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Runaway and Missing Children

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements regarding the safeguarding of runaway and missing children; and for connected purposes.

Every year in the United Kingdom, more than 100,000 children go missing from home or care. Most of them return home safely, but research by the Children’s Society indicates that about 10,000 children every year are hurt or harmed while they are missing. Many thousands of those children are running away to escape abuse in the first place; they have no safe home to return to. Some children are hurt very severely while they are away and suffer lifelong consequences. Vulnerable children on their own are targeted by predatory adults. Evidence from police and children’s charities has identified children drawn into prostitution, trafficked or groomed into drug-running by adults who pretend friendship. Some children disappear without trace. Police estimate that about 50 children every year die or are killed while they are missing; that is a child death each week that could be prevented.

All such figures are estimates because, astonishingly, there is no requirement for data to be recorded or collected nationally; and without data identifying need, statutory bodies are not allocating resources to safeguard these vulnerable children. A small number of police forces are leading initiatives to identify and protect runaway and missing children and the Association of Chief Police Officers issued guidance on the management and reporting of missing persons in 2005, but a number of police forces are still using paper-based systems. Better information is still available nationally on missing cars than on missing children. Police have a key performance indicator set by the Government on vehicle crime, so they allocate resources and collect information. Children are more important than cars, but the Department for Children, Schools and Families—the lead Department—collects no data on runaway and missing children.

Recently, a welcome announcement was made that children missing from home and care will be included as a national performance indicator for local authorities from April 2009. But the relationship between the police and local authorities is crucial, because people report a missing child to the police, not the local authority. Police forces must have a proper and effective method of collecting and analysing information about missing children. Some 40 per cent. of police forces are unable to provide information about the level of need in respect of runaway and missing children in their area.

In November 2005, and again in January 2007, this House gave consent to publish a Bill to protect runaway and missing children. Both Bills received support from Missing People, the Children’s Society, Parents and Abducted Children Together, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Crisis, the lead officer for runaways from the Association of Chief Police Officers and many hon. Members. In the previous Session, more than 200 hon. Members supported the call for time to be granted for this Bill’s consideration. It does not seem too much to ask that vulnerable children are identified so that they can be helped, that information is collected when a child is reported missing to the police and that there is effective co-ordination between the police, health authorities and local authorities.

We must ensure that a child who is calling for help can get it. In October, the sponsors of this Bill and other hon. Members held parliamentary hearings, where we received evidence from a range of charities, police forces, local authorities and Government bodies. We heard about some excellent joint local working between the police, local authorities and voluntary organisations. Such partnerships demonstrated effectiveness in reducing the incidence of running away, in better protecting children who had gone missing and in tackling predatory adults who target runaway children to prey on them. Such effective partnerships are few and far between, and the reality for many children is bleak, with no local service either in place or planned.

The Children’s Society has just completed an extensive review of services for runaways in England on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It told us that there was exemplary practice in few locations and that adequate services do not exist in the majority of places. The survey identified that only about 12 per cent. of local authorities have organised responses to the needs of young runways. More than two thirds of local authorities are not even planning a response, despite the fact that having a plan is part of the local authority guidance issued under a local authority circular by the Department of Health in 2002. More than two thirds of local authorities are not fulfilling even that part of the existing guidance, and that serious failure is leaving some very vulnerable children and young people without any protection. Poor data collection is making it impossible to identify failures or to direct resources and allocate priorities. We received a wealth of evidence relating to real dangers that are being faced by some young people who are alone in Britain’s streets today and identifying that this issue must be made a clear and urgent safeguarding priority.

Lancashire police’s “Mountains into Molehills” project produced significant evidence of risk levels to young individuals and the successful results of early intervention. The force also identified the hugely wasteful cost to police authorities and the hugely attritional effect on children’s life chances of having only a reactive approach to missing children. It worked out that just investigating cases was costing Lancashire police about £6.2 million a year. Some 77 per cent. of the force’s missing person cases involved young people under the age of 18, and the same people were going missing over and over again—one girl from a care home was the subject of 78 missing person investigations. Three children did not survive; one was killed in a road traffic collision while missing, one was murdered and her body was never found and the other visited some adults who had chaotic lifestyles and who plied her with drink and prescription drugs—she died as a result.

Many runaway children return home safely, but we repeatedly heard evidence of children being targeted by predatory adults for sexual or drug-related exploitation. Such children were being encouraged to run away repeatedly by people who were pretending to be their friends. The police’s ability to tackle such predators depends on the good retrieval and recording of information from young victims, who often feel no trust in authority figures.

The most effective local action depends on a good working relationship between police, local authorities, health authorities and the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector was consistently cited as a key partner because of its role as a trusted friend for young people. However, despite their crucial role in supporting children at risk, most of the charities working to provide support for runaway and missing children are uncertain about continued funding for their work. Most do not know whether they will have funding to continue in just three months’ time. Even Missing People, the national charity that provides 24/7 helplines for missing people and their families and a runaway helpline that took 50,000 calls last year, receives only modest core support from Government and does not know whether it will receive any funding beyond March this year. More alarmingly, the National Policing Improvement Agency, which took responsibility for missing people, including missing children, from September, has been allocated a budget of only £261,000 from the Home Office in this financial year.

ACPO has calculated that the social cost of policing runaway and missing children is £220 million a year, which is set against a total Government investment to tackle the issue of £1.1 million in the last year. It beggars belief. Targeted early intervention, using data to identify children at risk and involving senior-level leadership are proven to reduce the number of children who run away, to help those who do run and to tackle the underlying problems. Early intervention saves money and saves children. Urgent action must be taken to make the simple changes that are needed to reduce the number of children who run away or go missing in the first place and to ensure the immediate safety of those children who go missing. The Bill is a simple measure to require the collection and reporting of information. It is our job to protect those children and it is about time we did it. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Helen Southworth, Ann Coffey, Dan Norris, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Russell Brown, Alan Keen, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. David Chaytor, Mr. Kevin Barron, Ms Dari Taylor, Annette Brooke and John Bercow.

Runaway and Missing Children

Helen Southworth accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements regarding the safeguarding of runaway and missing children; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed [Bill 51].