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Exploitation of Missing Looked-after Children

Volume 666: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2019

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of sexual and criminal exploitation of missing looked after children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. In 2012, an expert working group was set up by the then children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), at the Department for Education, to look at—among other issues—out-of-area placements of children. That was because of the high number of looked-after children in children’s homes going missing, and concerns about their vulnerability to sexual exploitation. That group was set up partly in response to the 2012 inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, supported by The Children’s Society and Missing People. One of the objectives of that expert group was to make recommendations that would improve the care system, so that

“children are safer and better cared for in residential care—not disproportionately at risk of…exploitation”

because of their vulnerability. The group stated that placements should be

“close to home unless it is in the best interests of the child to be placed out of area”.

An analysis of the children’s home market was commissioned. At that time, more than 50% of homes were concentrated in three regions: the north-west, the west midlands, and the south-east. Some 25% of all children’s homes were in the north-west, and just 6% were in London. That meant there was an under-supply of places in some areas and an over-supply in others, resulting in an unnecessary level of out-of-area placements. One of the issues identified with children being placed out of area was the difficulty for social workers in being able to provide the necessary levels of support. In short, children with high needs were left isolated in children’s homes, miles away from family, friends and social workers, and they were targets for paedophiles.

In 2012, 26% of the children’s homes registered with Ofsted were run by local authorities, and 65% were run by private companies. The report expressed concern about the market being taken over by larger providers. It said that if the under-supply and over-supply in the market was not addressed, children would continue to be placed at a distance from their home communities. The report recommended a reduction in the number of out-of-area placements, and added that those that result in children being placed at very long distances should be exceptional and always explicitly justified in terms of the child’s best interests. The expert group recommended that national and regional information on the structure of the children’s residential care market be improved, and that such information should be used to determine a medium-term market strategy at regional and national levels.

That report is now seven years old. Over the intervening years, successive Ministers have committed to reducing the number of out-of-area placements, yet that figure continues to soar. Last month, the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults published our most recent report, “No Place at Home”. We found a 77% increase in the number of children placed in out-of-area placements since 2012; that figure is now at an all-time high. The majority of the 42 police forces that gave evidence to our inquiry were adamant that placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation and very often resulted in their going missing.

Some 75% of all children’s homes are run by private companies, representing a 23% increase since 2012, and local authorities now run 19% of children’s homes, representing a decrease of 26% since the same year. According to Ofsted, 47 local authorities—one third—did not run any children’s homes at all in 2019. Given the increasing dominance of the private sector, the APPG recommended that Ofsted should have the same powers in relation to children’s homes as the Care Quality Commission has for nursing and care homes.

The north-west, west midlands and south-east remain the three regions with the highest concentration of children’s homes, accounting for 55% of all homes, and there continue to be issues with over-supply and under-supply. Some 80% of local authorities now place children outside their area. There has been an increase in the number of children coming into care, and an increase in the number of children’s homes. However, it is not clear whether, in practice, that means there are more places to meet the needs of children. Many of the children being placed in homes would previously have been placed in mental health provision or secure accommodation if it had been available. Homes may manage children with increasingly complex needs by reducing their bed occupancy.

The increase in the number of children coming into care also means that providers can pick and choose. In our “No Place at Home” inquiry, we heard evidence that one local authority had to try 150 providers to find suitable accommodation for a vulnerable 15-year-old boy. We have also heard that up to 25 children can be competing for a place at any one time. Those children go on a waiting list, and often end up in crisis and short-term placements because none of the registered children’s homes is willing or able to offer places. These can be the children with the greatest needs. In future, more children are likely to be placed in unregulated and unregistered short-term accommodation because of the pressure on children’s home places. Let us be clear: that means those children’s care needs will not be met.

I entirely accept that some children need to be placed outside of their area because it is in their best interests, but evidence to our inquiry suggested that the overwhelming reason why children are placed out of area is that it is the only place that can be found for them. When I announced that I had secured this debate, I received many comments on Twitter from practitioners who said that the system was broken. One, from the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, said:

“It’ll need money Ann, more importantly a wholesale rethink of the care ‘system’. Trying to find residential placements for young people is often ‘any port in a Storm’.”

The fact that distribution has not changed, together with pressure on places, explains the inevitable rise in out-of-area placements.

Our “No Place at Home” report focused on the risks faced by children who go missing from care. There has been a 97% rise in the number of reported incidents of children missing from children’s homes since 2015. The number of children missing from out-of-area placements has more than doubled since 2015, and about a third of children in unregulated provision went missing in 2018. We heard that record numbers of out-of-area children are repeatedly going missing. The inquiry heard evidence about the trauma and emotional impact that being sent away can have on children who have already suffered neglect and trauma.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about a very serious subject. Does she agree that since the Greater Manchester Police introduced the iOPS computer system, children in Greater Manchester are at even more risk than before? Children who go missing overnight are not being registered, and the information is not getting through to police officers when they come on duty the next morning. The reassurances of the chief constable that everything is all right are at odds with the evidence. The iOPS system is putting more children at risk, and when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary goes into Greater Manchester, I hope he will look seriously at these problems.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the new computer system. A system that cannot manage information in a way that keeps children safe is not fit for purpose, so I am pleased he has raised that point.

Moving children to unknown and unfamiliar placements, particularly at short notice, causes anxiety, distress, fear and anger, as well as causing further trauma to children with both short-term and long-term impacts. The reaction of many is to go missing, enticed by those who have targeted them for exploitation. In June, research by Missing People that looked at nearly 600 episodes involving more than 200 missing children found that one in seven of the children had been sexually exploited, and one in 10 had been a victim of criminal or other forms of exploitation while missing.

There is an issue about the take-up of return-home interviews, which can be an invaluable source of information about further risks to that child and other children when they go missing. Research by The Children’s Society found that, on average, just 50% of missing episodes resulted in return-home interviews taking place, despite its being a statutory requirement on local authorities to offer them each time a child goes missing. That means that opportunities to safeguard children are being missed.

The Howard League told our inquiry that children are sometimes placed out of area to protect them from exploiters. Although that is often done with the best intentions, and sometimes successfully, there are considerable concerns about the practice. The Howard League said, for example, that criminals increasingly control children using social media, the reach of which extends wherever children go, and through threats to family members and siblings, which means that removing the child from a location does not resolve the problem and could make it worse.

The Howard League also said that children who are being exploited may be used to groom and exploit other children in their new location, and that children who are in out-of-area placements are separated from their families and support workers, and therefore more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We received evidence that county lines gangs had been sent to areas where young people were predominantly placed out of area to scout new opportunities where they could develop business and recruit new members.

The individual experiences recounted by children to the inquiry were a salutary reminder of the misery experienced by some children in care. One girl told the inquiry that she had run away 100 times since being moved out of her home area. Another boy tried to hang himself on Christmas day. Another girl walked 10 miles home to see her mum. That is the reality behind the statistics. The increasing number of children going missing is a protest by those children, who feel that the social care system does not care about them. It is the only protest they can make.

One area of increasing concern, which we raised in our report, is the rise in the number of older children, aged 16-plus, being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation—a shady twilight world. Some 80% of the police forces that gave evidence to our inquiry expressed concern about the increasing numbers in those unregulated establishments, which are off radar, because, unlike children’s homes, they are not registered or inspected. More than 5,000 looked-after children in England live in unregulated accommodation, which is up 70% on 10 years ago. Such accommodation is not registered by Ofsted because it does not provide care, although it is difficult to imagine under what circumstances a vulnerable 16 or 17-year-old would not require care as well as support.

The police gave us many examples of inappropriate and dangerous placements in unregulated homes, including a young person bailed for murder being placed in the same semi-independent accommodation as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs in a county lines gang. Another boy was sent to live more than 50 miles from his home area where he began drug-running and committing crimes. When he was returned to his home area, he took children from his new area back home to involve them in county lines because they were unknown to the police. Other examples included a girl who had been sexually exploited being housed alongside a perpetrator of sexual exploitation, and another young girl victim of sexual exploitation who was moved some distance from home and then targeted by a local organised crime group.

We should not forget the impact that unregulated accommodation, in which young people are not properly supervised and become involved in criminal activity, can have on the surrounding neighbourhood. After our report was published, I was contacted by a mother in Greater Manchester who described her “devastating experience” of the consequences of unregulated accommodation. Her two daughters were seriously attacked as they walked home by a group of older boys who were living in an unregulated home in their neighbourhood. Local residents had been reporting incidents of antisocial behaviour, sexual harassment, criminal activity and drugtaking in and around the accommodation for about six months. If the home had been regulated, there would have been a process by which it could have been closed down, but it continues to operate.

There are some good providers but, equally, there are some poor providers that should not be let anywhere near a vulnerable young person. One police force told us:

“Where there are areas of high deprivation, these will always present opportunities for potential unscrupulous organisations to set up ‘pop up’ children’s homes with little or no regulation, where the housing market is much cheaper, heightening the risk of the most vulnerable of children being exploited.”

I was recently made aware that there may be connections between organised crime gangs and providers of unregulated accommodation. It would be a logical extension of their business model to gain profit from providing accommodation at high cost to local authorities and, at the same time, have access to young people whom they can exploit to sell drugs.

Our report called for a regulatory framework that would ensure national standards, including checks on the suitability of providers and the qualifications of staff supporting young people. That is becoming urgent, as children under 16 are being placed in unregulated accommodation. As I have said, there are extremely good providers and very diligent social workers, but unregulated care is wide open to abuse. All the evidence shows that that abuse is happening.

Over the years, there have been many improvements in data sharing, guidance, notifications, multi-agency partnership work and understanding child sexual and criminal exploitation and the grooming process. Attitudes to children have changed and the term “child prostitute” has been replaced in law with “sexually exploited child”. There is an increasing understanding that young people can be groomed into criminal activity and county lines gangs. That understanding is reflected in the increasing number of children accepted on to the national referral mechanism as victims of criminal exploitation.

There is some excellent provision in the private and voluntary sectors and in local authority children’s homes. I pay tribute to the people who work in residential care homes with the most challenging young people. Government cuts have had a devastating effect on children’s social care; we are often asking social workers to safeguard children in the most difficult circumstances without the resources they need. An important part of providing resources is ensuring that there is sufficient residential provision to meet the needs of the children we take into our care. That is not happening.

We talk a lot about the voice of the child and how that should be at the heart of what we do, but it cannot be at the heart of decisions when we have no options to offer that child. The children’s homes market is failing and broken. There is widespread agreement and evidence that it is not providing a sufficiency of placements to meet the needs of the children we take into care. Until that is sorted out, we will continue to have care provision that is unsafe for some children and we will continue to fail in our responsibilities to the children who need us most. Urgent action is now needed.

The main recommendation of our APPG report echoes the recommendation made by the expert working group in 2012. We recommend that the Department for Education develops an emergency action plan to significantly reduce the number of out-of-area placements. The Government must take responsibility for ensuring that there are sufficient local placements to meet the needs of looked- after children. The plan should address the supply and distribution of children’s homes nationally and the use of unregulated semi-independent provision, and it should be backed by funding.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure a sufficiency of school places to meet the needs of children in their area. The Department for Education provides capital funding and investment so that they can meet that statutory responsibility. It could equally provide the investment and capital funding to ensure a sufficiency of local places to meet children’s needs, working with local authorities and private and voluntary providers.

Section 22G of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to take strategic action by requiring them to secure sufficient accommodation in their area that meets the needs of their looked-after children,

“so far as reasonably practicable”.

When private providers are unwilling, as they have been in the past, to run children’s homes in certain regions of the country, local authorities should be encouraged to develop their own direct provision. There is no way forward without the Department for Education taking leadership and responsibility for this. We do not need any more working parties or reports. There is widespread consensus among practitioners, professionals and children with experience of the care system that the children’s home market is failing children, and that urgent action is needed. Warm words are not enough, better data sharing is not enough, and more awareness is not enough. None of this is enough, if we cannot provide sufficient good care placements to meet the needs of children who have been failed by close adults in their life, and who are now being failed by a care system that cannot keep them safe and that leaves them wide open to criminal and sexual exploitation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate. I had probably expected that there would be more hon. Members present to discuss this issue, because it is certainly of some importance to me and my constituency, and to many other hon. Members. Perhaps other things have been prioritised, and they therefore cannot be here. It is very nice to see the Minister in her place, and I look forward to her response. She is having quite a busy introduction to all these matters in the House—in two Adjournment debates that I attended, and now in Westminster Hall. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She can be rightly proud of her long record of campaigning for the protection of vulnerable children and young people, which we appreciate. Throughout her time in Parliament, she has been a true champion of the rights of young people at risk and in danger. Today’s debate, which she introduced, is further evidence of that.

I refer to the website of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—an excellent charity—which provides a useful summation of who exactly is defined as a looked-after child:

“A child who has been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours is known as a looked after child.”

I thank the Library for the information that it has brought forward. I looked at some of the headlines included in the briefing. Headlines sometimes catch the eye, because that is their purpose. One of the headlines from The Children’s Society was, “Parliamentary inquiry into the scandal of ‘sent away’ children”. The Children’s Commissioner’s headline was, “The same mistakes that led to child sexual exploitation are being repeated with gangs”. The hon. Lady referred to that. Ofsted’s headline was, “Criminal exploitation and ‘county lines’: learn from past mistakes, report finds”. The National Youth Advocacy Service had “Parliamentary report calls for end to ‘national scandal’ of children missing from care”. They are not just sent away; they are missing from care. “BBC News” did a report called, “Care crisis: Sent-away children are ‘easy victims’”. The Guardian referred to the “Surge in vulnerable children linked to the UK drug gangs”.

The BBC, again, referred to, “Teens in care ‘abandoned to crime gangs’”. The Howard League for Penal Reform has produced a report entitled “Criminalising children, the Department for Education and county lines exploitation.” The Times published an article with the headline, “Gangs circle as children ‘dumped’ on seaside”. All those headlines catch the eye and tell an unfortunate story about the issue we are debating.

Looked-after children are also referred to as “children in care,” a term that many children and young people prefer. Each part of the United Kingdom has a slightly different definition of looked-after children and follows its own legislation, policy and guidance. In general, however, looked-after children are living with foster parents, in a residential children’s home, or in residential settings such as schools and secure units. The Minister was at the earlier debate—I am trying to remember the constituency of the hon. Member who secured an Adjournment debate on this issue. He described what was happening in his constituency in the east of England; again, the hon. Lady has reinforced that with her personal input into this debate.

I was talking to the Scottish National party spokesperson before the debate. Scotland often leads the way on many things—I mean that very sincerely. Scotland’s definition of looked-after children also includes children under a supervision requirement order. This means that many looked-after children in Scotland are still living at home, but with regular contact from social services.

There are a variety of reasons why children and young people enter care. The child’s parents might have agreed to it—for example, if they are too unwell to look after their child, or if their child has a disability and needs respite care. Sometimes the pressures of life on families lead them to do something that they did not want to do but that they have to do because they are unable to cope. The child could be an unaccompanied asylum seeker, with no responsible adult to care for them. Children’s services might have intervened because they felt the child was at significant risk of harm. If this is the case, the child is usually the subject of a court-made legal order.

A child stops being looked after when they are adopted, return home or turn 18. However, the law is clear that local authorities in all the nations of the UK—all four of us together—are required to support children leaving care at 18 until they are at least 21; there is a responsibility beyond the age of 18. This may involve their continuing to live with their foster family.

Most children in care say that their experiences are good and that it was the right choice for them. It is good to hear those stories, because sometimes we focus on all the bad things. That is the nature of our job—people do not always come to tell us how good things are, but they certainly come to tell us when things are not right. That is the nature of what we do: we respond to complaints and concerns, and try to do our best to help.

I believe more needs to be done to ensure that all looked-after children are healthy and safe, have the same opportunities as their peers, and can move successfully into adulthood. What a responsibility we have for that child—to mould them and help them to be a better person as they move towards adulthood. It is so important that we do that as a society, and also through our duties as elected representatives of our constituents. We should also look to the Government for a positive response.

When the system works well, it allows young people to build stable lives and go on to become fully integrated and constructive members of society. When it fails, it can have a devastating impact from which people can never recover. That is the reality. The scale of the problems of criminal and sexual exploitation of looked-after children is frightening. A recent survey by Barnardo’s, which is a wonderful charity, showed that one third of the children who are sexually exploited in England are looked after. The finding, taken from a survey of 498 children helped in one day by the charity’s 20 specialist sexual exploitation services, also revealed marked geographical variations—I think the hon. Lady referred to that in her introduction.

More than three quarters, or 76%, of victims in the north-west were looked-after children. Given that figure, it is not hard to see why the hon. Lady was so determined to use Westminster Hall to highlight the sheer scale of the problem. Some 42% were in care in London, eastern and south-east England, whereas the figure was 39% in the south-west. Those figures are horrendous. Overall, Barnardo’s found that 29% were looked after. Shockingly, 16% had a disability and 5% had a statement of special educational needs.

Working towards the goals of protecting vulnerable young people from all kinds of exploitation is serious and important work. Sadly, our recent history is littered with examples of local authority and statutory agency failure, and it is our responsibility as legislators to ensure that our country has the most robust child protection frameworks. The Minister can confirm that there is a legal duty for children’s homes and foster carers to report a missing looked-after child to the police. I want to see how that can be done better, to ensure that we can deliver on it. Perhaps the Minister can confirm what financial support is available for that. I understand that some of the figures indicate that some councils and areas that have responsibility are feeling the pinch. I know the Government have committed some moneys to it, but I want to check that it is going forward.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) is not present, but I pay tribute to her in her absence. As we all know, she has been an absolute stalwart in standing up in spite of great personal provocation and threat to herself. She has been an absolute champion—Sarah Champion is aptly named—of her constituency. I pay tribute to her—I thought she might have been here, but obviously other things have taken place and she cannot be here—for all she has done to highlight exploitation and for taking a marvellous, courageous stand. Well done to her. The Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal consisted of organised sexual abuse between the late 1980s and 2010 on an unimaginable scale. Some of those stories made me cringe and feel unwell emotionally and physically. The abject and total failure of the local authorities to act on reports of abuse throughout that period led to it being described as the biggest child protection scandal in UK history.

Many factors combined to produce the scandal: indifference towards the victims, a culture of ignoring complaints and a fear of being viewed as politically incorrect, as the papers highlighted on more than one occasion. Whatever the motivations, the results were devastating. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that there are no more Rotherhams or Rochdales—no more of any of it.

Criminal exploitation continues to be a massive issue for each and every one of us. The hon. Member for Stockport referred to it in her introduction, and I want to speak about it. Criminal exploitation in the UK involves children and vulnerable adults who have been coerced into crime, such as ATM theft, pickpocketing, bag snatching, counterfeit DVD selling, cannabis cultivation, metal theft, benefit fraud, sham marriages and forced begging. The most common types of criminal exploitation are cannabis cultivation and petty street crime.

The criminal exploitation is serious: 71% of the police forces that submitted evidence to the inquiry believed that placing children and young people out of area increases their vulnerability to becoming sexually and criminally exploited. Looked-after children and young people are at significant risk of being groomed for exploitation, due both to the experiences and situations that led to their becoming looked after in the first place, and to factors associated with being in care. It is clear from the evidence that when placement moves take place, new protective factors are often not built around the young people in their new areas. The hon. Lady referred to that in her introduction and gave three or four examples, including of a person who walked 10 miles to meet their mum, and of others who had been exploited in their own areas.

I was deeply moved by the information about sexual exploitation, because it shows how unscrupulous people are. There are many unscrupulous people in the world who see individuals not as people—they do not have compassion for them—but as commodities. The hon. Lady referred to a couple of examples of young girls who found themselves in that situation. Child sexual exploitation means to

“manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status”.

All those things are pure, unadulterated exploitation.

The involvement of children in the movement and sale of drugs in the context of county lines has been receiving more professional and media attention recently. Of the 90% of looked-after children who go missing from care, 60% are suspected victims of trafficking. As a Northern Ireland MP and the Member for Strangford, I am very pleased that it was Stormont—when we had a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly—that led the way in tackling human trafficking and exploitation with groundbreaking legislation in 2015 that specifically targets those who would exploit other human beings for sexual purposes, enforced servitude or criminal activities.

When it comes to the protection of children, especially those who are looked after, we need a redoubling of efforts and a multifaceted approach. The first step is education. We must educate our children to know what to look for in order to prevent them from falling victim. Sometimes a teacher looking at a young child in the front row will see things that no one else sees. Schools, youth groups and carers all have a valuable role to play, but they must have resources—I look to the Minister when I say this—that are child-appropriate, help to address the issue and are easy to understand. The statistics show that there is a major problem with looked-after children; the hon. Lady said that very clearly.

Secondly, the police, local authorities and statutory agencies need to be fearless in the pursuit of those who would engage in such criminal activity and behaviour. There can be no hiding place for those committing criminal activities and engaging in criminal behaviour. We all have a responsibility to play our part in ensuring that this wicked activity—this evil activity—is stamped out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate and for the excellent inquiry that the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, under her chairmanship, conducted into this issue.

As the hon. Lady knows, my constituency of Bedford has been identified as a hotspot for out-of-area placements for looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds. It featured in the diligent reporting done by “Newsnight” into the crisis in care for the most vulnerable children in society. Many of us in this Chamber have repeatedly called for the regulation of semi-supported care settings. I first met the Minister in March to call for urgent action to protect those children and ensure the most basic of requirements—that all care settings for 16 and 17-year-olds are safe and of a reasonable standard. Seven months and a change of Government personnel later, I am afraid we are no further forward. I know that the hon. Member for Stockport has been asking for that for a lot longer.

It is the state’s responsibility to look after children in care, but it is clearly failing. Bedfordshire police have raised concerns about the number of teenagers reported missing from care homes. They have highlighted that vulnerable children are being placed in accommodation with known perpetrators of sexual and violent crimes, and they are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking, organised crime or serious violent crime, and of being lured into criminal activity.

In Bedfordshire, the number of incidents for the 12-month period ending in September involving looked-after children missing from unregulated homes was 1,333, involving 173 children. I am very worried about the fate of those missing children, who are at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation and other aspects of modem slavery.

Although Bedfordshire police are doing tremendous work in this area and have a sympathetic understanding of those who go missing, policing such settings is a significant strain on an already under-resourced force. The Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth estimates that the average cost of investigating a missing person is £2,400. That is a financial cost to Bedfordshire police of about £1.9 million, caused by unregulated homes. It is the job of the Government, not the police, to ensure the safety of such settings. They must get a handle on the scale of the issue, and I urge them to improve the reporting systems on the number of children going missing from homes and hostels that are not subject to children’s homes regulations, to prevent more children from becoming unnecessarily and excessively criminalised or becoming victims of crime.

If there is no alternative to local authorities receiving out-of-area looked-after children, it is only right that they should be adequately funded so they can provide suitable, safe and secure accommodation. The Minister has admitted that the current system is “completely untenable”, so I hope that today we get action from the Government on the APPG inquiry’s excellent recommendations, not more excuses and delay.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I welcome the Minister to her place. Today we are discussing an extremely difficult topic and focusing on the difficulties that children face within the care system. Some of the endemic problems are probably beyond their control and can have dangerous and devastating consequences, not only for their lives right now, as young people, but in the longer term. We should take a moment to appreciate how serious the subject is, and how the serious ramifications of not taking action can have a long-term impact on their lives. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this debate, and I thank her for the work that she has done as chair of the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults.

The APPG’s report, “No Place at Home”, which was produced with The Children’s Society, indicates just some of the figures—as Members can imagine, they are difficult to obtain—to outline how much of a problem this is. The worrying factor is the untold statistics. After I graduated, I supported a young looked-after person in Brighton. That was a good 10 years or more ago—I am sure the system has changed since then—but my experience has informed me. The idea that a young person at 16 years old is mature enough, or sufficiently supported, to be able to live independently is perhaps something that the Minister could look at, with regard to how the process works in England. How can we allow such a young person to leave the foster care setting—their foster care placement might not have been the most successful—and go to live in private, independent accommodation? That accommodation might be provided through the charity sector, a business or an organisation that gives a sense of support, but ultimately it can never provide the same level of support as a family parental setting or a foster care setting. I am sure the Minister will agree that we can look further at how local authorities in England contract out responsibilities to organisations and how much their accountability for that contracting service is truly examined. Is that the most efficient, the most cost-effective or even the best way to trace the outcomes of young people?

The young person I supported was incredibly inspirational; she had sought to go to fashion college in London and had got a place. Sadly, though, she had come up against the education system and had not succeeded for a variety of reasons. Her foster care placements had not been very successful, and then she had found herself living independently, with everything that comes with that, and she was starting to enter a world of challenges and distractions—be it drugs or alcohol—at the age of 16. No matter how much I wanted to support that person, my role was simply to tutor her and support her to get through her college coursework. No amount of intervention that I singlehandedly, or the many other peripheral services, could put in place could prevent her from entering that path. I will never know where she ended up or what happened, but I know about the outcomes for 16-year-olds and the opportunities that were presented to her in that vulnerable and challenging setting of living independently at 16 years old. I still live with the regret that perhaps I could have done more, and I was one of many people involved in the service. I hope the Minister will have a serious think about whether that model of care is the best one.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) should be a spokesman for the Scottish National party, but we have slightly different views on numerous subjects. None the less, he does a very good job. He highlighted the work of the Scottish Government, which is what I want to speak to today. From a professional perspective, I want to outline where we are tackling this matter differently. The report is hard-hitting, and it details the harsh realities faced by some children in the care system who have been let down by failures in the system. I appreciate that one Minister or one Government Department cannot prevent the systematic failures that can befall a young person, but the most important point that the report makes is that children are often ripped away from their support networks of family and friends because of placements far away from where they have grown up. The placements are based not on where is best for the child, but on where is cheapest for them to be sent. Tragically, the report makes it clear that these children can on occasions become magnets for paedophiles and drug traffickers.

Children in care are among some of the most vulnerable in society. Their circumstances are often due to problems of neglect and abuse within their family, which can mean additional mental health problems for children. Children in care run away for many reasons, such as stress, anger, and unhappiness at being in care. Myriad other issues can come with adverse childhood experiences. Running away can put those children in huge danger, including sexual and criminal exploitation, and, as we have heard, physical harm, being introduced to drugs, and untold other harms. For that reason, every missing person report is deeply worrying, and never more so than when it involves a child or a young person.

In 2018 in Scotland, 1,935 cases of children in care going missing were reported to the police. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government awarded £30,000 to two charities, Missing People and Barnardo’s, to develop materials to educate children and young people about the dangers of going missing, and to encourage them to access support. The project supports the goals of Scotland’s national missing persons framework, which aims to improve the way in which agencies and organisations work together to support vulnerable people and prevent individuals from running away.

According to the charity Missing People, only one in 20 young people in Scotland who ran away reached out for professional help. Most young people simply do not know that support is available to them. We can put as much money into the system as possible, but if we do not start to tackle the myriad other factors, we will not get to the heart of it. The Scottish Government are also leading a bold drive to reduce stressful and poor quality childhoods, and to support children and adults in overcoming early life adversity. We recognise that ACEs, as we now know them—adverse childhood experiences—can have a long-term impact, but the SNP also recognises that it is important to respond appropriately to the emotional distress that is linked both to the circumstances that led to a child becoming looked after, and to the experience of being looked after in any setting.

The 2018-19 programme for government builds on our commitment to prevent adverse childhood experiences and to mitigate the negative impact where they do occur. The Scottish Government also aim to have a care system where fewer children need to become looked after by engaging early to support and build on the assets within families and communities. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) has a lot to say on that from her own personal experience.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She is making a powerful speech on a hugely important subject. When I was growing up as a teenager, my mum ran the residential unit of a care home in West Lothian, and my brother and I often visited it for parties. We got to know some of the young people and became a part of that family, which is very much what that setting was. It created a family. Nobody can ever emulate or replicate the family that some children sadly lose, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we get this right for children wherever they are in the UK? Does she agree that care homes, foster homes and other care settings must be properly funded and appropriate for any child who needs to go into care, to make sure that those children get the best possible start in life?

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that point. While the number of children in care in England and Wales has grown since 2015 by 9% and 14% respectively, the number of children in care in Scotland has steadily declined by 4%. Last year, the Scottish Government introduced the care-experienced children and young people fund, which commits £33 million over the life of Scotland’s current Parliament to improve the attainment and wider outcomes of care-experienced young people. We have also introduced a care-experienced students’ bursary, which provides £8,100 a year to support young people going to college or university.

Scotland’s looked-after children policy is part of “Getting it right for every child”, the national framework for improving outcomes and supporting children and young people. That approach puts the best interests of children at the heart of decision making—something that is missing right now within the care system in England and Wales. It disempowers children to remove them from the support networks and communities that they know. In fact, in the unfortunate cases that prompted the “No Place at Home” report, it is clear how a bad situation can turn vulnerable children into victims of crime and, in some instances, into criminals later in life. We want to prevent that from the off.

I ask the Minister to say honestly how much money is being spent externally on organisations that provide unregulated care, how much of it is then focused on outcomes and attainments, and how that is measured, with respect to supporting a looked-after child. We all have a responsibility to do more to support young people. As the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) outlined, we—the state—are their parents. I have never been a parent, but I take my responsibility as an MP seriously. There is more that we can, should and must do to support young people like the young lady who I supported and often think about. I want to do more for young people in England and Wales, in particular, where the system is different.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this extremely timely and important debate. I thank all the Members who have taken part and the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults for the work that it has led on this important issue. We spend far too little time focusing on the needs of looked-after children, given that they are one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

We have already heard some shocking examples this afternoon of how badly too many looked-after children have been let down. Far too many children are given placements far away from friends, family and the community that they are part of. Far too many are put in accommodation that is unsafe because it is not properly regulated or supervised. A key reason for that is a severe lack of funding, but we must also recognise the failure properly to involve children themselves in the decisions that affect their lives.

More than two out of every five looked-after children are placed outside their home local authority area; that rises to two in every three children in children’s homes. The fact that children lose contact with everything that they are familiar with is one of the contributing factors to so many of them going missing. They simply want to go back home to the family and friends they miss.

It is desperately worrying that children in placements far from home are at greater risk of exploitation, as the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) explained so clearly. The police recognise that as an important factor in the luring of young people into gangs, or into the hands of adults who want to exploit them sexually or criminally. It is a major factor in the growth of county lines drug dealing operations and the horrific escalation in levels of knife crime that go with that. The existence of unregulated semi-independent housing is a major concern, and a growing national scandal. Social workers I have spoken to tell me that children are placed in those hostels because current levels of funding do not allow for better alternatives. It is shocking to hear that there are now 5,000 young people who have been placed in institutions of that kind.

Lance Scott Walker was just 18 when he was placed in an unregulated teenage hostel miles away from his home, with another vulnerable young person with severe mental ill health. That second young person stabbed Lance in the hostel, chased him out of the building and stabbed him to death in the garden. Lance should never have been left in such dangerous circumstances by the authorities responsible for his care, but when the funding is so inadequate risks are taken, and sometimes they lead to tragic outcomes such as the death of Lance Scott Walker.

The cross-party Local Government Association estimates that an extra £3.1 billion is needed simply to keep the services at their current inadequate levels over coming years. The Children’s Commissioner says that to fund the wider set of children’s services properly, an extra £10 billion is needed. The Government need to ask themselves why they have not made funding care for the most vulnerable children in society the absolute priority that it should be. The lack of funding and support is literally destroying young people’s lives.

Adequate funding is fundamental, but it is not the whole story. I am very impressed by the focus of the report on giving looked-after children a voice. There should be a requirement on children’s services to demonstrate that children and young people have been consulted and involved in the decisions taken about them. Young people will tell you what support they need, what is going wrong in their lives and what they are afraid of. We need to listen, and act on what we hear.

I had the privilege earlier this week of visiting Camden Council’s children’s services department, under the inspirational leadership of Councillor Georgia Gould. Its services are among the best rated and most innovative in the country. Its family group conferencing model puts the child and their immediate family at the centre of decision making and allows them to involve friends, family and community members in decision making rather than leaving it to professionals alone. That ensures that the child’s voice is heard and that their wishes are acted on. Just as importantly, it respects the relationships that matter to those children and it has dramatically improved results, through how it is implemented.

Up north, Leeds City Council, under the equally inspirational leadership of Councillor Judith Blake, has made similarly impressive progress pursuing its child-friendly city agenda for almost a decade now, I believe. Every decision that the council takes is measured against its impact on children—vulnerable children, in particular. It does not just talk about children as a priority; it has acted to make children a priority. It is examples such as those, in Leeds, Camden and many other places across the country, that show us how we should be treating vulnerable children differently—not as problems to be managed, but as young people full of potential with valid views about their own life that deserve to be heard, and relationships that matter to them that need to be respected.

The Government must now take a lead. We need a fully funded national action plan to reduce the number of out-of-area placements and ensure that vulnerable children are safe and that they have a voice. Key to that plan must be the immediate regulation and inspection of semi-independent housing.

No country that loved its children would treat them in the way I have described. There is no group more vulnerable than children who cannot be with their parents, so I ask the Minister now: will she commit to regulating semi-independent housing without delay? Will she take action to reduce the number of out-of-area placements? Will she review funding to bring it up to the level needed to support vulnerable children properly? Will she look at models such as those in Camden and Leeds and bring in a new legal requirement to involve looked-after children properly in the decisions that affect them? Children need change, and they need it now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. The Government, the Department and I share her fierce commitment to protect all looked-after children and to work to reduce the number of children who go missing. The hon. Lady raised a number of important issues facing the children’s social care system that can lead to children going missing, and today we have heard some harrowing stories, which I am sure will stay with us. I am absolutely determined to address those issues, because nothing is more important than protecting the most vulnerable children. I am sure we all agree on that.

As a new Minister in the area in question, I am committed to ensuring that the Department is dedicated to providing high-quality services to all the children and families who need them. I know that we need to take a multi-agency approach—something that we have been doing. Social workers cannot do it alone; it cannot fall only on their shoulders. The joined-up response has been working and is not just a matter for local government; it is also for national Government, and I am committed to working closely with my colleagues at the Home Office to ensure that local partners are properly equipped to respond quickly and efficiently.

As part of that, the Home Office is working with the National Police Chiefs Council to deliver a national register of missing persons, which will enable us to have a snapshot of current missing incidents across police forces in England and Wales. The register will give officers realtime information when they encounter a missing person—particularly if that missing person is outside their area. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who has left the Chamber, mentioned difficulties in his area, and I hope that that will alleviate his concerns.

The Home Office is working towards that register being operational by 2020-21. Ofsted plays a vital role in considering how local areas safeguard children, and to support that we are strengthening statutory guidance from the Department for Education. Such guidance must be clear about the role that each safeguarding partner must play, and that is why we are working with the police to respond to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

The hon. Member for Stockport raised concerns about the fear that children who go missing from the care system could fall prey to criminal and sexual exploitation—something that I and all hon. Members find completely abhorrent. I reassure Members that the Government are prioritising that issue. We are determined to tackle child sexual abuse and close down county lines, putting an end to the abhorrent exploitation of children and young people. We have already revised safeguarding guidance to reflect the emerging menace of threats to children and exploitation from outside the home, as well as the role that children’s social care needs to play in protecting them.

Earlier this year, we launched the £2 million Tackling Child Exploitation support programme to provide bespoke support to local areas. The programme will help local safeguarding partners to develop a tailor-made effective multi-agency strategic response to the specific types of harm and exploitation that children are facing in their area.

I am glad that the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s first independent review is looking into whether adolescents in need of protection from criminal exploitation get the help they need. That will better inform us about how to tweak and improve the current system, and I pledge to take a personal interest in that. Ensuring that children who have been taken into local authority care are in a safe and secure placement that meets their needs is one of the most crucial things we can do. That brings me to an issue that I know the hon. Lady and other hon. Members are working hard to highlight: the use of unregulated independent and semi-independent settings for children in care and care leavers. Some of those children and young people are indeed at risk, and I take on board the comments from the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed).

The report from the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults continues to highlight that issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Stockport for her work. She will know that I share her concerns about the current state of affairs, and last week in the Chamber I was clear that it is unacceptable for any child to be placed in a setting that does not meet their needs and keep them safe. I note the comments from the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on that issue, and I shall write to her with the specific figures she requested.

Unregulated semi-independent and independent settings are intended for older children as a stepping-stone towards independence. There are good examples of such places, including in my constituency, and they are not all letting children down. However, vulnerable young children were never intended to be placed in them: I will not hesitate, where needed, to strengthen guidance to make that clear. Last week I called on local authorities to put their houses in order regarding unregulated and unregistered provision. Unregistered settings are illegal, and I invite all hon. Members to inform me about any providers that they know are operating in that manner.

Hon. Members also raised the placement of children in settings outside their local area. No child should be placed outside their area when that is not in their best interests, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their sustained interest in that issue. Moving a child away from their home is not a decision that any authority takes lightly, and we have strengthened legislative safeguards regarding children who are placed outside their local area.

Directors of children’s services are required to sign off each individual decision, and Ofsted can challenge them if it believes that an incorrect decision has been made. It can sometimes be right to place a child outside their local area if there is the risk of sexual exploitation, trafficking or gang violence, but those are the only circumstances in which local authorities should consider such a move. Similarly, such a decision could be made to access provision for children who have complex needs, if such provision is not available locally. The welfare of the child must lie at the heart of this issue, and I am sure hon. Members agree that the child’s needs and future must always come first. The needs of the child are paramount, and I will continue working to ensure that our decision making is based on that.

Although local authorities have a duty to meet the needs of children in our care system, I recognise that more should be done to support them in responding to that challenge. Those children are a changing cohort, and we are taking steps to help local authorities manage the system, improve their work with families, and safely reduce the number of children who enter the care system in the first place.

I recognise some of the good initiatives from the Department for Education over the years, but as I said there are not enough places to allow local authorities to make a choice about what is in the best interests of the child. They are placing children in placements hundreds of miles away because they have no option. That is why we are urging the Department to take a lead responsibility, not only by putting more money into preventing children from entering the care system, which is important, but by dealing with the care needs of existing children in the care system, so that they have the choice of staying nearer home. That choice should not be dictated by the market. Does the Minister have any plans to convene a strategy group and consider how the market is functioning, just as was done in 2012, and to find a way forward to support local authorities and voluntary organisations to develop provisions that meet the needs of children?

I will certainly look at that. We need a combination of ways to prevent children from entering the care system—we will all agree that that is fundamental—and to tackle the supply of places. That is why we put an extra £40 million into creating more secure homes. The Government recognise that issue and are acting on it.

I recently announced an investment of £84 million over five years to support 18 local authorities as part of the Strengthening Families programme, and that is one example of how we are enabling children to stay safely with their families. We have also provided funding through our £200 million children’s social care innovation programme, £5 million of which is specifically targeted at residential care and expanding provision.

For the most vulnerable children who need secure provision, we have added a £40 million capital grants programme. We are funding local authorities—£110 million to date—to implement Staying Put arrangements, under which care leavers remain with their foster carers for longer. We are piloting the Staying Close programme with £5 million of funding to support ongoing links with a residential home.

I am listening with interest to what the Minister has to say. She is absolutely right about the need to prevent, to reduce the numbers of children needing to go into the care system. Is she aware—she must have conversations with the heads of such services, as I do—that the reason why local authorities are not spending more on prevention is that their funding has been reduced so much: by 50%, on average? They must use what is left to manage crises, so they have even less to invest in prevention.

Will the Minister consider working with local authorities to set up an investment fund to focus on prevention, to allow them to stop the problems happening? It would cost a little money up front, but save multiples more in future by not allowing young lives to be destroyed.

The approach we have taken is to target money at those areas that need it most, ones which have not been performing well, so that we can be specific with that Strengthening Families money of £84 million. We have invested in the workforce as well— £200 million—and our strategy is to put children first. We are doing things in a co-ordinated way.

The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East made reference to care leavers, a subject that the Secretary of State is passionate about, and I share his passion. This week, we announced a £19 million package of things to assist them and to give them the choices and chances that they deserve in life.

Fundamentally, I believe that young people can only ever be safe when they are cared for by local children’s services that have their best interests at heart—something that the hon. Member for Croydon North stressed. Funding is of course important, as he also stressed, and that is why the 2015 spending review gave local authorities access to more than £200 billion up to 2019-20 for services, including children’s social services. In addition, last month we announced another £1 billion for social care in 2020-21, so the issue is a focus of this Government and to say it is not would be unfair.

As I am sure hon. Members agree, however, that is only part of the solution. We are delivering an extensive programme of reform that has a strong focus on prevention, intervening early to provide families with the support that they need. The programme also works to ensure that, where children cannot stay with their family, there are enough places—a point laboured throughout the debate. We are also reforming social work and children’s social care so that we recruit and retain some of the most highly professional individuals. Providing the best possible support for local young people leaving the care system is also paramount.

Let me reassure hon. Members that my Department and I are committed to ensuring that children who go missing can be brought back safely, and that the service they receive in the care of the local authority means that they are in a home that is safe, secure and meets their needs. I commit to work relentlessly on the issue, and I invite any Member to follow up with and meet me after the debate. This is something that should be done and tackled not only across Government but across party. The issue is non-political and, at its heart, should always be about children—their safety, security and futures.

It has been an excellent debate. The area is complex, and each of the contributions has reflected that complexity. The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) has clearly seen the impact of unregulated accommodation in his constituency, which I know is a hotspot for county lines activity.

It is also interesting to hear the contributions from the different parts of the United Kingdom. I do not think that I have ever participated in a debate in Westminster Hall at which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has not been present. He has a long-standing commitment to the subject. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) very much gave us the Scottish perspective. Perhaps all that shows us the strength of the Union.

I tell the Minister that I do not doubt for one instant the commitment of every single Minister with whom I have raised this issue over the past 10 years. The worrying thing for me is that, since 2015, things have got worse in terms of the number of children going missing and the harm that has come to them, in spite of very good initiatives by the Department and a complete focus on prevention, which is absolutely right.

In this debate, I was asking for a focus on the underlying cause of the problem, which is to do with the insufficiency of places to meet the care needs of the children whom we are taking into care. I believe that unless that is managed and sorted out, and we get a proper supply distributed across England, we will continue to have children go missing in huge numbers and be at risk of exploitation. No one else can lead on this except the Minister and her Department. Only the Minister has the information, the financial leverage, and the authority to bring together and lead a group to address the fundamental market failures.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of sexual and criminal exploitation of missing looked after children.

Sitting suspended.