Former detective Margaret Oliver says arrests of Rochdale grooming gang is ‘tip of iceberg’

Date published: 18 May 2017

Former detective Margaret Oliver, who played an integral role in bringing about the prosecution of a Rochdale grooming gang has spoken out, saying the arrests of the gang were ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

She is portrayed by Leslie Sharp in the BBC drama ‘Three Girls’, which is based on the true stories of young victims of sexual abuse.

Nine men of Pakistani and Afghan origin were found guilty of child sex charges after targeting vulnerable girls in Rochdale and Heywood. The girls, aged between 13 and 17, were plied with alcohol, food and money for sex and were beaten if they didn’t agree to have sex. On other occasions, the victims were so drunk they didn’t know what was being done to them and they were ‘passed around for sex’ between the gang.

All of the victims were under-age white British girls, and accusations were made that the authorities had failed to thoroughly investigate the issue amid fears of being accused of racism.

Speaking to the BBC, the former detective said: “I was left with the sense that this was a box the police didn’t really want to open, but they couldn’t keep the lid down for long and now the secret is out. A crime that had been contained and swept under the carpet for years can no longer be ignored.”

Ms Oliver later left the service.

She said: “For me, the end of the road was when they betrayed the trust I’d earned from a key witness and I couldn’t get assurances on how vulnerable witnesses would be treated in the future”.

She told the Guardian that she had been speaking to children who told her offenders they’d named have been ‘walking around Rochdale’.

She continued: “That’s why I’m saying things haven’t changed, because those men have been named by those girls and I know that they’re still out there walking around.

"A significant proportion of children and young people have a profound lack of trust in the police, and it should have acted as a wake-up call".

She doesn’t believe things are getting any better, despite the "shining examples of brilliant police officers who do this week in week out", saying "we need more and we need leaders who insist the values of empathy, honesty and integrity are always upheld in our dealings with vulnerable victims".

Ms Oliver said she would "never forget the day she arrested Ahmed [the ringleader]" and "the man standing before us seemed anything but the evil predator leading a Rochdale grooming gang he was about to be exposed as. He still had the look of someone who thought he was going to get away with it".

She recounted countless times she’d worked with victims of "horrific rapes" and had seen cases go nowhere, even with solid evidence.

The former detective believes the ‘breakthrough’ in taking Ahmed off the street was largely down to trust the police had won from the girls they were targeting.

She added: “Without that trust, it didn’t matter if 10,000 officers were assigned to the case. We had to get girls to give evidence in court and I knew only too well that Greater Manchester Police did not have a particularly sophisticated approach to winning vulnerable hearts and minds when trying to prosecute rapists.”

The mum of four joined the police force in 1997 as a detective and family liaison officer working on major murders. She also worked on a major investigation into child abuse in south Manchester. The investigation, Operation Augusta, was closed down and no-one was charged; a case that the former detective says sickened her then and still angers her.

She added her oath to uphold the law and ensure ‘equal respect to all people’ seemed meaningless now.

Ms Oliver continued: “Unless we started showing respect to young girls from poorer areas, we were never going to win their trust. When Greater Manchester Police's failings in dealing with child abuse were later laid bare in a series of damning reports, one police officer gave a radio interview in which he admitted that officers referred to the girls as ‘scrubbers’ and child prostitutes.

“That was putting it lightly. I'd heard worse from other officers. There was no real effort to win their trust and a staggering lack of empathy.”

Assistant Chief Constable Rob Potts said: “Tackling the sexual exploitation of children and young people is an absolute priority for Greater Manchester Police and its partners. Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility and it is crucial that we work together to identify and prosecute individuals who prey on vulnerable children.

“Our specialist CSE teams in each division across Greater Manchester are successfully reaching out to young people. We have specially-trained officers who provide young people with on-going support, both from within the force and through key partner agencies.

“We have made huge progress in our fight against CSE and those who commit these horrendous crimes against children. The It’s Not Okay campaign was launched in September 2014 as part of a GM-wide partnership, giving young people and their carers a crucial online resource. The wider campaign provided a completely new approach to dealing with CSE, using education to prevent young people from becoming victims in the first place but at the same time targeting offenders and bringing them to justice.

“The partnership has undertaken substantial work with schools, healthcare providers and support services to ensure that vulnerable young people are helped at every stage - from prevention through to support and rehabilitation. Regular weeks of partnership activity, which include community engagement, disruption, education and police enforcement, means that thousands more young people are being engaged with than before.

“This increase in public awareness, as well as enhanced police officer understanding and more accurate recording of CSE reports, resulted in a significant rise in the number of CSE incidents reported to police.

“I want to reassure communities that our priority is to protect children and young people, prosecute offenders and prevent from committing further offences.”

Gail Hopper, director of children's services at Rochdale Borough Council, said: "Child sexual abuse and exploitation affects every area of the country in many forms. In Rochdale, all agencies accepted their part in letting down children and young people and agreed to take action to ensure that no similar failures happened again. We can demonstrate that has happened.

“We have worked hard to raise awareness across organisations to train practitioners, put the right systems and support in place to ensure that more offenders are caught, children are safeguarded and people from all walks of life better understand how to recognise, prevent and deal with abuse.

“Our multi-agency team, Sunrise, along with other specialist teams in Greater Manchester Police (GMP), have helped to bring offenders from historic and current cases to justice, resulting in more than 200 years of jail sentences being handed down since 2012. Rochdale is now seen as an area that others can learn from and we regularly share our knowledge and experience with professionals from other parts of the country.

“Greater Manchester’s It’s Not Okay campaign has helped to develop and improve quality working across the region by setting consistent standards, measuring performance, communicating messages and building on innovation that is widely shared.

“We remain resolute as a partnership in Rochdale to work together to share information, expertise and best practice in tackling child sexual exploitation, as well as safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people. Everyone should stay alert to the signs that young people in any area can be exploited. We encourage those with even the smallest piece of information or concern to share it with police or their local child sexual exploitation team."

In May 2012, the nine men were convicted and charged at Liverpool Crown Court with offences including rape and sexual assault, conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child and trafficking a child within the UK. They were all ordered to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register for life and received sentences ranging between four and 19 years in prison.

Ringleader Shabir Ahmed was given a 19-year sentence and also jailed for 22 years concurrently in July 2012, for raping another child 30 times over a decade.

As of February 2017, Ahmed and three other gang members Adil Khan, Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rauf, were facing deportation to Pakistan after five different appeals were dismissed. They had challenged government moves to strip them of their British Citizenship, with three arguing the Government had failed in a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of their children.

Three Girls concludes on Thursday on BBC One at 9pm.

Do you have a story for us?

Let us know by emailing
All contact will be treated in confidence.

To contact the Rochdale Online news desk, email or visit our news submission page.

To get the latest news on your desktop or mobile, follow Rochdale Online on Twitter and Facebook.


Support Rochdale Online

Rochdale Online provides local community news and a local community events diary, as well as local business and community listings. To continue providing these services we are asking for your help and support.

Find out more