How we approach safeguarding children, and especially how we deal with the issue of child sexual exploitation in Manchester, has rightly been under the microscope in recent weeks.
The publication last week of an assurance review into Operation Augusta, an investigation into child sexual exploitation targeting children in care which was launched in 2004, made for distressing reading. It concludes that not enough was done to protect children from this abhorrent crime at the time, either by Manchester City Council or Greater Manchester Police, and we acknowledge that some of the social work practice and management oversight fell far below the high standards we now expect.
It was right that these failings were brought to light and indeed I was a key part of the steering group of the Greater Manchester Mayor’s review which detailed them. On behalf of the council, I have apologised for our failings at the time. We are deeply sorry that these vulnerable children were let down and while we cannot turn back the clock, we are doing all we can now to ensure those most directly affected get the support they need and supporting efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.
We didn’t wait for the publication of the review but worked closely with Greater Manchester Police to set up Operation Green Jacket in spring 2018 to take a fresh look at the cases involved. This is a live and ongoing operation.
But in addressing the past, something which is very necessary, we must not lose sight of the present and how radically our approach to tackling child sexual exploitation has been strengthened in the 15 years since Operation Augusta.
Just this week, Ofsted have published the findings of their most recent visit to Manchester children’s services.
The focused visit, which took place only last month looked at the council’s arrangements for child protection and other support for children in need.
It found that Manchester has a ‘strong and effective leadership team supported by political and corporate leaders’ and welcomed ‘effective and collaborative working’ between the council, police and other partner agencies to ‘manage and reduce risks for children.’
Manchester’s Complex Safeguarding Hub - where social workers, police officers and others involved in supporting vulnerable children and their families are based under one roof to identify and reduce risks such as sexual or other criminal exploitation and pursue and prosecute offenders – is recognised as a ‘strength.’
Ofsted add: ‘Children benefit from enduring and trusting relationships with professionals who work creatively to increase their safety and, for some children, to reduce their risk.’
The report also identifies areas where improvement is still required. There can be and will be no complacency. But it chimes with the findings of a comprehensive Local Government Association peer review and challenge of our child protection services last year, with a particular focus on how we tackle child sexual exploitation.
We are in a very different place now to that depicted in the Augusta report. This is not to say that the existence of this abhorrent crime has been eradicated. Sadly, there will always be despicable people seeking to do despicable things. I wish it wasn’t so. But we are better at identifying risk and protecting our children, better at taking action including working with the police to disrupt and pursue offenders and crucially better at really listening to the experiences of vulnerable young people and building up trusted relationships with them which enable us to support them more effectively.
Other elements of the landscape have changed fundamentally in the last decade and a half.
We have reduced both the number and size of children’s homes to enable better support and supervision.
Through both the joint Protect team (established back in 2006) and Project Phoenix we have strengthened our co-operative work with the police and other Greater Manchester authorities, recognising that predators operate across boundaries.
The Complex Safeguarding Hub, which opened in 2018, built on what we had learned through this process.
Confronting the shortcomings of the past is an essential part of continuing this improvement journey. But while there is a great deal of evidence to point to significant improvements we can never, and will never, be complacent.
The responsibility for protecting, supporting and loving the children in our care does not just rest with the director of children’s services and social workers. We all have a role to play, members and officers. Manchester residents expect nothing less - and that applies to every local authority.
Joanne Roney OBE, chief executive of Manchester City Council