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Young Runaways (Sexual Exploitation)

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

This debate is timely, given the growing number of cases of sexual exploitation and grooming of children that have recently hit the headlines in Greater Manchester and elsewhere. Sadly, the latest case involves young girls in the Stockport area, many of whom are repeat runaways. Every five minutes, a child runs away from home or care, and I support the children’s charities’ view that if we can reduce the massive numbers of children and young people running away and going missing from home and care, we can reduce the number of children at risk from violence, drugs, alcohol, sexual exploitation and grooming. It is estimated that 100,000 children run away overnight every year before the age of 16. Missing children will be protected only when they are seen as a priority for every local authority, police force, school, community and youth worker in every part of the country.

I want to thank the Manchester Evening News and its reporter, Jen Williams, for doing a superb job in reporting the plight of Greater Manchester’s runaway and missing children in February this year, including the invaluable role of the Safe in the City project in working with runaways. People in our region were stunned to read that there were 11,819 police reports of children missing in Greater Manchester last year. Of these, 2,281 cases related to children aged 11 or younger. Another shocking figure is that Stockport has the highest number of reports to the police of children running from care across the whole of Greater Manchester at 41% against the regional average of 27%. That reflects not only the higher number of children’s homes in the borough, but the high risk to children living in the borough.

We know from Children’s Society research that children in care are three times more likely to run away and are more likely to appear in police statistics. However, for reasons that I will come to later, there is clear evidence that the number of children in care missing for more than 24 hours is greatly unreported to the Department for Education. I am also concerned, as the Children’s Society research shows, that two thirds of children who run away from their own homes are not reported missing by their parents, meaning that the number of episodes is greater than the available data suggest.

Running away is an important indicator that things are not right in a child’s life. Children’s charities estimate that one in five of those who run away are at risk from serious harm, and many will become involved in the things that worry parents and society the most—drugs, alcohol and falling prey to sexual predators. The recent Barnardo’s report, “Puppet on a string”, states that “going missing” and “disengagement from education” can be key indicators

“that a child is being groomed for sexual exploitation.”

It adds that 51% of the sexually exploited children it was working with when the survey was conducted

“went missing on a regular basis.”

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. There is enormous support across the House for what she is saying. The issue is of such magnitude that it is way beyond party politics, and we have a good opportunity today to discuss it.

Yesterday, I was in Torbay with Devon and Cornwall police to work with stakeholders on child sexual exploitation. Sadly, there have been two large paedophile rings in my constituency, so I have come to understand the devastating impact of such horrendous crimes on young people and their families. The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree—she alluded to this in her speech—that we need good local work where everybody in a community understands and accepts that there is a problem and works together? I heard of some very good examples yesterday—

I know that there is a particular problem in some seaside towns. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we have to have good local partnerships based on good data if we are all to help to overcome the problem. I agree with her.

It has been said that children living in care, particularly residential care, are more vulnerable to targeting by the perpetrators of sexual exploitation. I want to welcome the recent announcement by the Minister of an action plan to tackle child exploitation. It is important that it focuses on the link between running away and child sexual exploitation. Not all children who run away will be sexually exploited. However, all children who are sexually exploited will run away or go missing at some point. Either they will start running away as they become sexually exploited, or they will become sexually exploited as a result of running away.

I also welcome the fact that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, whose headquarters I visited recently, is to take responsibility for missing children. I await with interest its thematic assessment on the extent of child sexual exploitation. I hope that the fact that CEOP will have responsibility for missing children and sexual exploitation means that linking the two issues is now Government policy. I am pleased that there is an interdepartmental ministerial group on missing persons with a lead Minister involving the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Department of Health. That is crucial if there are to be more effective partnerships at a local level.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, I have met Ofsted, the Missing Persons Bureau, CEOP, Greater Manchester police, the Association of Chief Police Officers, West Mercia police, local safeguarding children’s boards, the Children’s Society, Missing People, Railway Children and others. A number of common concerns keep appearing: the ongoing problem with collecting and sharing accurate data; the fact that not all local authorities are adhering to the statutory guidance for children who run away or go missing; and the different priority given to missing children by local safeguarding boards, which are responsible for co-ordinating all actions by local agencies.

On data collection, police forces vary in how they collect and analyse data on missing episodes, making for inconsistencies across the country. Poor data mean that local safeguarding boards will be badly informed. Accurate data would enable an intelligence-led response in each area to find out why children are running away, where they are going and what help they need. This would uncover patterns to prevent future sexual exploitation and enable convictions. I know that the Minister is aware that the collection and evaluation of data is a problem. He has rightly said that gathering data and evidence is the first major step to tackling child sexual exploitation and grooming. He is also right to say that the sexual grooming of children in the UK is a much bigger problem than has previously been recognised.

My hon. Friend has just highlighted an extremely important issue, and I will be interested to hear how the Government intend to resolve it. The Minister is from the Department for Education; the Department of Health is involved; and the police, which are the responsibility of the Home Office, are also involved. The devolved Scottish Government have police, health and social care responsibilities; in my area, Wales, we have the Welsh Assembly; and in Northern Ireland there is another devolved Administration. Yet, in the UK context, child exploitation will cross all those borders. I want to know who holds the reins of responsibility for gathering information across the whole of the UK, because those who wish to indulge in exploitation will not worry about the fact that the Department of Health and the Department for Education happen to apply to England only.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point in relation to the UK as a whole. I, too, will be interested in the Minister’s response.

Looking at the data held by the Department for Education on children missing from care for longer than 24 hours, there is a huge discrepancy between figures on missing children reported to the Department by local authorities and the information that I have gathered separately from police forces. I asked a parliamentary question in March about how many looked-after children in each local authority area were absent for more than 24 hours, but the answers that came back did not correlate with the figures provided to me by local police forces.

Figures provided to the Department for Education by 152 local authorities show that in England in 2010 a total of 920 children were missing from their agreed placement for more than 24 hours. However, figures that I obtained from Greater Manchester police, Kent police and West Mercia police reveal that, in those areas alone, more children in care went missing for longer than 24 hours in 2010 than the 920 recorded by the Department for the whole of England.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I have lost count of the number of times that debates about child exploitation and child and people trafficking have been held in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House. I am pleased to hear that the Government have announced an action plan, but in previous debates we heard that children in this great United Kingdom have been sold at £16,000 a time for men to have their way with them. Young children who have not reached the age of sexual maturity do not know what is happening to them; they feel only the pain. In this day and age in our United Kingdom, we can have all the action plans that we want, but we need to know that they are working and that children are not being put through a horrific experience, which marks them for life.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He has brought home to us the sort of exploitation that we are talking about in his description of what happens to children. It is truly horrible, and he is right to say that we must take all available action to prevent it.

West Mercia police say that 266 children in care went missing for more than 24 hours in 2010, and Kent police figures for 2010 reveal that 826 children were recorded missing for more than 24 hours. However, an answer to a parliamentary question stated that in Stockport only 45 young people were missing from care for longer than 24 hours in the three years from 2008 to 2010. The Department for Education figures that I mentioned earlier are staggering, given that Stockport police has told me that there were 2,014 missing incidents between July 2009 and June 2010, of which 41% were from care homes.

The police have provided me with their most up-to-date figures for Stockport, which cover the first five months of this year up to Friday 17 June. They reveal that the police received 1,070 missing-from-home reports, generated by 284 children in Stockport under the age of 18; of those, 77 were reported missing from care, and they generated a massive 711 reports. Forty-six of the youngsters were missing for more than 24 hours, and of those 25 were from care.

That shows a clear pattern of repeated missing episodes and a consequent vulnerability to abuse, as well as further evidence of gross under-reporting by local authorities. In addition, two thirds of missing incidents from home are not reported by parents. As I have said, there is good evidence that repeated missing episodes are correlated to children being exposed to sexual grooming. If accurate data are not held by the Department for Education and the Home Office, it becomes more difficult to estimate the risk of sexual exploitation to which these children are exposed. It is important that we get it right.

On that point, ACPO pilots are looking at ways of achieving the collection of meaningful data on missing episodes, so as to determine when a child is missing. It is concerned that children’s homes are reporting children missing when a telephone call could establish where the child was.

All the evidence shows that sexual grooming starts by encouraging children to stay away from home, or persuading them to go home late, in order to create parental disputes and thus drive a wedge between child and home. Removing the protection of families and carers is the beginning of the grooming process, and the eventual outcome is the sexual exploitation of the child. The significance of that should not be lost in any redefinition of “missing”.

The “Puppet on a string” report states that the entrapment of children and young people in sexual exploitation does not occur overnight. If a child goes missing for a few hours, there is a danger that professionals will become complacent. However, that is when the child may be at risk from the gradual grooming process that I have described, and these early missing episodes may be the warning signs.

Experience in my constituency, and I suspect in many others, is that the homes may not be able to control the children and keep them in all the time, and the children will always indicate that they have human rights that must be respected. However, is there not a better and more definite way, with the homes and the local police co-ordinating on those who habitually stay out late or who may not return until the early hours of the morning? Could more not be done by the police, the local homes and the local authorities?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. We must have proper arrangements between children’s homes and the local police. If they do not work together, we will be unable to prevent children from going missing; and we will not know where those children who are that do go missing. He has made an important point.

Barnardo’s says that those who exploit children are all too aware of how the system works:

“These heartless men and women understand the police procedure on runaway children and know if a child goes missing on a regular basis, for a short period of time and then returns home safely, the case is unlikely to attract much attention.”

Turning to statutory guidance, another concern is the mixed picture that not all local authorities are adhering to the statutory guidance on children who run away from home or care, which was published in 2009. The guidance states that local authorities should have procedures in place for recording and sharing information between police, children’s services and the voluntary sector, and that the local authority should have a named person responsible for children and young people who go missing or who run away and that there should be return interviews.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the independent return interview. As the Children’s Society has demonstrated, children are more willing to disclose what has happened to them to adults whom they do not perceive to be in authority. A 16-year-old at Manchester’s Safe in the City project said:

“It was horrible. I felt I could not talk to anyone—friends, family, police, teachers—no-one.”

Eventually, however, the child did talk to the Children’s Society.

I have asked a number of parliamentary questions about implementation of the guidance, but I have been repeatedly told that the information is not held centrally. Implementing statutory guidance should be a high priority for local authorities. Local safeguarding children’s boards have a responsibility to protect children in their areas. The young runaways action plan 2008 asked safeguarding boards to evaluate the risk of children running away and to put action plans in place. The Children’s Society’s “Stepping Up” report found that half of the local authorities surveyed had no protocol for managing cases of children and young people who are missing from home.

According to recent research by the international centre for the study of sexually exploited and trafficked young people at the university of Bedfordshire, there are protocols for responding to sexual exploitation in less than a quarter of local safeguarding children’s boards. Ten years on from the introduction of the dual strategy of protecting young people and proactively investigating their abusers, a third of the country has no plans for the delivery of such a strategy.

An increasing proportion of the sexual grooming of children now takes place online. I imagine that policing that is complex and difficult and that it involves many officers. It is important that funding is kept in place, and if possible increased, to deal with what is a horrific crime.

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is crucial that resources are available to support such initiatives and actions, because without those resources the actions will be meaningless.

Ofsted has a duty to inspect general safeguarding in an area, yet in a letter to the director of children’s services in Stockport in December 2010 following an annual children’s services assessment, it stated:

“In reaching this assessment, Ofsted has taken account of arrangements for making sure children are safe and stay safe.”

Astonishingly, in that letter and in the assessment itself, there was not one mention of the number of missing incidents reported to the Stockport police in that year. I am not clear how an assessment can be made of how well local safeguarding boards are discharging their responsibilities in relation to missing children, but one way might be for Ofsted, in its inspection of safeguarding in local areas, to assess whether local authorities are implementing statutory guidance in relation to the safeguarding of missing children. Another way might be for local safeguarding boards to publish information annually on numbers of missing children in their area together with the actions that they have taken and the outcomes of their interventions. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that. It is important that the statutory guidance is fully implemented in local areas, because such guidance is there for a purpose.

Furthermore, I want to see the development of early intervention programmes that target children who are at risk of running away. The Munro report stressed the value of early help in the area of child protection. I realise that funds are limited, but existing resources—education, health and police—could be used more effectively by developing innovative ways in which we can work with parents and voluntary agencies.

The hon. Lady has been generous to us all with the amount of times that she has given way. Does she agree that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has an important role to play? Many new tools have been made available for young people, teachers, parents and carers to raise awareness of the issues of being groomed online.

I agree with the hon. Lady. I will emphasise that point later in my speech.

There is good practice. We have seen proactive police work in West Mercia, and projects such as Safe in the City Manchester and SAFE@LAST in South Yorkshire demonstrate the value of good local partnerships. It is vital that children’s charities and projects that help young runaways continue to receive resources. I am concerned to hear about the disproportionate cuts that are being made to such valuable projects at a local level.

All local authorities and police forces need to understand the link between missing episodes and the vulnerability to harm that it indicates, which needs to be a high priority for child protection and safeguarding in every area of the country.

An early-day motion on guardianship was tabled in the House in 2010. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is a way in which to deal with children who have gone through this horrific situation? I understand that guardianship is a requirement of the Council of Europe, and it may be an avenue that we can explore.

I agree that we must consider all possibilities. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this issue and a commitment to improve the situation for children.

In relation to Ofsted, I welcome the publication of the new minimum standards for children’s homes that came into force in April 2011. It set out how children’s homes should develop relationships and work with police forces to safeguard children and young people in their area.

I am also pleased that the recent Ofsted consultation on the new framework for inspection of schools includes an assessment of pupil behaviour and safety. Teachers and other school staff are in a prominent position to help children who run away from home or care and to identify behaviour, including absences, which may be indicative of serious issues in the child’s life. The all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults emphasises the connection between missing episodes and vulnerability to serious harm, including sexual exploitation, in its response to the Ofsted consultation.

We should focus on prevention, which means involving parents and children themselves. I would like all schools to provide information about the risks relating to running away and how children can get help if they are thinking of running away. The subject should also be included in the school’s curriculum, where it is appropriate. There should also be information available for parents about what to do if their child runs away or goes missing.

I welcome the fact that CEOP is going to make the prevention of running away a new educational theme, when it takes over responsibility for missing children on 1 July. I would also like to see all professionals in children’s social care and education being trained in risks relating to children running away to ensure that they can identify such children and refer them to the appropriate services. Such training should also be in the forthcoming youth strategy.

The harm that is done to a child abused for sex is incalculable. Children live with it for the rest of their lives and are haunted by the memories of their experiences. Some never recover, which applies not only to children but to families. We should not forget that children who live in caring families can also be targeted and groomed.

I recently attended a meeting of the coalition for the removal of pimping at which parents whose children had been groomed talked about their experiences. Two of my constituents spoke up and said that their pain will last a lifetime. They said that they were not listened to when they expressed concern to local agencies. They said:

“Our experience was that, at that stage, social services seemed to be focusing much more on our inadequate qualities as parents, rather than on the significant risk of child sexual exploitation, which we had brought to their attention.”

Their daughter subsequently gave detailed accounts of having been kept in flats in various parts of Greater Manchester and both sexually abused and sold for sex. Her evidence led to the eventual conviction of 10 men. The parents said that

“the traumatic nature of her experiences has caused her lasting psychiatric problems, including severe self-harm and has also resulted in one of us being off work for a period of two years through the stress of coping with this extended family trauma.”

Parents must be listened to, helped and supported if we are to prevent sexual grooming of children. This is not an issue that divides the political parties, and we must all work together for the sake of our children.

I congratulate the Minister on his commitment and on his positive responses. Together with his colleagues in the Department for Health and the Home Office, he has announced a number of initiatives that deal with the concerns expressed by parents and children’s charities. Sexual exploitation is an abomination, and no excuse can be offered by the perpetrators. Together, we must ensure that everybody working in this area understands the link between missing children and harm from sexual abuse and exploitation; that that training is given a high priority at a local level; that statutory guidance on runaways is fully implemented; and that local agencies work together with parents, children and children’s charities. It is only then that we will be able to protect and safeguard our children in the future from some of the horrific experiences suffered by our children in the past. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this timely debate and on leading the work on this issue. Helen Southworth, her predecessor as Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for runaways and missing children, also made an enormous contribution. The all-party group’s inquiry three years ago resulted in the action plan and then the statutory guidance on runaways. It is rather sad to hear today that that guidance is not being fully implemented, and it shows that, as politicians, our work is never finished. Even when we think that we have made progress and produced the paperwork, the action is not taking place. Perhaps worst of all, the action is patchy over the country.

The hon. Lady referred to the lack of data. It is incredible to think that most children who run away are not reported as missing to the police by their parents or guardians. The problem of the lack of data is obviously compounded by the fact that there are different police and local authority responses. Added to that we have the issue of trafficked children, of which we do not know the full extent. It is difficult to see how we can move forward without more data. What we have at the moment is raised awareness, sadly because of the stories and the prosecutions that are being reported currently. It makes us reflect on the society that we live in that these practices can happen and that we have been so unaware of them as a nation.

Why does the hon. Lady think that there is such a variation between the statistics that come from the police and those that come from central Government? Does she think that, as a society, we are trying to cover over a problem and that we are not facing the depth of the statistics? Also, does she agree that behind each of these statistics there is a vulnerable child, many of whom are hurting and who will carry that hurt to the end of their days? We had better get the statistics right, before we can know that the action plan will address the problems.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In many ways, he is right. However, I am not convinced that there is a deliberate cover-up. It is actually a case of our being blinkered and not recognising what is happening out there. That is why today’s debate is so timely, because sadly we have so much evidence to refer to.

I want to compliment the many organisations that work day-in and day-out on this issue. Obviously there is Barnardo’s, and its report, “Puppet on a string”, is a really important contribution. There is also the Children’s Society, which has engaged in long-standing work in this sector, and there are so many others. All of that work is important, but we must grasp the hour. People accept that there is a problem, but we are still not very good at recognising it in our own communities. It still tends to be a case of people saying that it happens elsewhere. I could easily say in Dorset, “Oh, it’s up there in the north”, but it is very important that we recognise this is happening throughout our country.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and she is making a very important point, because I think that people do not want to believe that this is happening in every village, every town and every city. I am very concerned by what I think are inadvertent comments about, say, seaside towns having a problem, or big cities having a problem. In fact, this is happening everywhere.

I think that is absolutely right and we really need to endorse that point.

The interlinking of issues is incredibly important. The issue of running away must be addressed in conjunction with the issue of sexual exploitation, because children who run away will be in greater danger of being sexually abused or exploited. Equally, children who are being sexually exploited are likely to run away. So we must look at the issues together.

We must also appreciate that there are specific groups of children who are more likely to run away. The hon. Member for Stockport made the point that the entrapment of children and young people in sexual exploitation does not happen overnight. Therefore, we must look at the aspect of vulnerability. It is well documented that children in care often run away, but the hon. Lady pointed out that there is a lot of missing data. Children who are facing difficulties in school may well be runaways. Children involved in drugs and alcohol, children in trouble with the police, and the disabled or those with learning difficulties are all vulnerable too. We must think about vulnerability for a moment. Although we might think that the vulnerable are most likely to be entrapped, somebody who has become entrapped will, in turn, become more vulnerable. That makes it so important for us to get everything in place.

I was struck as I read the various reports on this issue that evidence or clues can be picked up in schools. For example, in Emma’s story in “Puppet on a string” it says that she either missed school or behaved badly when she was at school. Missing school is clearly quite an important aspect. So, can the Minister specifically say how his Department will react if the Education Bill passes in its current form, removing the duty on schools, including academies and further education colleges, to co-operate with local authorities? I have expressed before how concerned I am about removing that duty, and the Bill’s explanatory notes state:

“These bodies will be able to decide for themselves how to engage in arrangements to improve well-being.”

I can see that there are arguments for not loading unnecessary bureaucracy on schools and colleges, but if the duty is removed, what on earth will fill the gap? I would really like the Minister to answer that question because there seems to be such an opportunity to identify potential problems at school. The hon. Member for Stockport referred to the obvious need to fully train teachers and social workers, but if we are not going to be blinkered and fail to pick up what is before our eyes we must ensure that everything is joined together.

I would also like to make a brief point about age. I think we became aware of the issue of age during the inquiry on missing children and people that is being led by the hon. Member for Stockport. I worry about classifying, in this context, a child as being someone under 18 because a vulnerable 19 or 20-year-old can be much more like a child than someone under that age. We have to be very careful about being so age-specific because we start to make assumptions. Some work carried out by the Children’s Society, the NSPCC and the university of York states that professionals tend to assume that older children are more capable of looking after themselves. The reality, of course, is that all children are different, and young adults might not have the maturity to cope.

We should either be flexible about 18 being a cut-off for children’s services or ensure that adult social services work really closely with children’s services, and I ask the Minister to consider that gap. We heard a story in evidence of a young man who went missing aged 19 and who, four years on, still has not been found. The police were just not listening to the mother. They said, “Well, he’s just a young man who’s gone off,” even though she said, “But he always phones me.” A teenager from a tight-knit family home will be different in terms of whether they are likely to go off without telling anyone, so it is so important to listen to everyone.

We need this issue to be a priority across all services. We first need to acknowledge the problem of runaways and missing people, and then see the connections between that and sexual exploitation. We need full prevention services, support for families and young people, and consistent responses from the police and local authorities, with everyone working together to truly make children and young people a priority in our society and to ensure that they are properly protected.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on raising this extremely important issue, which affects rural and urban constituencies across the country. It is important to have a co-ordinated Government response.

I want to focus on a couple of key areas, which have been touched on already. My hon. Friend’s points about prevention, assessing vulnerability, recording school absence and supporting parents of vulnerable children are extremely important, and I have no doubt that the Department for Education will fulfil those roles very strongly. I particularly want to focus on the operation of the new agency that from 1 July will take on the National Policing Improvement Agency’s responsibilities. In a former life I was Minister with responsibility for policing, and we had the National Policing Improvement Agency looking closely at these issues as part of its role with missing children under the Missing Persons Bureau. We and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), along with the then hon. Member for Warrington South, Helen Southworth, began the process of looking at how to compile the action plan for an effective response to this issue.

I do not want to make a party political point—this is not a party political issue, as the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) said—but will the Minister clarify how the new responsibilities will operate from 1 July? He is not a Home Office Minister, but it was announced yesterday that he is preparing an action plan, along with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is the Minister with responsibility for crime. How does he visualise the new agency operating from 1 July? I would welcome, in particular, a commitment that the previous budget for the NPIA will not in any way be diluted in relation to the operation of the new agency from 1 July.

It is important that we look at what that does in relation to the important issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. What is the guidance given to police forces, and how will the new agency work with local authorities, not just in the Minister’s area of responsibility—England—but, as I mentioned when I intervened on my hon. Friend, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? We have four devolved Administrations dealing with the issues of children’s homes, education and vulnerability. It is important that the central UK agency has a responsibility for examining and pulling together that information, because although Wales has 40 parliamentary seats and the Welsh Assembly deals with its responsibilities, it is important to note that my constituency is a border constituency—it is 2 miles from the English border—and people can operate in Chester and deal with schools and colleges in my constituency.

From the right hon. Gentleman’s own experiences in the previous Administration, will he enlighten us on what co-ordination existed between the Westminster Government and the devolved Administrations in tackling this issue?

If I am honest, it could have been better. One of the things that we tried to do was to look at how to make it stronger. Devolved Administrations, by their nature, wish to maintain an element of control over their areas of responsibility. We had a ministerial steering group, which included Ministers from the Department of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Home Office, but we have to improve the liaison with the devolved Administrations. It is an important issue. There are UK-wide paedophile rings. Children can go missing form north Wales and end up in Liverpool or Manchester, and children from Glasgow can run to London. Co-ordination is, therefore, important and I am not clear about how the new responsibilities will improve it or about what the Minister’s vision is for that co-ordination throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that the Minister will take this responsibility extremely seriously, but it would help if he outlined his vision of a UK response and whether or not the Home Office, which has still not devolved responsibility for policing to Northern Ireland or Scotland, has a central role in managing the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport has touched on the issue of guidance to police forces and has referred to an article in yesterday’s Times, the headline of which was, “Police ‘must be more aware of grooming’: Ministers call for action amid mounting concern”. As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said, that was an issue when I was a Minister and it continues to be an ongoing issue. What will the Minister do differently to improve the co-ordination?

How will the Minister judge the difficult issue of success in three years’ time? We need an assessment of that so that we can judge the success of the plan as a whole. I genuinely do not know whether he has sufficient information about the number of cases involving runaway children—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport mentioned that issue—or about how many prosecutions have occurred, what is happening in relation to support for changing the behaviour of offenders downstream, or how we are to look at the overall picture of long-term prevention.

I would welcome some clarification from the Minister about what he judges to be “success”. We want to see fewer runaway children; we want to see fewer children becoming victims of sexual abuse; and we want to see more prosecutions. As I say, however, I would welcome clarification about how he will judge “success” in due course.

In addition, I would welcome clarification on another issue that has been touched on in the debate, which is co-ordination. How will we improve co-ordination, not only on policing issues but on the issues of tracking and vulnerability within the European Community, and indeed elsewhere? There will be potentially more trafficking of children into and out of the UK by European gangs. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport made some very important points today. My contribution is simply to say that the Minister will have the support of the Opposition to do whatever he can to improve the situation for runaways. However, I think this is an opportunity for him to give both Members who are here in Westminster Hall today and the outside world some clarification about what the new agency will mean, in terms of budget, guidance, information gathering, impact on police and local authorities, and in pulling together a co-ordinated response on a UK-wide basis, so that people do not slip through the net because we only have a patchwork of individuals that are responsible for safeguarding, policing and providing advice and support across the country, and indeed across Europe. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.

Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Turner.

I join Members from all parties in congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the work that she does as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. Her commitment to vulnerable children in Stockport and right across the country is admired across the House. Those children, who may never have heard of her, have reason to be thankful that they have such a powerful advocate who battles for their rights in Parliament.

I also pay tribute to the work of the Children’s Society, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s for their work in highlighting the experiences of children in care. The recent report by Barnardo’s, “Puppet on a string”, was a particularly important contribution to raising awareness of this issue. One thing that has emerged throughout this debate is the importance of raising awareness of this issue and of ensuring that people have an opportunity to do so at an early stage.

My hon. Friend highlighted the tremendous work done by the Manchester Evening News in bringing to the public’s attention the plight of vulnerable children in the city of Manchester and the surrounding area, and I echo her comments in that regard.

This debate has been very important and very timely, and the message must go out from Parliament today that we are entirely united in fighting the evil of people, including pimps, who prey upon our most vulnerable children, and that no stone will be left unturned in that fight. We must show that this House is united in our determination to protect the most vulnerable.

Members expressed very powerfully the revulsion that we all feel about people who would inflict the horror of prostitution upon children and there is also very powerful evidence in the “Puppet on a string” report about child prostitution. When we, sitting in our relatively privileged position as Members of this House, think back to our own first sexual experience—I was lost in reverie for a moment—for most of us it will hopefully have been a happy one that we look back on with joy and, in some cases, pride. For others, the memories might not be so golden. However, the important point is that the development of our sexual identity is a vital part of who we become as people, how we see ourselves as adults and our path into adulthood.

When we, as parents, look forward to the lives that our children will lead, we hope that that important first sexual experience will be positive. We think about how it would feel for our children or, indeed, any children to look back on their first sexual experience not with fond memories, but with harrowing memories and to see sex and sexual experience as a time of fear. Such children might look back on that first trip into adulthood and recognise the fear that, at the end of the sexual experience, if they failed to comply, their lives would be in danger. That is a shocking and harrowing thought for us all, and gives us the determination to stamp out this evil and work together to ensure that these experiences are reduced for children in vulnerable circumstances.

In our speeches, it is certainly true that we have shown a united determination to stamp out this despicable trade—the sexual exploitation of children—throughout the United Kingdom. However, although we have had numerous debates, we do not have the appropriate and accurate data to get to the very heart of the problem. Surely, actions—our actions—will speak a lot louder than the words we utter in these debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport focused heavily on the importance of strengthening the data we have. I will refer to that in more detail later. She exposed graphically our failure to identify the scale of the problem. The fact that the number of police reports of missing children is so dramatically different from the number that are being reported to local authorities exposes that failure graphically. The Minister has identified that the importance of evaluating stronger data is the starting point for trying to improve the situation. We absolutely agree with that. Just to finish the point I was making, we all recognise the damage that is caused. For many people, that scar will never be washed clean.

I would like to reflect on the contribution to the debate made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. She particularly focused on three things. The first was the chasm between the figures reported by local authorities and the numbers reported to the police. I am interested to hear from the Minister how he anticipates us improving the situation. Do we need more stringent standards in reporting, or is it about the measure against which children’s homes are judged? Specifically, is the accuracy of those responsible for reporting something that should be judged?

As I said, the Minister has focused on the importance of data collection and evaluation. I would like to know more about how we can address that. Is there a role for Ofsted in measuring local authorities’ implementation of statutory guidance, because considerable evidence has been highlighted today that shows how much worse the figures are than anyone realised? In the case of some two thirds of incidences of children going missing from home, the fact is not reported to the police by parents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport also reflected on the importance of the link between running away and sexual exploitation and grooming. This debate is important in raising awareness, and we must do so across the board.

Much of our debate today is about vulnerable children and children in care, but sexual exploitation may occur in families where there is no apparent evidence of things having gone wrong, where the parents have done everything as perfectly as any of us as parents can do, and when there is no evidence to the outside world that there may be a problem. The Barnardo’s report includes a powerful and insightful description of a child who had had a happy upbringing, and discovered that he was gay when he became a young man. He started to go with friends to find like-minded people, but was caught up in a web of paedophilia. The evidence is harrowing. Parents may have no experience or expectation of their children becoming mixed up with such people, and they need a lot more support from us all to enable them to talk about it, and to ensure that their worries are treated seriously and that they have a powerful voice supporting them.

Awareness must be raised among the police, particularly when the focus is on front-line policing. Support must be given to police forces, and we must ensure that vice-ring and paedophile units are not reduced in difficult financial circumstances. Youth workers have an important role to play in identifying the prospects of children coming to harm. They must work closely with children’s homes to ensure that training is available—this was raised by several hon. Members—to the staff to identify children who are at risk, because patterns and regularity of children going missing is a sign that something serious is wrong. Awareness among schoolteachers must be raised, because there is considerable evidence that regular absence from school may be a sign that something sinister is wrong. Awareness is important, not just of the number of separate incidents, but of their regularity.

The question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport asked the police identified that 77 children were reported as being missing for more than 24 hours, and there were 711 reports. That shows the scale of how often some children go missing. There is a danger that when the police or a children’s home sees the same child go missing and then return, it is taken less seriously, but the evidence suggests that that is when we should be most worried.

My hon. Friend highlighted the patterns and tactics used by pimps and others engaged in criminal vice activities. I spoke to a woman who had worked in a hostel with young adults who had often just left care and who were targeted in a similar way. She said that people would often wait outside the hostel to try to encourage those vulnerable young adults to go with them, when they would be given gifts and attention, and were made to feel good about themselves, but their circumstances soon became bleak. They were often targeted because people in that environment knew how vulnerable they were and recognised that they were a soft target. When they succumbed, and started to feel good about themselves because someone was paying attention to them, the situation quickly changed, and they were in a situation of the utmost danger.

[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]

The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) spoke about the importance of raising awareness and the impact of alcohol and drug dependency on children. Alcohol and drugs are sometimes the reason children fall into the wrong hands, but they are also often a crutch once children have got into a situation that they feel unable to react against. The hon. Lady also cautioned strongly against removing the statutory duty and strongly emphasised the importance of us all working together.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke about the importance of partnerships, and that came across in other contributions. It is important that our police, health services, youth workers, schools and other organisations work together. My right hon. Friend, who represents a north Wales constituency close to the English border, made an important point about how we ensure that there is co-ordination across the border with the devolved authorities, and it would be good to learn more about that. He also requested clarity about how CEOP will operate and wanted to confirm that the budgeting will remain in place for its important work.

Labour Members recognise the Minister’s commitment to do something, and I echo the offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport of our complete support for his work. We support his inter-departmental working group, which recognises the importance of partnership working. Many bodies have a responsibility for raising awareness, influence it and play a role. The Minister has direct control over partnerships such as those involved in youth services, local authority reporting and schools. There is also the responsibility of children’s homes to take their duty seriously, so that they do not phone the police when a simple phone call to someone else could identify where children are. If we can reduce the work that the police have to do to identify where children are, they can focus more directly on serious problems that are identified.

There are other partnerships that the Minister can influence. We spoke briefly about the importance of prosecution. A number of new offences were created by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but it is worrying that there have been too few prosecutions, as has been identified. Often in the situations that we are discussing, the police will seek to prosecute people for other offences, but given the evidence of the number of sexual offences being committed, we need to ensure that there are more prosecutions for them. Sentencing is obviously also important.

As I said, it is important that the police have in place the resources in these difficult circumstances to ensure that they can pursue what is often complicated work. It is important that the partnership between children’s homes and their local police forces works well and that there is proper training, support, respect and partnership working. I also welcome the action plan looking into the link between children running away and sexual exploitation.

It is important to recognise that the previous Government took this issue very seriously and published guidance for local authorities and professionals in 2009. It is disappointing that that guidance appears not to have been followed in many cases. It is important to see how we can work better with local authorities to ensure that the well-meaning measures that have been put in place deliver what we want.

We have a responsibility and a duty to do more for our most vulnerable children and to support children and families on whom this nightmare is visited, apparently from nowhere. It sickens us and it is abhorrent that such things continue to happen in our society, but that reinforces our determination to work together. This problem unites us, and we say very powerfully that it is too important not to work together to ensure that we deliver that safer world that our children deserve.

I welcome our Chair—he appears to have lost some hair since the beginning of the debate. We have had a very good debate with well-informed contributions, a great consensus about the importance of the matter and a determination to pick up the baton and ensure that we bring about effective action.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), not just on her excellent in-depth and well-informed speech—one would expect it to be so—but on the enormous amount of work she has been doing on the subject, raising its profile in this place and beyond, including in the national media, well beyond the confines of her constituency. I am sure that she, too would pay tribute to the work of Helen Southworth, her predecessor in the all-party group on child protection, who started that work. The hon. Lady is genuinely passionate about making a different to the lives of young runaways, as am I, and I am particularly concerned about the preponderance of children in the care system who fall into these dangers, and I have been working on the issue for some time. I hope that we can continue that work and step it up a gear in the future. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her constructive arguments, and for her communications on this and related subjects.

I will respond to the hon. Lady’s detailed points about data collection, and about the roles of local authorities and local safeguarding children boards in particular, in a few minutes, and I will also pick up as many as possible of the points made by other Members before I make what is a fairly lengthy speech but which I might have time to get through.

I want to say at the outset that I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s view that young runaways and missing children are a very vulnerable group of people who desperately need and deserve our protection. As she has said, the figures are alarming, with an estimated 100,000 children going missing every year—and that is just the ones we know about. That is one child under the age of 16 every 10 minutes, one in five of whom is likely to be at serious risk of being hurt or harmed by sleeping rough or staying with someone they have just met. The figures are stark. The experiences and alarming figures that the hon. Lady draws on from her own constituency are perhaps a result of her local children’s services department and the police being more savvy about the problem and therefore better at detecting it, thus artificially inflating the figures. I do not underestimate the importance of the problem in her constituency but, as she knows, I spent a week there on the front line with social workers last year, and I know that they are aware of the problem and are determined to do something about it.

We also know that young runaways are often affected by other problems, and surveys have suggested that about one third of them have reported problems with substance misuse or involvement in crime, and we have heard about other difficulties, including mental health issues and domestic violence. Although many missing children fortunately return safely, many suffer harm and exploitation while they are missing and some, of course, never return. Once they are on the streets, children can find themselves with few options and no one safe to turn to, leaving them very vulnerable to exploitation by those who would harm them or seek to gain from their misfortune. In some cases—too many cases—that includes sexual exploitation, the profile of which, I am very pleased to say, has been raised.

As the hon. Lady points out, there is a strong link between children going missing and children suffering from sexual exploitation, and I can confirm, as she requested that I do, that the Government’s action plan on sexual exploitation will take full account of that linkage. As she indicated, the connection works in both directions: children who go missing are at risk of sexual exploitation and children who are being exploited are more likely to run away from home or care. That is a Catch-22 situation, which the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also mentioned, and I absolutely agree that that is the case. Ever since the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and I really tried to take a grip of this subject earlier in the year, I have been very clear that the problem is much bigger than we appreciate. The more work we do, the more alarmed people will be by the scale of the problem and by how widespread it is.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) said that the problem was not exclusively urban, but existed in market towns and rural areas, as she knows from her own experience—I have met with her and her local police. The problem is also classless, affecting many middle-class, apparently stable families, with children running away from home for all sorts of reasons. We must open our eyes to the extent and range of the problem.

Understanding what young people in such situations go through is absolutely essential to learning lessons and improving our responses to the problem in future. The hon. Member for Stockport has arranged for the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults to meet later today to hear the voices of former young runaways. I will attend that meeting, as will the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins). I was going to say that I am looking forward to hearing young people’s stories, but that is not quite the phrase to use, given how harrowing such stories are. It is important, however, to hear those real-life experiences.

I will now take up a few of the points made, before returning to my substantive speech. The hon. Member for Stockport made a telling point when she said that removing the protection of parents or carers is part of the grooming process—she is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the BBC and the “Eastenders” programme for the storyline run a few months ago—very harrowing, realistic and “in your face”, involving the character Whitney Dean and how she was enticed away from her family by someone who she thought cared for her but in fact was exploiting her, benefiting and profiting in a most nasty way from her misfortune. The wedge driven between her and what stability she might have had with family and friends was key to the exploitation taking place.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the importance of interviews with returning runaways. Absolutely—we need to know the reasons why they run away because, hopefully, we can then support that particular home, family or care establishment, as well as learn lessons for other children and young people in a similar situation.

The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) asked a substantial range of questions, all pertinent and many born of his considerable experience, not least as police Minister in the previous Government. His point about cross-border and cross-departmental considerations was fair. I am the lead Minister on the subject in the Westminster Government, liaising particularly closely with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, as well as with the Department of Health and beyond.

This crime, however, does not respect borders and I am aware of some unjoined-up gaps in our links with the devolved parts of the United Kingdom, which I aim to plug. Once we have a grip on the action plan that we are developing and will publish later this year, I will also have conversations with colleagues in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The problem also goes beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. I am only too well aware of problems we had in West Sussex, with young girls being brought in as unaccompanied asylum seekers from west Africa—Nigeria and Sierra Leone, in particular—only to be trafficked out of the country and ending up in the sex trade in north Italy.

May I ask that, as part of the development of the action plan, the Minister formally consults with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly before publication, to see if there are areas in which joined-up government can operate effectively to tackle the issue?

I think that is essential. In the same way, the inter-ministerial group on trafficking, which the Minister for Immigration chairs and on which I represent the Department for Education, has provided links. Our meetings have included counterparts from the other parts of the United Kingdom, physically and by video conference. Such discussions are essential, and officials are already having them, but I want to have them at a ministerial level as well, and that input is needed for the action plan. That is absolutely right. Of course, organisations such as the NSPCC and ChildLine, which we have funded, are UK-wide as well. It is important that we learn from that experience throughout the UK, too.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about funding and how the new arrangements from 1 July would work. I am not the relevant Home Office Minister, but some of the services that CEOP will provide in the future are currently provided by the National Policing Improvement Agency missing persons bureau, and associated funds will therefore be reallocated from the NPIA to CEOP to reflect those new responsibilities. The new set-up will add to the provision of educational resources and training for the police, supporting police operations through targeted research and analysis, providing operational support for forces dealing with missing children by extending the CEOP one-stop shop to include online missing children resources, and ensuring that co-ordination arrangements and capability are in place to manage complex or high-profile missing children cases.

A lot of preparation has gone into this work, and as the hon. Member for Stockport saw on her visit, CEOP is very well placed to deal with these issues. It has very competent people, including Peter Davies at its head, who really understand this problem and are very keen to take it on.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned the action plan—the fact that it needs to be a plan that results in action. The right hon. Member for Delyn cast a slightly difficult googly about how I would assess whether it had worked or not. Good guidance was published as part of “Working Together to Safeguard Children” back in 2009. The problem was that there was not an associated action plan. It is a very good piece of guidance—on a shelf, in a manual. I am absolutely determined in this area, as in many other areas of child protection, that we should not just write something down but pick it up and run with it and ensure that everyone is doing their bit towards it. That is why, through the Munro review and associated activity, I want to ensure that all the players in this are being monitored and are contributing, to make sure that the action plan produces results. That is essential.

We do need to get the statistics right. I think that it was the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) who made the point that I am thinking of in this regard. All colleagues present from Northern Ireland contributed and all made very good points, so I apologise if I get confused about which hon. Member made which point. With regard to the problems in relation to data, several hon. Members—I will come on to this in more detail—have slightly confused apples and pears. The data count different things. We have referred to different aspects of the data. They are not comparable, as they are different. The nationally collected data are specific to children missing from care for over 24 hours and do not include, for example, repeat disappearances by the same child, whereas local data do and may include children who have only just gone missing. There is no attempt to cover up, but we do have different sets of data. That reinforces to me the need to ensure that we know which sort of data we are applying to which problem. That is a problem, and one of the things that must come out of the action plan is all of us knowing where we are coming from on that.

I think that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the problems with residential homes. Of course, only a small proportion of children in care are in residential homes, but we do need to do much better in terms of how they liaise with local police in particular. I know that from personal experience. I think that in Worthing, which is partly in my constituency, there are now no fewer than 10 independent children’s homes, and there have been a lot of problems with children running away and the police getting involved.

Many points were made about data collection, and CEOP was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who is no longer here. It is very good to see the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) here again, contributing in a debate on children’s issues, as she and I did for many years in opposition. She made a lot of well informed and sensible points. She was right to start by saying that the politician’s job is never finished. We have to keep at this. It is not just a question of producing the booklet, producing the glossy brochure, producing the action plan and ticking the boxes. We have to keep people’s feet to the fire—one of my hon. Friends would always use that phrase. Practice is patchy, and I want to ensure that every local authority and agency is working to the standard of the best and using the same rulebook and manual so that we all know what we are talking about and the precise problem that we are trying to tackle.

I mentioned the problem of recognition of data. Part of the difficulty is lack of recognition of the problem, so that it is not a priority in certain areas. That must stop.

The hon. Lady mentioned another point that she and others have made before, about the duty to co-operate. We could have a whole debate just on that subject—and indeed that debate is happening on the Education Bill currently going through Parliament. However, under other education legislation—I think, from memory, the Education Act 1996 and the Education Act 2002—schools of all types have a duty to safeguard, watch, maintain and promote the welfare of the children in them. Schools are an important part of local safeguarding children boards. I want the groups in question to come together not because they must, but because they want to in the best interests of the children they are responsible for, and because they can get the best results by sitting at the same table, and acting and talking together.

On the hon. Lady’s other point about children over the age of 18, the transition issue is a particular one for children in care, those with learning difficulties and those who are just not grown up enough, who are more likely to be exploited. With children in care, of course, “staying put” pilots are going on. They are a good thing, and will inform the process by which we can better look after children who happen to hit their 18th birthday; their problems and vulnerability do not suddenly disappear when they become adult. The hon. Lady makes a good point again, but it is a problem across the piece.

I shall return to my speech and try to whizz through it in the remaining nine minutes, Mr Havard. I want to say a little about how the Government’s approach to the problem of runaways and missing children will pan out. Most missing children cases are dealt with well at local level by police forces, who see such cases as a clear priority. However, the Government recognise that there is a case for national capability to add value by ensuring that police are trained and equipped with the right understanding to identify and respond when children go missing. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, announced last month that from 1 July the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre would assume national responsibility for missing children’s services. I was very pleased to hear the hon. Member for Stockport welcome that. As I mentioned, she visited CEOP recently, and I am sure that she will have been as impressed by its work as I was on my recent visit.

Making CEOP responsible for missing children’s services is an extremely important development. It means that for the first time in this country there will be a dedicated team of experts at national level focused solely on missing children issues. The fact that that capability will exist within CEOP means that they can bring their considerable child protection expertise to bear on this problem. However, of course, as the hon. Lady made clear, the problem of young runaways, and missing children more generally, is not something that the police or CEOP can solve alone. There must be a multi-agency, partnership approach, involving local authority children’s services, the police and the important charity and local voluntary sector—as well as, of course, families and parents. Local safeguarding children boards have a key role to play in co-ordinating and ensuring the effectiveness of the work of their members. That needs to cover raising awareness to try to prevent child sexual exploitation taking place—because, as the hon. Lady observed, prevention is better than cure—but also responding to it when it does.

Before going further, I should perhaps respond to the hon. Lady’s points about the collection and evaluation of data, building on the reference that I made just now. Knowing the extent of the problem is an important step in being able to address it. The hon. Lady referred to the differences between my Department’s statistics on children missing from care and local police data. The fact is that those statistics will be different because different things are being counted. In addition—the hon. Lady alluded to this—many children are reported missing from care as soon as their absence is noted, and, fortunately, are located within 24 hours. The Department’s figures record only children who are missing from their placements for more than 24 hours. Of course, that is not to say that any of them may not be a risk to themselves or others during the period that they are absent.

To complicate the matter still further, the local authority that is responsible for a particular child’s care is the one that reports their absence in the statistics of the Department for Education. The fact that an authority is shown as having only a small number of missing children is not the same as saying that only that number went missing from care in that authority, because some authorities have many looked-after children placed from other authorities within their boundaries. That is a particular problem in Kent. The result is that if a child from, say, Southwark, goes missing from a care placement in Kent and is reported to the Kent police, the child will appear under Southwark and not Kent in the Department’s data. There are thus some problems; but we need to sort that out to make sure we know exactly the extent of the problem.

I appreciate that those technical considerations do not make it easy to form a clear and consistent picture of the extent of the problem. However, it is not a question of either the police data or the Department’s statistics being wrong. They are just counting different things. The important thing is that local police forces and local authorities work together to form the clearest possible picture of the number of young runaways and missing children in their area, whether from care or from home. That data is not collected centrally.

The hon. Lady also expressed concern about some local authorities not adhering to the “Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care”. I can tell her that my Department is currently reviewing a range of guidance with the aim of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy. We will look at the guidance she mentioned as part of that wider review. We want—as I know she wants—guidance to be easily accessible and, most importantly, helpful for schools, local authorities and children’s services.

On the specific issue of child sexual exploitation, we know that the great majority of missing children incidents are repeat cases, with the same children going missing— running away from, or towards, something. Such children are vulnerable. They face serious risks while they are missing, and we know that there are clear links with child sexual exploitation. As I have said before, the sexual exploitation of children is a truly appalling crime, which can of course affect children whether or not they have ever run away from home. It is an extremely serious form of child sexual abuse. The sorts of experiences to which some children and young people are subjected are unspeakably shocking, involving rape, severe sexual assault and, often, chilling intimidation. We have heard of many such cases from hon. Members who have spoken today. Anyone perpetrating such crimes must be brought to justice. I am glad to say there have been some high-profile cases recently—some still going on—where that sort of justice is being brought to bear. However, as I have said, it is the tip of the iceberg.

The victims of sexual exploitation—and their families—need understanding and support. Support may be needed over many years, involving a range of expertise from across the statutory and voluntary sectors. Let us be in no doubt: the victims of such sexual exploitation are vulnerable children. As with any other vulnerable children, all our instincts should be to protect and support them.

The hon. Lady referred to Barnardo’s “Puppet on a string” report, as did other hon. Members. I want to place on the record my praise for Barnardo’s hard-hitting report. It made it uncomfortably clear to us that child sexual exploitation is a much bigger problem than many people ever imagined. It is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion. It happens in all areas of the country. Stereotyping offenders or victims is quite simply a red herring and unhelpful. It is important, therefore, that every local authority and every local safeguarding children board in town and country, city and rural areas, assumes that sexual exploitation is a problem in their area and that they take action to address it.

The hon. Lady referred to research by the university of Bedfordshire, early findings from which suggest that many local authorities are not following the “Safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation” statutory guidance, which was issued in 2009. I know that many professionals are, like her, concerned that some local authority areas have yet to develop a satisfactory response to child sexual exploitation. I share that concern; it must improve.

As lead Minister, I have been urgently considering, within Government and working with national and local partners, what further action needs to be taken to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation. In April, I chaired a round-table meeting with senior representatives from a range of organisations. At that meeting, we identified a wide range of issues to be addressed, from awareness-raising and understanding to effective prevention and early detection, the challenges of securing prosecutions and the need to support victims and their families. We are committed to working with partners to develop over the summer an action plan to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation. The hon. Lady said that she welcomed this work and I am grateful for her support, which I am sure will be ongoing.

We are still in the early stages of developing the action plan so I cannot announce details today. However, I can say that it will build on existing guidance and our developing understanding of this dreadful abuse, including through local agencies’ work around the country. It will include work on effective prevention strategies, identifying those at risk of sexual exploitation, supporting victims and taking robust action against perpetrators. A key element of the action plan will be ensuring that the wide range of work currently taking place on child sexual exploitation is complementary and comprehensive. The action plan will take account of CEOP’s thematic assessment of on-street grooming, which will be published shortly. It will also reflect the recently announced two-year enquiry into child sexual exploitation to begin later this year, which will be conducted by the office of the Children’s Commissioner.

There is also the university of Bedfordshire two-year research project, which I just mentioned, funded by Comic Relief—a worthwhile use of its funds—and due to be published in October, on preventing the sexual exploitation of children and young people. I expect there to be a good deal of learning in each of those projects, and in others taking place around the country, such as the Safe and Sound project in Derby—I pay tribute to Sheila Taylor MBE who is now chairman of the National Working Group on sexual exploitation—Barnardo’s 22 sexual exploitation services, and the work being carried out by the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping.

Underpinning much of this is the Munro review of child protection on which we had a very good debate in the House only the other week, in which the hon. Lady took part. I was pleased that Professor Munro specifically mentioned in her report the issue of child sexual exploitation, and the important role of local safeguarding children boards. The report stresses the importance of re-focusing the child protection system on the needs and experiences of children and young people. Professor Munro’s fundamental analysis is that the system has become too focused on compliance with unnecessary rules and procedures, and professionals have spent less time actually helping—

Order. That was breathless, Minister, if not breathtaking. I am sure that you will write with any important information that has not been covered. We will now move on to the next debate.