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House of Commons Hansard
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Vulnerable Children
01 December 2014
Volume 589
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6. What recent assessment she has made of the vulnerability of children missing from school and home to child sexual exploitation. [906335]

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Nothing is more important than keeping children safe. To better protect missing children, we have introduced tougher statutory guidance and regulations, improved national data collection and published new practice standards for social workers. Ofsted has found that many, but not enough, local authorities are making progress, so we will continue to establish where that is not happening, and why, and will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure children’s safety.

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A recent Ofsted report entitled “The sexual exploitation of children: it couldn’t happen here, could it?” said that most local authorities inspected are not making the connection between child sexual exploitation and children missing from school. Does the Minister agree that every local authority should keep a centrally held persistent absence list that could be cross-referenced by police and children’s services to identify children at risk and patterns of local child sexual exploitation?

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I begin by thanking the hon. Lady and acknowledging the significant and important contribution she has made over a long period, and more recently through her report “Real Voices” on child exploitation in Greater Manchester. It poses many of the right questions, as she has this afternoon. I agree that it is absolutely right not only that all schools must inform the local authority of pupils who are missing education but that local authorities must identify pupils missing from school and take action as a result. Those duties already exist and Ofsted’s thematic review made it clear that in many cases that was not happening because of very basic practice failures across a range of agencies and organisations. The number of persistently absent children has dropped by 40% since 2010, but we need to highlight even more those children who are particularly vulnerable for the reasons the hon. Lady has outlined. I know I have a meeting with her in a week or two to discuss these matters further and I look forward to having a conversation to see what progress we can make.

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Does the Minister agree that protecting children from sexual exploitation must include better education of children and parents on the potential dangers of the internet? To that end, will he praise the work of Warning Zone in Leicestershire?

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I agree that in the new digital age, when children come into contact with the internet at an ever younger age, we need to ensure that they have the understanding and skills to make good choices. Part of that is ensuring that parents and teachers can acquire those abilities. That is why we have ensured that internet safety is taught at all key stages at school, and I am sure that the work that has gone on on the ground—not just in his constituency, although I praise that, but throughout the country—is helping to ensure that we get that message across.

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I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for her excellent report “Real Voices” and, in particular, for the consideration she has given to the voice of these young people. Her recommendations have a significance way beyond Greater Manchester. Anyone who reads the report cannot fail to be struck by the repeated references to the benefit that many of these vulnerable young people derive from working with peer mentors. Does the Minister share Labour’s interest in this approach, and does he have any plans to develop the model? Has he considered using the innovation fund as a means of stimulating it?

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s insight, analysis and recommendations as to what more we can do to ensure that children who need their voice to be heard have the requisite support from people who can provide them with the guidance and trust that are often lacking among other professionals. I am happy to talk to him about his suggestion. We have had some extremely exciting bids in this area through the innovation fund programme, which I will be able to say more about in the coming weeks. As I say, I shall be more than happy to discuss the subject with him in due course.

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Somerset county council has withdrawn regular checks on children educated at home, stating that it will contact families only if it is

“advised that Elective Home Education is not happening or is unsuitable.”

Does the Minister recognise that it is necessary to check systematically so that children at risk are identified, along with parents and carers who need support to deliver education, because otherwise school is often the only place where children at risk can have contact with other adults?

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The hon. Lady refers to the recent Ofsted inspection in Somerset and the need for Somerset’s children’s services to make marked improvements in its response to ensure that children are safe. The example she has given is an element of that on which it needs to improve. I will not comment on the specific work that needs to be done, which has been well documented. She knows, as do her colleagues across Somerset, that I am determined to do whatever it takes to ensure the children in Somerset get the support and care they need so that they have a safe and fulfilling upbringing.