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Missing Persons

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2010

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Dobbin. Every year, an astonishing 250,000 people in the UK are reported missing to the police, and two thirds of those are under the age of 18. Occasionally, the country can be overwhelmed by public anxiety when faced with awful child abduction cases, such as that of Madeleine McCann, but we remain unaware of the vast majority of cases. I shall talk today about some of the key aspects of the missing persons phenomenon and the problems that families face when their loved ones go missing. I shall also highlight the current risk of closure to both the UK Missing Persons Bureau and the charity Missing People—two agencies that work hand in hand to help missing people and the devastated families they leave behind.

First, let us consider the scale of the challenge. Three quarters of the disappearances reported to the police are resolved in two days, but a significant minority—about 20,000—last longer than a week and 2,500 last in excess of a year. Adults are more likely to remain missing for longer periods than young people, and the National Policing Improvement Agency recently revealed that about 940 bodies found in the UK over the past 50 years remain unidentified. In the region of 10 new cases of unidentified bodies are registered with the Missing Persons Bureau each month.

About 100,000 children aged under 16 run away each year, and 20% will be at high risk of being hurt or harmed. They might sleep rough or stay with someone they have just met. Research suggests that they are at serious risk, exposed to violence, criminality, substance abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking. Other missing people are adults fleeing dysfunctional relationships or experiencing problems at work, or who have become detached from their families through drug and alcohol use and mental health problems. A smaller proportion of disappearances—still a significant number—result from a person going missing unintentionally. Examples include dementia sufferers becoming lost, or people having accidents or becoming victims of abduction and serious crime.

It is estimated that more than 1,000 missing people, including about 50 children, are found dead each year. These include people who take their own lives, who have an accident, who become lost and die of exposure, and who are victims of crime. The problem is far more widespread than most people would ever imagine.

As a local MP and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, I was interested in a recent exercise by Greater Manchester police. They tweeted every incident in which they were involved for 24 hours. In that short space of time, there were 127 calls relating to missing people, including five relating to missing children in my constituency of Stockport alone. That is a lot of people and a lot of anguish. The cases in my area included a 10-year-old boy, two 14-year-olds and one 15-year-old.

Families of missing people can suffer severe emotional problems, as well as significant financial, legal and practical difficulties. At the moment, the police, the Missing Persons Bureau and Missing People work closely together, dovetailing effectively to protect runaways and the devastated families left behind. Yet, as it stands, the very core of the front-line missing persons services is under threat. We face the prospect that, with a single blow, the entire national investment into missing persons could be ended.

As I speak, the closure of the National Policing Improvement Agency places the existence of the Missing Persons Bureau, which is the only UK agency focused exclusively on missing people, under the threat of total closure. The bureau alone possesses the national records for unidentified bodies and helps the police with missing persons investigations up and down the country. It is the UK national and international point of contact for all missing persons and unidentified body cases.

Also, the charity Missing People—which works closely with the police and the bureau, providing a unique service supporting families—is facing the total withdrawal from 1 April of its core Government funding of £500,000, made up of £150,000 from the Department for Education for a runaway helpline and £350,000 from the NPIA. Such a withdrawal will inevitably place the charity, which already works incredibly hard to raise 75% of its funding, at risk.

I want to argue that, instead of removing the missing persons infrastructure, we must maintain investment and underpin it with new legislation which supports existing services and does much-needed filling in of gaps. Britain lags behind the United States, and other European nations, regarding legislation. We simply do not have legislation to protect missing children and adults. At present, if someone’s house is burgled they are automatically offered emotional, practical and legal support; however, if their child goes missing they may get nothing, although they are surely a victim.

To illustrate the scale of the problem and the damage that might be done if we remove the missing persons support provided by the bureau and Missing People, I want to outline the work they do in providing support to families. Each month, the bureau supports an average of 500 cases and conducts some 100 cross-matched searches, while receiving 800 records of missing people. At present, the remains of 940 people have still to be identified; yet that important cross-matching work might cease if non-crime-related services are cut. The vast majority of those bodies represent a devastated family waiting for closure and answers. The matching must continue, so that families no longer have to wait for years for news of their relatives, only to find that they were buried in an unmarked grave or were on the coroner’s slab all along.

Last year, the charity Missing People took 114,000 desperate calls for help. In the past six months alone it has produced 275 of its iconic poster appeals to help bring some of those missing back home. In the same period it provided emotional support for more than 900 families—a service unique to Missing People. It was able to give some of those families the answers they were so desperate for, and to help close almost 340 missing persons cases. Sadly, nearly 1,000 cases are still open. It also provides ground-breaking research. The latest research, to be published shortly, highlights a frightening link between younger men being reported missing after a night out and their bodies later being found in water. We must ensure that young men are educated about that link, so that further deaths can be avoided.

The charity works with the police to provide valuable help in linking unidentified bodies to missing people. Fred and Rosemary West were convicted for killing at least 10 women and children. While the police worked tirelessly to identify the victims, at least half had not been reported missing. Only through the vital help of the then National Missing Persons Helpline—now called Missing People—were three of those anonymous victims finally indentified and their families able to lay them to rest. That is a further striking example of the fundamental importance of joint working between statutory and voluntary agencies.

We have come a long way since the West murders: there has been the 2005 Association of Chief Police Officers guidance on missing persons investigations, to help standardise best practice; the development of better computer systems in most constabularies across the country; and an increase in public awareness of the services provided by the charity Missing People. Despite that great progress, much work still needs to be done. By removing the missing persons infrastructure that our public and voluntary sectors have worked so hard to build up, we would not only deprive those whom it serves but also send a signal to perpetrators of evil crimes that we will not stand up to protect the most vulnerable.

The Government should take a number of steps: first, the vital one of developing a national missing persons database. I understand that a computer system already exists that could do the job, and that is inexpensive and in use by 24 police forces. If there was one system, one log of missing children and adult cases, and one location for the facts and faces of the missing, data-sharing would not be a problem or require expensive solutions.

There should be procedures for recording information and sharing it between the police, children’s services, care homes, Ofsted and the voluntary sector. The information could be used to analyse patterns of running away from home or local authority care. I would also like to see the police working with local authorities to ensure that preventive and intensive support services are available in every area of the country to young people who run away. Currently, only 10% of local authorities have access to young-runaway services. There are only two emergency beds in the whole of the UK, and one in three police forces reports that young people have to stay overnight in police cells because there is no emergency accommodation. The work is currently carried out through local authority data collection for national indicator 71, which is now unfortunately being scrapped.

We need fresh statutory legislation, so that local authorities record how many children and young people are missing in their locality, and to ensure that a return interview is carried out. The police must also have a key role in working with local safeguarding children’s boards to develop a set of multi-agency protocols and procedures for when a child goes missing.

I would also like the Government to consider a Green Paper on missing persons in order to protect missing adults and children. The first steps were set out in work by the Home Office, initiated by the missing persons taskforce, which I hope the Minister can confirm will continue. This need not be an added expense; indeed, in the spirit of the big society, we could use the Green Paper to explore using Missing People staff and volunteers further to support police and families. The charity believes that there is enormous potential to increase the role of individuals and organisations in the local community in resolving cases, safeguarding missing people, preventing disappearances and supporting families. Indeed, Missing People has already made substantial progress in creating networks of organisations to resolve cases more expeditiously, improving outcomes for missing people and their families and delivering cost savings at a local level.

We should require the Missing Persons Bureau to match every single body against every outstanding missing persons case. We should examine legislative opportunities to introduce a requirement in law—this happens for victims of crime—to ensure that every missing person’s family is signposted to Missing People’s free emotional, practical and legal support. We must use legislation to catch up with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations, who have already legislated for the presumption of death. In England and Wales, we have no guidance in cases where a missing person is presumed dead.

My wife was a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross and saw slavers moving people in chains or ropes across south Sudan towards the Arabian peninsula. Does Missing People have any evidence that any of our children are being shipped abroad to become slaves?

I am not sure about that, but I think that Missing People will respond directly to the hon. Gentleman on that very good point. The events we are debating do not happen simply within national boundaries, but go further.

We should make it a duty for a coroner to co-operate with police inquiries into missing people and to provide DNA evidence. Coroners are currently not required to co-operate with missing persons investigations and in some cases fail to provide information that could lead to a body’s being matched with an outstanding missing persons inquiry. I would also like the updated ACPO guidance on the investigation, management and recording of missing persons incidents to be published.

Our banks and insurance companies should have codes of practice to safeguard the families of missing people, who face the prospect of legal battles to safeguard their relative’s estate and, for example, to continue paying a mortgage on a property owned by the missing person.

It is vital that the Government protect the budget for missing persons. Ministers announced a 7% cut to local authority budgets, including a 50% reduction in funding for services for children in care by 2012. Police funding will also be cut. There are few services to support young people who run away, and there is no statutory obligation on, or centralised funding for, local authorities to provide services. Nationally, projects were experiencing reduced funding even before the latest spending cuts.

For the families of the disappeared, every day is a painful place of hope and despair, as they hope for news, but worry that not everything is being done to find their loves ones. We must send them the signal that they will not be forgotten.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing a debate on such an important and sensitive issue. In Medway, in Kent, 65 people were reported as missing, but that number was reduced to 15 through the excellent work of Kent police in partnership with the local authority in Medway.

Time is of the essence, so I will make my points brief. My first point relates to the community policing and case tracking system used first to report that a person is missing. Somebody who has been dealing with these issues for 30 years says of the system:

“I must stress that there are, in my opinion, far too many inconsistencies, duplication, multiple recording, and unnecessary recording, in the data, to rely on the result for any serious statistical purposes, which for a system, which is essentially a management tool, not a bona fide investigative tool, is staggering.”

I ask the Minister to review the system, which is used by a number of constabularies and local authorities around the country.

My second point relates to the hon. Lady’s point about having a national investigation system. Some would say that such a system should be aligned or compatible with murder investigation principles to meet the issue of investigation. At the moment, different constabularies use different systems, so having a national investigation system, as the hon. Lady suggested, would be a key point.

Finally, there is prevention. Local authorities, education services and housing and welfare services should intervene earlier to ensure that those who might go missing get support in the very beginning.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this Adjournment debate on the important subject of missing persons. I should also congratulate her on her appointment as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. I know that she takes a close personal interest in this significant issue, and I very much welcome her contribution and the way in which she approached and highlighted it.

When we talk about missing persons, I am struck by the broader context. In many ways, that context was reflected in today’s contributions. The debate may be linked, for example, to child sexual exploitation and honour-based violence. I very much appreciate that wider context and why we need to focus on dealing with this issue in a serious and measured way. I therefore thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I also thank her and other hon. Members for their contributions. They have taken a measured and considered approach to the issue.

Sadly, missing persons constitute an area of public protection that has, in many ways, not always been regarded as the priority that it should be; in some contexts, it has been regarded as more of a niche subject. However, as my initial comments highlighted, the Government take the issue very seriously, and the same is true of our responsibility to ensure that the response to missing persons is as effective as possible.

The hon. Lady’s remarks were very interesting. Listening to the debate, I was further convinced that greater co-operation and collaboration between all the agencies involved will place us on a more solid platform and help to deliver improved services not only for those who go missing, but for the families and friends who are left behind. The hon. Lady spoke powerfully of the impact that someone’s disappearance has on family and friends, who wonder what has happened to their loved one.

The previous Government looked at the issue, and that resulted in the missing persons task force, which the hon. Lady mentioned. The task force studied the landscape, exposed some of the shortcomings and made 22 recommendations in the appendix to its report, which it published earlier this year. One of my earliest tasks as Home Office Minister with responsibility for missing persons was to examine the task force report with a view to understanding where we are on the missing persons problem and to consider what could be done to improve the response. I was pleased to agree early action to ensure dissemination of existing good practice to police forces, to improve information sharing and to ensure police compliance on the code of practice.

We are in the process of taking that work forward. On good practice, I was pleased to see an ACPO toolkit launched on the police online knowledge area system just over a month ago. POLKA is a useful resource for police forces engaged in missing persons investigations. It includes toolkits governing good practice in identifying found people and a forensic examination toolkit. There are plans imminently to go live with a similar toolkit for forces on parental and familial child abductions. It is however clear to me that more can and should be done to improve the response and equally that real improvements can be achieved if existing structures, agencies and resources work better and more effectively together to ensure that those who go missing and their families are properly supported. I have asked my officials to conduct a review of the full set of task force recommendations by the end of the year to consider what, if any, further action we can take on this important issue, considering the changing landscape, and the way in which certain issues have moved on since the publication of the report.

More generally, it is my firm belief that in the meantime, there is some tangible work that can be done now to create the conditions needed for the kind of close engagement we think necessary.

A lady called Mrs Nicki Durbin, of Hollesley in my constituency, wrote to me about the importance of the issue, in connection with her son, Luke Durbin, who disappeared four years ago. I hear what the Minister says about guidelines, and similar things, but how, in the present stricken times, will he prioritise ensuring that the issue of missing persons does not drop off our police forces’ priority list?

I think that I can give my hon. Friend that assurance on the basis of the action that I have already taken, including the focus being brought to bear by examining the task force recommendations and ensuring that the issue is seen as important for Government. Work has already started, for example, to develop the role of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in relation to missing and abducted children. The centre has already brought its expertise to bear in the relevant area this year through, among other things, a cold case review and work to incorporate missing children elements into existing public and child safety training programmes. I believe that CEOP will bring a great deal of expertise in child protection to the table. I want it to build on its extensive experience of responding to incidents in which children and young people have been vulnerable to abuse.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing to the attention of the House the issue of the future of the statutory and voluntary agencies. Missing children aside, I note from the debate the understandable concern and anxiety among some hon. Members about the future of the National Policing Improvement Agency Missing Persons Bureau. However, let me be clear that no decisions have yet been made on the future of the bureau, either about funding or where functions may sit in the future.

Hon. Members will of course be aware that we launched a policing consultation in the summer, which, among other things, sought views on our plan to create a national crime agency. The consultation has now closed and we will be publishing a summary of the responses and the Government’s position soon. As part of that, work is continuing to determine the exact nature of the role of the NCA and indeed where the respective activities might sit within the new landscape—including those of CEOP and the Missing Persons Bureau, although at this stage no final decisions have been taken.

I note, too, the concerns raised about central Government funding to the Missing People charity. I understand the difficulties that it will cause, but I cannot today make commitments to resources, which as we all know are currently scarce; but I can give a commitment to listen to concerns and look for any opportunities to support the charity in other ways. I met representatives of Missing People in the summer and look forward to meeting them again to discuss the matter further.

I want to refer briefly to the excellent work of Missing People in support of one of my constituents, Dr Alan Smith, whose brother disappeared more than 22 years ago. Missing People did not exist when that happened, but since it has been established it has done excellent work and I urge the Minister to find ways to ensure that its good work can continue, particularly in relation to legal advice. My constituent found that few solicitors he turned to had any idea what advice to give.

I certainly recognise the contribution made by Missing People to the action plan, and the support that it has given. That is why I was keen to have a meeting soon after my appointment. I look forward to discussing some of the issues shortly.

I want to deal with some of the specific points made by the hon. Lady, although I am conscious that time is pressing. If I cannot get through them all in the time available, I shall write to her on any outstanding issues. She raised the matter of support to families when a loved one goes missing. I too feel that nothing could be more important than the need to trace the missing person, but in turn, it is just as critical that families who are left in limbo when their close relatives go missing for the long term should be supported, and that they should know where to turn for help. Ensuring that the families of the missing, and the missing themselves, receive the support they require and deserve is vital to our overall efforts at addressing the problem. Of course, we can never hope to prevent people from going missing if they are determined to do so, but we can ensure that proper mechanisms are put in place to provide the support that is needed.

As with all aspects of public protection, when people go missing, close collaboration between police forces and indeed between police and statutory and voluntary agencies is surely crucial to making an effective response, and ultimately a successful outcome and the resolution of cases, possible. However, those things take time to achieve, as organisations get used to working together towards a common goal. That approach also means a change of mindset and the will to improve, and I am determined that the Government should do what they can to facilitate that.

Ipswich was the place where Luke Durbin went missing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) mentioned. It was also the place where there were, sadly, serial murders of sex workers a few years ago. A critical point arising from the experience of trying to deal with the prostitution trade there is that very small local charities were instrumental in helping to clear up that terrible situation. Many of those concerned were themselves missing people. I want to impress on the Minister the role of very small local charities, many of which are suffering from tendering arrangements in Ipswich.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the valuable and important role of charities and the voluntary sector. They are part of the landscape and the innovative and important work that is done. I appreciate that serious point.

As to body matching, a number of good examples of successful cross-matching already carried out by the bureau prove that the system works fairly well, but there is clearly always room to improve the way those cases are handled, and we will reflect on that further in relation to future work.

The matter of a single database and Compact was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and we need to recognise that the Missing Persons Bureau and the charity Missing People both use a database of missing and found people, including bodies and body parts, called Hermes, which has undergone different modifications at different times in its different locations, resulting in a different complexion for essentially the same system. I am keen that some work should be done to determine the merits of a single database and that there should be better exchange of information on a regular basis between organisations. That should also include an examination of the future shape of Compact, the missing persons case management system, which is already in use in 22 police forces.

With regard to coroners, DNA evidence and a duty to co-operate, coroners already seek to establish the identity of unknown bodies that come into their custody, and that process includes DNA testing. Where a deceased person cannot be identified, the body must be disposed of by the responsible local authority in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, either by burial or cremation. Most coroners already co-operate fully with the police when they have a body in their custody that they cannot identify, and they are likely to respond positively to any local or national strategy, with associated protocols, that may be established. As part of planned changes to the coroner system, announced in a written statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), on 14 October at column 37WS, the Ministry of Justice will be taking forward work to establish improved guidance to coroners on the procedures that they follow in relation to every aspect of post-mortem and related examinations.

I do not pretend that there is not more to do, but I hope that my comments go some way to answering the questions posed by hon. Members and reassuring them that the Government are committed to the issue of missing persons and missing persons services. Early assistance to police forces is already in place through the toolkits, the role of CEOP in relation to missing children is being developed, and future activities by the Missing Persons Bureau are being considered in the light of the policing consultation. There is clearly more work to be done, but I look forward to updating and working with the key agencies to deliver improvements to this important area of safeguarding over the coming months.