling and I apologise wholeheartedly for that.”

In Sophie’s case both Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and Oldham council were said to be more concerned with their reputations and ‘covering up their failures’ than acknowledging the harm done to the young girl.

However, when assessing the claims about a widespread cover up of abuse in the borough, the review team finds ‘no evidence’ to support this.

In fact, the duo stated: “We have concluded that we have been provided with no evidence, either through our interviews or documentary review, to suggest that senior managers or councillors sought to cover up the existence of child sexual exploitation in Oldham or the complexity involved in tackling the perpetrators.”

Speaking at the press conference on Monday, Malcolm Newsam said: “We were obviously mindful of the allegations on social media but we were determined that our report focused on the evidence in respect of what happened throughout that period.

“We always followed where the evidence took us. We don’t make our conclusions lightly and we are absolutely confident that the allegation that senior politicians were covering up both the existence of child sexual exploitation and also the complexity of tackling of it, there is no basis for that allegation.

“It is possible to take one or two emails out of context and create a different narrative.” Yet social media posts alleging a political cover up of grooming have already cast a long shadow over the borough. The lack of trust fuelled the rise of a new independent political group and has cost Labour key town hall seats.

The CSE review was launched in November 2019 after being commissioned by then-leader Sean Fielding in response to allegations being made online.

Leaders believed that by doing so they had nothing to lose, and everything to gain by nailing their commitment to transparency to the wall. And yet the launching of the review did not quiet the clamour for answers.

A meeting of the full council in November 2019 descended into chaos as police were called into the chamber. People sitting in the public gallery refused to leave before questions about historic safeguarding allegations were heard, causing proceedings to be adjourned twice.

The fracas began when one resident, Debbie Barratt-Cole, took to a podium and began speaking after the deputy mayor had announced the end of public question time. The-then deputy mayor Jenny Harrison paused the meeting, but protesters continued to remonstrate from the public gallery, refusing to leave until the question was answered.

The situation became so tense GMP officers had to be called to the council chamber by council staff to speak to the residents. In total, the meeting was delayed by an hour and 22 minutes as police and council officers dealt with protesters.

However, they were allowed to remain in the council chamber, where they heckled from the public benches for the remainder of full council.

Barratt-Cole later went on to stand as a candidate in the May 2020 local elections for the hyper-local ‘Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth’ party, which had formed chiefly around the main issues of green belt development and opposition to the Labour-run council.

During the second wave of the pandemic in November of that year, Sean Fielding clashed with Councillor Brian Hobin, of the Failsworth Independent Party, during a full council meeting which was being held virtually. Mr Fielding had become the Labour leader in 2018, aged just 28 and represented Failsworth West ward, having been first elected in 2012.

Mr Fielding angrily told the meeting that protesters had gathered outside his home in Failsworth. The protest came as an update on the CSE report was being discussed.

At the same meeting Coun Hobin called for a new ‘independent’ investigation to be led by the Home Secretary and the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government to take over the review, which was backed by the Tory opposition group.

Fielding told the meeting that protesters had ‘attempted to bully and intimidate and harass’ his partner while she was in the house alone ‘with a megaphone from across the street’.

On the review, he added: “We requested that this review be commissioned because it’s absolutely vital that the council and our partners do everything possible to tackle child sexual exploitation, that we learn any lessons from the past and that our work today is as good as it can be.”

This debate was one of several clashes over the terms of the review, and the allegations of a cover-up by the council, which were by now beginning to spread like wildfire online.

In May 2021, Fielding faced an ‘acrimonious’ reaction during the election campaign when Covid-19 restrictions were lifted and campaigners were able to go out on the doorstep and speak with voters.

His interactions with his critics on social media, including repeatedly referencing the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth party by the acronym ‘POOS’, and bullishness in the council chamber had proved divisive among residents.

However, it was the allegations of a cover-up of child abuse being shared in local Facebook groups that were regularly brought up by residents speaking to campaigners ahead of polling day.

And, in the early hours of May 6, 2021, the returning officer announced Fielding had been defeated in his Failsworth West seat by retired police officer Mark Wilkinson from the Failsworth Independent Party (FIP).

In a statement issued after his loss, he said: “It’s no secret that I have been saddened by the tone of the campaign both politically and personally.”

The FIP also gained another seat, with their candidate Neil Hindle comfortably unseating Labour incumbent Liz Jacques in Failsworth East ward. Fielding’s shock defeat was the headline result in a bad night for the ruling party, with Labour losing five seats it had held coming into the election, with four sitting councillors ousted.

Labour hoped to stabilise the ship in the aftermath of the elections, with deputy and cabinet member Arooj Shah being chosen by the party to be its new leader. But Ms Shah was already facing many of the problems that Fielding had encountered.

She had previously spoken out about being targeted with misogyny, and a ‘campaign of abuse’ during her time in local politics. However direct personal criticism of her had been intensifying in the 18 months prior to her taking up the leadership role.

This partially revolved around the wider theories of a cover-up of child abuse within Oldham. However, Shah was also being individually singled out for her friendship with a notorious ex-criminal, Mohammed Imran Ali – known as ‘Irish Immy’.

He was convicted in 2013 for assisting notorious spree killer Dale Cregan by driving him to Leeds after his murder of gangland rival David Short in 2012. Photographs of Ali and Shah were being shared furiously on Facebook, and at the end of 2019 she delivered an emotional address to the council chamber on the abuse she was receiving.

The town hall meeting was told Shah and ‘Irish Immy’ had been childhood friends since the age of 11. Shah said she knew her friendships and relationships would be ‘difficult for some people to accept’, but added she couldn’t ‘pretend they don’t exist, and certainly I can’t turn my back on people I’ve known since childhood’.

“I would never condone any acts, not that my brother did and not that my friend did,” said Shah, who was the cabinet member for social justice and communities at the time. “I do not disown people for political convenience or to advance my political career.”

On becoming council leader in May 2021 – the first Muslim woman in the north of England to hold the top role at a local authority – Shah said: “I know people from all walks of life, but I am such a strong believer in rehabilitation, such a strong believer that these people didn’t choose to take the path that they did but lack of opportunities do drive people towards that.

“But I’m not responsible for what other people do. I’d like to be judged by my own standards, by my own conduct.”

However, her refusal to disown her childhood friend would only make the uphill battle she was facing to retain her seat in Chadderton South the following year that much more difficult.

In July 2021 her car was fire-bombed in a shocking attack outside her home in Glodwick, described as a ‘reckless, abhorrent act’ by police.

By November of that year, Shah told a council meeting that she was receiving regular death threats and had been physically threatened. She said the tone of political discourse in the town, particularly online, had ‘become truly toxic’.

Meanwhile throughout 2021, the date for the publication of the long-awaited CSE review was shifted numerous times, from the summer, to before Christmas, then finally a date was set for January 24 of this year – which was also missed.

In March the publication was delayed again after ‘significant further evidence’ was brought to the review team, with no prospective alternative date being put forward.

That same month, Tory councillor Dave Arnott moved a motion which once again called for the Home Office to intervene over the delayed review, adding the issue had hung over Oldham ‘like a dark cloud for years’.

In response to a question from a member of the public at the same meeting, Shah – then council leader – said that ‘unfortunately’ the ‘abhorrent and disgusting crime’ of child sexual abuse ‘is still being committed in Oldham’.

In reference to the report, she added: “We all share a desire for the review to publish its report so that victims’ experiences can be acknowledged and we can start to rebuild and restore confidence in the services that current victims rely on.

“Child abusers do not abuse based on political control of an area, they do so because they are despicable and evil individuals.”

The delay at the start of the new year meant that the long-promised findings of the review were not made public before the May local elections, and the allegations of a cover-up would continue to dominate the debate.

This included the production of leaflets – branded ‘misogynistic and racist’ by Labour – which were seen being delivered by opposition candidates in crucial wards. These leaflets featured the claim that Shah had played a ‘disgraceful role’ in the ‘cover up of child abuse’.

Debbie Abrahams, the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth has since asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons whether he would ‘condemn those Oldham Conservative candidates who delivered toxic, racist, misogynistic’ leaflets’ during the local elections – he replied he would be ‘happy’ to look at the details.

In the early hours of May 6 after polls had closed, Labour councillors and campaigners clustered around the Chadderton South table in the Queen Elizabeth Hall where votes were being verified and counted.

Some early optimism about Shah’s chances of retaining her seat faded away as the piles of voting slips mounted up. The scenes that had played out exactly a year ago when Fielding was deposed were due to be repeated. Shah lost to the Conservative candidate Robert Barnes by 96 votes.

Speaking on the night, she said she had been ‘dehumanised’ by the personal attacks of the campaign.

“This is not just about me standing here saying this, it was there for everyone to see,” she said. “This is the first election I’ve ever been to where I have not been able to bring my family. That’s because I just did not want them to be here and experience anything negative. I can’t wait to go home this evening.”

Shah was one of a number of losses for Labour on the night, including ex-cabinet member Hannah Roberts, whose seat in Royton North was also won by the Tories.

Incumbent Abdul Malik was beaten in the Coldhurst ward by independent – and former Labour councillor – Montaz Ali Azad.

Labour member Peter Davis was defeated in Failsworth West ward by Failsworth Independent Party (FIP) candidate Sandra Ball.

In just two years their presence in the council chamber had swelled to five councillors, making them Oldham’s fourth biggest political group.

There are now 25 opposition councillors from different parties, compared to 35 Labour members. And the ramifications of the events in the most recent local elections have continued to be felt.
Last month one veteran Labour councillor, Steven Bashforth erupted in an astonishing outburst in the town hall, declaring ‘we’re not paedophiles’.

Count Bashforth said he had been called a ‘paedo’ by men driving past in a car while out campaigning on the doorstep. “I’m not a paedophile and yet I’m being called one,” he said.

“Many people who have lost their seats this year have fallen, not because of their lack of attention to the ward, not because of their ability as a ward councillor, but because of the lies and the evilness that’s gone out.

After Shah’s defeat, deputy Amanda Chadderton was elected as the new council leader – Labour’s third since 2018.

She admitted it had been a ‘difficult two years for the Labour group’, pointing to the impact austerity had had in weakening the council’s ability to deliver front-line services.

“I think that a lot of people felt that the council was not on their side and, as a point of that, Labour wasn’t on their side,” the Royton South councillor said.

She said that they needed to rebuild a relationship with residents, amid the review into CSE which had ‘hung over’ the council for two and a half years, adding: “It takes time to regain trust and prove we are on their side.”

Speaking on Monday at the publication of the CSE report, Coun Chadderton said: “When Sean instigated this review in 2019, obviously that was in response to quite a lot of residents’ concerns, a lot of that had sprung up online around a cover-up between Oldham council and Greater Manchester Police and that we actively hid this abuse for electoral and political advantage.

“The report clearly states there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. Nobody becomes a councillor or goes into local government to cover up child sex abuse. It’s just not the reality of where we are.”

Next year, due to changes put in place by the Boundary Commission, Oldham’s election will be ‘all out’ – meaning that rather than a third of members, all 60 seats will be up for grabs.

It may well be that the previous two local elections prove to be mere tremors – compared to the political earthquake that could unfold in May 2023.

Source: How the long shadow of grooming gang allegations changed Oldham’s politics – and took down two leaders – Manchester Evening News


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