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Runaway and Missing Children Bill

Volume 477: debated on Friday 20 June 2008

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the House and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for making time available for this important Bill. This is the third year that the Bill has been brought to the House, but the first time that it has reached a Second Reading debate. It is a very modest Bill, with a single substantive clause in which a duty is imposed on the Secretary of State in relation to runaway and missing children. The clause states:

“It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to make appropriate provision for the collecting and reporting of information about runaway and missing children and for co-ordination among police, local authorities and other bodies.”

It is a small Bill to deal with a large problem. It is estimated that every year in the United Kingdom, more than 100,000 children run away or go missing from home or care. The vast majority of those children get back home safely, but many do not. Some are harmed while they are away: information from the Children’s Society suggests that every year some 10,000 children are hurt, some extremely seriously, while missing from home or care, and the police estimate that each year about 50 children die while missing from home.

I support the Bill 100 per cent. Many people will be amazed to hear that it is not already an Act, or that all the bodies it lists are not already obliged to work together. Why are we having to wait so long for the measures to be given proper recognition?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my good friend, for his intervention. He raises an important issue. Part of the problem is that the children in question disappear. They are missing; they are not there. That is one of the key issues that people raised with me when I first introduced the Bill. By definition, when a child goes missing, we do not know where they are. Some exceptionally good police officers have worked in this field, and they have been very frustrated at not being able to get the sort of co-ordination that the Bill proposes. They say to me that unless we ensure a better way of indicating what is happening, so that we can focus resources to tackle the problem, those children will fall below the radar. In police terms, they appear again only when they are the victims or perpetrators of a crime. As we all know, that is way too late.

The purpose of our work is to pull the process back, to ensure effective early intervention and to make sure that we can identify the children who are at risk of running away or going missing, so that we can put strategies in place for an alternative, and so that they can find other ways of dealing with problems. We all have problems that we have to think about and use quite a lot of skills to deal with. Some of the children whom we are talking about do not have the life experience to do that, and many of them do not have family and friends to whom they can turn for help. In the first instance, we have to reduce running away and give children alternatives, but secondly we must be able to identify quickly those children who run away, and put something in place for them, so that they have a safe adult to turn to and a safe place to go.

The hon. Lady said that the Bill covers children who are in care, so presumably children in the care of local authorities who run away—a vulnerable category—would also come within the scope of her Bill.

Yes. In fact, the point of the Bill is that it brings together all children; it does not select single sets of children, but covers children who go missing for any reason, whether from home or from care, and whether they have run away, are trying to escape abuse or have been abducted. In the extensive work that we have done on the subject over the years, we have found that those groups have a common purpose. We have to put in place infrastructures that will be able to react and respond to individual children and cover them all. There are mechanisms that we can put in place, as identified in the Bill, that can deal with that.

Some children who run away are running to escape abuse. Running away can seem to them the most sensible thing to do at the time. They are very frightened and they are trying to escape from something. There is a real concern about what they are escaping to. I am afraid that other children—quite often, they are children in the care of a local authority—are targeted by predatory adults who try to groom them, and pull them away from a place of safety to get them involved in things that are definitely to their disadvantage. The Bill will protect that whole range of children, and that is incredibly important, because any child who is missing who does not have access to a safe place to go and a safe person is at serious risk.

The evidence demonstrates not only that very serious, deliberate harm happens to children, but that some children who are alone as a result of going missing are far more prone to accident. They are very likely to be children who have low self-esteem, do not have a good sense of safety, and cannot evaluate situations. Evidence that I have brought before the House on a number of occasions has identified a series of young people who have put themselves at risk, or who have been put at risk by adults, with serious consequences, some of which will last them for the rest of their lives. Shelter has said that a young person who runs away or goes missing is much more likely to become homeless in later life. Work done in my local young offenders institute identified the fact that the vast majority of young offenders had run away from home or care before they committed any crime. Work that was done with young prostitutes found that the overwhelming majority of them had run away from home or care before they got involved in prostitution, and that they had been targeted and drawn into that activity by adults with ill intent.

The co-ordination proposed under the Bill would allow both local authorities to put in place support services for children and police to identify such adults and to take action against them and remove them from being a danger to children.

I have spoken to members of the Children’s Society in my constituency about this issue, and the hon. Lady is to be congratulated on bringing the Bill before the House. I hope and assume that it will have support from Members of all parties. If the Bill is enacted and this information becomes available, what measures does she hope the Government will take? Does she hope, for example, that these children will be included in the Every Child Matters programme—and why are they not included in that already?

That is an incredibly important issue, and it has been a focus of attention over the past three years for myself, other Members and the organisations working in this field—particularly different Government Departments, because we must ensure that it is intrinsic to Every Child Matters, which is an excellent piece of work and is enacting a very good framework to make sure that every child does matter.

On the matter we are discussing now, the key issue is the nature of the problem. If a child runs away or goes missing in my authority area of Warrington, within 25 minutes they can be in Liverpool or Manchester, and they can have crossed a number of authority areas. Every Child Matters is based around where children live, but children who have run away are moving. That makes addressing such incidents incredibly difficult unless we have an infrastructure in place whereby police, local authorities and voluntary organisations have worked out ahead of time what they are going to do and how they are going to do it—unless they have the protocols in place and they can share information, and unless they have collected that information in the proper manner in the first place so that it can be shared quickly. We must ensure that all those different bodies can connect up and follow the child, and be wherever the child wants them to be.

That leads on to the crunch issue: the collection of information to ensure that each case involving a child can be managed individually, and so that resources can be targeted allowing services to be commissioned to be available for children within a particular area. We must also be able to monitor the effectiveness of that process, in order to make sure we are actually providing for these children—to make sure that if, for example, a child telephones at two o’clock on a Saturday morning from anywhere in the country, they can get access to a helpline that can tell them where there is somebody local who can help them and listen to their problem, and who can make sure that a safe adult gets to them at the telephone box they are calling from or wherever they are on a mobile phone. That is what we must do: we must be there for these children wherever they are. In the situations we are discussing, the child is moving, which is exceptional under the Every Child Matters agenda—they are moving across different agency and authority areas.

That leads me on to address what is currently happening on the ground. At present, 40 per cent. of police forces cannot provide information about the level of need in respect of runaway or missing children, and Children’s Society surveys have identified that only about 12 per cent. of local authority children’s services have an organised response to the needs of young runaways, which means that more than two thirds of local authorities do not currently have a planned response. That is an appalling situation, and we must address it.

The all-party group on runaway and missing children recently contacted local authorities asking them for information. Some 23 of them could not say how many of their looked-after children—children in their care, for whom they are directly responsible—had been reported missing to the police in the last year. Forty-two did not know how many of their children who are on the child protection register had been reported missing to the police. There have been excellent examples in both the police and local authorities of people trying to resolve this problem, but individuals by themselves cannot deal with it, and neither can individual authorities.

Realistically, police forces have better information on missing cars than on missing children. None of the police forces’ missing persons databases can share information electronically in real time with the national missing persons bureau’s database. There is no knowledge of how many police forces may or may not be able to share information electronically in real time with the police national computer system. There is no national requirement for police forces to use electronic management systems or to provide the missing persons bureau with their data, and there is no national requirement for forces to share among themselves data about runaway and missing children.

Those requirements are essential if we are to have effective working between police forces. We have exceptional officers who are dedicated to finding and protecting children who have run away or gone missing. We have to have a system that supports those officers and ensures that situations can be dealt with rapidly, that the information that is collected is kept so that predatory adults who target individual children can be identified rapidly and dealt with, and that social services departments can be supported in their work to target resources at those children. Lancashire police force has been incredibly effective in that regard, and it has been able to identify children at risk and work directly with their local authority to provide support.

I do not want to speak for too long, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say, and I know that other Members want to contribute. The Bill is very short and very carefully worked out. Very many people have been involved in its drawing up, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, social services departments, many Members, many voluntary organisations and many young people. I should like to ask the Minister with responsibility for children whether he will take his guidance from Bob the Builder. Can we fix it? Yes, we can. So let’s do it.

May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) on bringing the Bill before the House? I pay tribute to her for her tremendous work as chairman of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, and for her campaigning over many years on this sensitive and important subject.

The hon. Lady’s Bill highlights a number of serious issues. According to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children under 16 run away each year. The society’s research indicates that such children are often fleeing family conflict, neglect and abuse, but they may also be pulled away to be near friends, or as a result of grooming by an adult. Such children often sleep rough and are at much greater risk of sexual exploitation, violence and drug taking. One in 12 young runaways is hurt or harmed while away.

The key point that the Bill rightly identifies is the current lack of information about missing or runaway children and the lack of co-ordination between the relevant agencies to act when a child at risk has been identified. The hon. Lady puts her point clearly and starkly when she argues that better information is available nationally on missing cars than on missing children. The number, age and gender of children who are reported missing from home are not collected centrally. Such a facility has been available in the United States, for example, for a number of years. It is said that the new National Missing Persons Bureau, which the National Policing Improvement Agency launched on 1 April, will seek to develop national information to support local police operations.

One of the priorities for the bureau is to carry out a strategic assessment on missing people to formulate, develop and measure future policy initiatives in close consultation with the missing persons strategic oversight group. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House what progress is being made with the strategic assessment, when it will be completed and what areas the policy formulation is expected to address in general, and specifically in relation to missing children. The Government’s young runaways action plan talks about the bureau acting as a hub for the sharing of best practice and to co-ordinate consistent policing activity in the search for missing young people, with promises of revised guidance for police forces. However, are the Government planning to develop a central register of missing persons? Perhaps the Minister could provide some clarity on that, as it is not clear from the statements that have been made so far.

Can the Minister confirm how many police forces use the computerised system to record and manage reports of runaway and missing children? It has been suggested by the hon. Member for Warrington, South, among others, that fewer than half the 43 police forces do so. Is that number correct, and if so, why are so few police forces using it?

It is not just law enforcement agencies that need to focus on obtaining better information on missing children. Schools, local authorities and local social services departments also need to examine closely the issues of missing children. The Government have said that a new indicator in the national indicator set is to be introduced, covering children who run away from home or care, with data being monitored on a quarterly basis. Will that provide details on how many young runaways there are? How will it secure more effective joint working between children’s services, the police and local partners? What monitoring of the response of local strategic partnerships to the collection of data will be undertaken?

Collecting information is one thing, but as we have seen in other areas, doing something about it is another. That crucial factor was starkly highlighted by the recent Home Affairs Committee inquiry on domestic violence, forced marriages and “honour”-based violence. The Committee highlighted disturbing evidence of children having gone off school rolls without anyone tracking where they are, and noted concerns that some of those missing children may have been forced to marry overseas. Although Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools has reported that most authorities have “good” procedures in place, in a few areas there is a lack of an overarching, co-ordinated approach to collecting and recording data relating to missing children that makes it difficult to establish their whereabouts. The Minister has acknowledged that there is scope for developing some standard definitions for local authorities to use in collecting information. The Government are currently consulting on updated, extended statutory guidance on identifying children not receiving a suitable education.

The Committee said that the whole situation caused it “great concern”, adding, at paragraph 166:

“Rather than disproving that there are children missing from schools who have been removed and forced to marry, our investigation showed simply that there is no adequate mechanism of identifying these children.”

If one looks at the situation regarding children missing from children’s homes, a similar theme emerges. In 2005, 290 children went missing on one or more occasions. In 2006, the figure was again 290, and in 2007 it was 300. In 2006, 370 children went missing for more than a month while apparently being looked after by social services. This is of particular concern, as it highlights the dangers of child exploitation and the trafficking of children.

Research published by UNICEF shows that in an 18-month period 330 children were believed to have been trafficked into the UK and that 183 of them went missing from the care of social services. The Government have published guidance for local authorities, but more will be required if we are to make a real difference and to put child protection to the fore. We must avoid the horrendous situation in which children come under the protection of the state but the state cannot deliver on its obligations to them. They should and must be protected. Just one example concerns Vietnamese cannabis factories that are currently being raided, with findings of children being exploited, misused and abused.

The question arises of what checks are done on family members. In certain circumstances, children who have been arrested are handed back to supposed family members, but there is evidence to suggest that they are not actually relatives but part of the criminal gangs responsible for the trafficking. Further checks must be carried out to ensure that children are not handed back to the gangs that want to continue to exploit them.

Operations such as Operation Pentameter and the current Operation Pentameter 2 deal with the sex trade. Does their scope need to be broadened to take account of children who are trafficked not just for sex but for other forms of exploitation? That underlines the need for not just the reporting and collection of information but the swift adoption and ratification of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. I urge the Minister to press ahead with that and identify the necessary mechanisms for it, whether under secondary or primary legislation. He has our assurance that the Opposition want that delivered as quickly as possible.

We need to deliver also on other practical measures to ensure that proper checks are made at borders and that we have a robust and effective border police force that can minimise the dangers that are highlighted by the Bill.

I am realistic about the fact that, given the stage of the parliamentary year, the timetable will not allow this important, although very short and concise Bill to reach the statute book. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, South, on promoting it and on once again providing a platform to highlight the terrible suffering and problems that lie behind the need for the Bill. In the understanding that it is improbable that it will reach the statute book in this Session, I urge the Minister to work on the basis of the Bill to make the necessary changes and bring in effective checks and balances to give more help and protection to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. I urge him to give real meaning to the expression and show that every child really does matter.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) for her continuing commitment to children and young people, which is well known throughout the House. I commend her, and the other members of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, for their tireless work to improve services for such young people. She rightly challenged me, using Bob the Builder as an example. Can we fix it? I think we can. I hope she will welcome what I say in response to her Bill.

I am pleased to be given a chance to speak about the Bill and the important issues that it raises about the support that we offer vulnerable young people. Every child does matter, including those who run away from home or go missing. The Government have clear aims for all children and young people, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families was set up to make those aims central to what we do in Government.

We want all children to enjoy a happy, healthy and safe childhood that prepares them for adult life, so that they can make a positive contribution. Running away is a clear sign that something is wrong in a child or young person’s life, and we must ensure that action is taken to keep the 100,000 young people who run away safe and give them the support they need to deal with their problems. We need to protect them from the risks that they face.

According to the Children’s Society, which has been mentioned, about one in 12 runaways are hurt or harmed. Even when a child does not come to direct physical harm, running away can seriously affect them in all sorts of other ways, such as through missing school or missing the chance to develop both relationships with their peers and their physical and mental health. That is why it is vital that we do everything we can, not only to support young people who run away but, when appropriate, to prevent them from reaching the point at which they feel that running away is their only option. We need to mobilise services to spot and stop those problems early, before they develop.

We have already done a lot to combat the problems of vulnerable young people. Indeed, reference has been made to that this afternoon. The Every Child Matters reforms have transformed the way in which local services work together, using the common assessment framework and sharing information about children at risk of harm. Better joined-up working and information sharing across professional boundaries mean that children are now less likely to slip through the gaps, because professionals have a better picture of their needs and can tailor support for them, drawing in other professionals and services as necessary.

We introduced a duty under the Children Act 2004 for a range of bodies, including children’s services, health services and the police, to have regard to the welfare and safety of children and young people. All local authorities must now also have a local safeguarding children board, to bring together partners to co-ordinate safeguarding services. All local authorities are currently reforming targeted youth support services, to improve how they identify children at risk and prevent their problems from reaching crisis point.

There has been considerable progress in recent years, but we know that there is still more to do to help the most vulnerable children in our society. We took a significant step forward on Monday, when I was delighted to join my hon. Friend at No. 10 Downing street to launch the publication of the young runaways action plan—the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who spoke for the Opposition, mentioned it too, and I noticed that my hon. Friend had a copy in her hand while making her speech. She played a big part in the genesis and development of the action plan, working with us in the Government and all the agencies involved in putting it together. It was a pleasure to launch it with her at No. 10.

The plan sets out our next steps to help and support vulnerable children and young people. I would like to take this opportunity to outline the commitments made in the plan and how they relate to the Bill. It is not a coincidence that my hon. Friend’s Bill has helped us to focus on the right measures to take, which have been outlined in the plan.

Our No. 1 priority is prevention. The earlier we can spot a problem, the better. We must therefore improve our ability to pick out children at risk, identify their problems and try to resolve the underlying issues that make them run away. The youth taskforce will work with local authorities to put the issue of supporting young people at risk of running away at the heart of their targeted youth support arrangements. The action plan also includes a commitment to developing new resources to help schools and youth centres to play a stronger role in educating young people about the risks of running away and in telling them what support is available if they are experiencing problems. There will always be some children who run away, probably no matter what we do—the problem is not a new one, as hon. Members know. The action plan therefore sets out how we will try to improve local services to ensure that they respond more effectively to those who run away.

Every year, about 17,000 young runaways end up sleeping rough, at great risk to their health and safety. We need to do more to ensure that there are safe places for runaways to go while their reasons for running away are addressed. We will be working with the Government offices to help local safeguarding children boards to put in place effective action plans to keep young runaways safe.

A review of existing research on emergency accommodation is already under way. The action plan means that we will investigate with local authorities ways in which they can improve the commissioning of such accommodation at the local, regional and sub-regional levels by this autumn, and we do not intend to stop there. Next spring, we will publish updated guidance on children missing from care and home, ensuring that it joins up with guidance on young people missing from education, and guidance on trafficking and sexual exploitation, to meet the points that the hon. Gentleman made. The new guidance will give local authorities practical examples of how they can support young runaways better.

The support of our partners has been central to the development of the action plan. It is vital that strong local partnerships exist between the agencies concerned with protecting vulnerable children, such as the police. The National Policing Improvement Agency has established a new Missing Persons Bureau to act as an exchange for information connected with the search for missing people and to co-ordinate consistent policing activity in the search for missing people. The bureau designs guidance for police forces, and will fully review the existing guidance on the management, recording and investigation of missing persons.

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of data collection on runaway and missing children. She has quite rightly banged on about that for some time. Ensuring that all parties have access to the right information at local level is crucial to greater co-operation, to effective intervention, and ultimately to ensuring that no young person slips through the net when it comes to getting the right support. That is why we have introduced the new indicator in the national indicator set on young runaways that was referred to earlier.

The new indicator shows the priority that the Government place on improving services for young runaways and will act as a lever to catalyse the change that we need. It will allow local strategic partnerships and children’s trusts to begin to establish the scale of problems in their local area, to put services in place to respond accordingly, and to establish local targets if appropriate. I expect it to facilitate better collections of data about vulnerable young people, and to help to secure effective joint working between children’s services, the police and other local partners. However, to ensure that it achieves those objectives, we will need to see how it works in practice. We are to review the indicator in 2009-10, monitoring it on a quarterly basis, and if the evidence shows that the indicator is not driving better collections of data about this vulnerable group of young people, we will be prepared to consider the introduction of legislation to ensure that that happens.

The indicator will be supported by police data collections, which is another point that my hon. Friend has raised on many occasions. The Missing Persons Bureau is working to ensure that data—including data on young runaways and missing children—can be transferred automatically and electronically from local police forces to the bureau, so that it can develop a national picture of missing persons. To support this work, the bureau is working with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office to introduce guidance on police data collection methodologies that has statutory status as a police code of practice. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that. I note that she is nodding.

This is possibly one of the most significant factors needed to safeguard children. Police forces have many priorities, and the House must make it clear to them that the protection of missing children is essential, as a public protection issue, as is the collection of information so that they can work with local authorities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I hope that this measure will help in regard to her Bob the Builder test of what is needed to fix these problems. I know that she has been calling for it for some considerable time, and I hope that it will be a helpful addition to today’s proceedings.

I fully support the principles behind the Bill. As so often happens with a strong private Member’s Bill, my hon. Friend has been able to use her proposals to achieve many of her objectives so that, rather than implementing the Bill, we now need first to address the issues raised, in order to improve services for young runaways through delivering the commitments set out in the action plan, through the revised guidance to local authorities, and crucially, through the new indicator and the development of the police code on data collections—which, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out, is vital if we are to see whether we have made the required progress.

I expect co-operation between the Government and local partners to build on the successes achieved through Every Child Matters, so that they can flourish over the coming months during the implementation of the action plan. I fully expect cross-agency working to be enhanced by our new data indicator.

Although I am unable to give Government support to the Bill today, I am able to endorse the need for the action that the my hon. Friend has so ably campaigned for—and, quite honestly, so ably won. Through the publication of the action plan—


It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood Adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 17 October.