Tory councillors have called for an ongoing investigation into allegations of child sexual exploitation in Oldham to be ditched and replaced with a Home Office review.
A political row has broken out between the borough’s four Conversative council members and the Labour leadership over the handling of allegations of historic abuse.
An independent review is currently underway into alleged child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the borough dating back to 2011 which concern ‘shisha bars, taxi companies and children’s homes’.
It is being led by experts Malcolm Newsam, a former commissioner for social care in Rotherham, and Gary Ridgway, a former Detective Superintendent of Cambridgeshire Police, who both worked on the Operation Augusta investigation in Manchester.
However a public letter from Saddleworth councillors John Hudson, Graham Sheldon, Jamie Curley and Pam Byrne to council leader Sean Fielding states that since the launch of the review, further allegations have been made online.
These concern ‘criminal acts by public servants and in the courts in regards to former Oldham councillors who have since been prosecuted for serious criminal offences’, they claim.
“Given the distress this is causing to people living within our borough, we believe that the current scope of the review is now far too narrow and believe that Oldham council needs to open itself up to the full scrutiny of an independent investigation headed by the Home Office and under the purview of the Home Secretary,” the letter states.
“Sadly we do not believe that the growing allegations made online and elsewhere can be dealt with by the executive leadership, Mayor of Greater Manchester or Oldham council alone.
“The weight and seriousness of this means that this borough needs to do the right thing and ask for help in order to establish the truth.
“We are now at a point of no return and it is an issue to which we and every grandparent, parent and person in our borough wants answers to.”
In his response, which was also made public, Coun Fielding said that the review is underway and yet to report back its findings.
It is independent from the council and therefore the authority cannot confirm the timeline for when it will conclude.
“It would be inappropriate for anybody to pre-empt the findings of this review as doing so risks undermining the process altogether, though I know that is sadly the deliberate intention of some,” he wrote.
“If, at the point that the review reports, their findings are such that issues are identified which warrant further investigation by either the current review team or others, then representatives of all political groups on the council will have the opportunity to discuss appropriate next steps.”
Coun Fielding stated that Coun Hudson, as leader of the Tory group, was involved in the original discussions about commissioning the current review.
“It has been stated repeatedly that the investigation will follow the evidence, and the terms of reference say the scope will ‘not be limited to’ that outlined,” he added.
“If you believe there to be something specific which the review should cover but which isn’t explicitly set out within the current scope I would urge you to outline this clearly so we can share this with the review team.”
A former Oldham councillor had been found guilty of a ‘serious criminal offence’ last year, he confirmed.
This person had resigned his position on the council before his conviction and ‘all appropriate safeguarding actions were taken when the council was informed of the investigation’.
He added: “If you have any evidence of other ‘criminal acts by public servants’ I would strongly urge you to report these to the appropriate authorities, ideally Greater Manchester Police, so that they can be appropriately investigated and action taken.
“We know that a range of allegations continue to circulate online and we have repeatedly called on those people to report these concerns through the proper channels so that they can be investigated, any victims supported and any perpetrated brought to justice.
“Unfortunately in many cases these reports have failed to materialise. Neither we, nor any independent review can investigate incidents based on online rumour alone.
“Whilst there are political activists in our borough who are prepared to exploit the issue of child abuse and therefore child abuse victims for political gain, despite our disagreements I had always considered the Conservative party in Oldham to be better than that.”
Chiefs have confirmed the review will cover the period from 2011 to 2014, but will also consider the specific case of one woman who complained about the handling of her case during 2005 and 2006.
The assurance review will specifically consider allegations that have been made on social media involving shisha bars, taxi companies and children’s homes.
This will include the ‘nature and extent to which adults had inappropriate access to children and young people resident in children’s homes in Oldham putting them at risk of harm’.
It will also look at the extent to which historical actions and employment records have been ‘adequately investigated’ in the case of ‘known offenders’ previously employed within Oldham public services.
It is understood this relates to jailed Rochdale grooming leader Shabir Ahmed, who worked at Oldham council until the mid-2000s.
The framework of the review says ‘particular reference’ will be made to concerns that statutory agencies were ‘aware of this abuse, failed to respond appropriately to safeguard the children and subsequently covered up these failings’.
All reports, audits and performance information on the management of child sexual exploitation during the review period will be looked at by the team.
They will also look at allegations in social media posts relating to the period 2011-2014.
This will include interviews with individuals who have made ‘significant allegations’, preliminary interviews with senior officers at Oldham council and, if required, former officers.