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Another child, 11 years old, is on the child protection register as a result of violence in the family home. His father is an alcoholic, and his mother has a drug problem. The parents are together intermittently, and the child has been caught in the middle of a volatile and violent situation for a number of years. He was placed in foster care. He is described as shy and introverted. He remained at school, but his foster carer lived outside the borough, so he had to make the long journey to school in a taxi every day. He is frightened of the dark.

The child ran away from foster care, taking all his belongings. He was found the next day back with his parents, but because of the situation to which he had returned, he was taken into police protection and was debriefed by the police. He explained that he was frightened all the time, especially when coming home from school, and that he had been bullied at the foster carer’s house. Apparently two older teenage boys were also in care at the address. They had been bullying him. He had been locking himself in his room each night, and going to school in the morning without any human contact as such. He was taken by social services back to the foster carer’s house, but he promptly ran away again within an hour. He was found very quickly wandering nearby, and has now been placed in alternative care.

Those are far from isolated cases. Although some young people find that running away can provide a relief from pressure, a large minority find themselves lonely, hungry and frightened. Children on the run are at high risk of abuse, and face both immediate and long-term dangers.

Across the country, I have encountered some exceptional individuals and statutory and voluntary organisations. They are working incredibly hard to put things right. An example is the “mountains into molehills” project organised by Lancashire constabulary, who work with all the other key local stakeholders to establish effective advanced problem-solving measures. It is a beacon of best practice. The computerised missing persons case management system allows analysis of missing persons data, which make it possible for problem solving to intervene at an early stage. Lancashire found that of 6,200 missing persons investigations undertaken annually, more than 4,800 involved children under 18. Lancashire tracked children who had been missing more than twice and found 300 children who accounted for almost 3,200 of the missing persons investigations. The majority of those cases involved children in care. One had been the subject of 78 missing persons investigations in a single year.

Following Lancashire’s example, Leicester constabulary has recently carried out work with its key local partners, which revealed that of the 4,241 reports to the police of missing persons, 6 per cent. were reports about the same 10 young people. All were in local authority care, all were reported missing more than 10 times, and one individual had been reported missing more than 53 times during the year.

It is significant that in the Met police, Lancashire and Leicestershire, very senior police officers, and people at director level in other stakeholder organisations, are taking a lead role. Someone is taking
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responsibility at the top of the organisations to get action. A common thread identifies a particularly vulnerable group of “cross border” children with serious social, domestic and behavioural difficulties. They are placed by the local authorities responsible for their care into private care homes in different areas of the country. For a minority of children who need to be placed away from home to protect them from particular circumstances, such placements are appropriate. All too often, however, children are placed inappropriately, without sufficient support and without liaison with local services.

For children running away from local authority care, the current system is failing to meet their most basic needs—a safe place to stay and someone safe to talk to. Children’s services, police, the voluntary sector and health services have vital roles to play in ensuring that runaways are known about, found and their problems appropriately addressed. Making sure that the agencies know how to work together effectively is a key dynamic of the “Every Child Matters: Change for Children” reforms. The need for co-ordinated action was also a central feature of the recommendations made by the social exclusion unit in 2002, and the accompanying guidance issued by the Department of Health. But the co-ordinated action, backed up by effective information collection and sharing, clear strategies and leadership, is not happening everywhere.

In October 2003, The Children’s Society conducted a survey to see how local authorities were getting on with protocols and services for runaways. Some 91 of 150 local authorities replied, of which just under half had developed protocols for runaways. Only seven authorities could say that they had implemented all three of the recommendations. In 2005, a new survey showed that 89 local authorities have all recommendations in place, and a further 25 have committed to fulfilling the recommendations. That is too slow and piecemeal, and is letting vulnerable children down. Children are still running away from danger into danger, which is why we must have national leadership and national accountability to ensure that things happen.

National voluntary organisations such as The Children’s Society, the National Missing Persons Helpline, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Childline have been seeing the problems and taking action for years, providing places of refuge and someone to talk to. Local projects such as Talk Don’t Walk in my constituency are having a real impact, but their funding is uncertain—even though for some children they are the only place the child trusts enough to turn to for help, like the 12-year-old boy who came to a refuge run by a charity, alleging physical abuse and that his dad locked him up at home. The refuge contacted children’s services, who returned the boy home with social work support. A month later, he turned up barefooted at the refuge with a fractured arm, saying that his Dad had hit him, taken his shoes away and locked him up. He escaped and could only think of the refuge as a safe place to go. He has since been accommodated and remains accommodated.

The National Missing Persons Helpline set up a runaways helpline two years ago that took 57,000 calls last year—funded by the charity. It is an essential
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service for children such as the 12-year-old who ran away from home after an argument with her mum’s new boyfriend. She did not know where to turn. There were two younger children at home and the mum did not realise that her daughter was missing. The runaways helpline connected her to a duty social worker for the first time.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Helen Southworth: Yes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. If the hon. Lady is giving way, she must sit down.

Dan Norris: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Will she say a little more about the resourcing of that helpline? It does a wonderful job, but it has to raise all the money it needs to provide the service. Does she also share my disappointment that despite the high-profile comments about young people by the Leader of the Opposition recently, not one single Conservative Member is present for the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Speaker has made it clear many times that an Adjournment debate is a private debate for the Member who secures it. It is not appropriate to make party political references to the absence, or otherwise, of other hon. Members.

Helen Southworth: My hon. Friend supports my Bill, and knows that one of the things that we are calling for is a 24-hour helpline. That is essential, as children on the street need someone to talk to, whenever they feel the need to talk.

For example, one 15-year-old girl ran away from a children’s home. At 3 o’clock in the morning, she found herself with a group of older men, who threatened her. She was scared about repercussions and contacted the helpline. At her request, the helpline worker contacted the police, and talked to her until the police arrived at the telephone box to collect her.

For such children, the runaways helpline is a lifeline, and the voluntary organisation Refuge the only safe place to be. Non-statutory services are often the key to engaging young runaways, gaining their trust and helping them to resolve the difficulties that cause them to leave home or care in the first place. We have to make sure that such organisations are part of a national strategy and that they continue to provide their services. That is vital, because runaway children depend on those services absolutely.

There are children running away from the threat of physical and emotional danger who have nowhere to go and no one to talk to. Life can be unbearably hard for them, and that is not acceptable. They are our children, and we are letting them down, so we have to get our act together.

We must provide national leadership and direction, and make sure that all children, in every part of the country, have someone to turn to when they need help.

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6.21 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) on securing this debate. Straight away, I want to acknowledge her efforts and hard work on behalf of young runaways. She has worked with all the organisations that she mentioned, and I am delighted to be a co-sponsor of the Bill to which she referred.

We are talking not about bad children, but about children running away from bad situations. When they do that, they find themselves in even worse difficulties, in circumstances where they risk suffering harm, abuse or exploitation. The hon. Lady was right to say that we must get our act together at both local and national levels. I had the privilege recently of going to Chicago with The Children’s Society, to look at how the US deals with the problem. It was a fascinating visit and we published a report, through the society, setting out some of lessons that we as a team learned.

I first became interested in this issue while sitting in a church pew listening to a sermon. I was approached by my constituent Janet Little, who works locally for The Children’s Society. She raised her concerns with me, and that led me to ask questions of my local authority and to submit a number of parliamentary questions on the subject. I am pleased to say that more than 400 hon. Members of all parties have signed early-day motion 393 supporting The Children’s Society campaign to secure safety for young runaways and to provide a national network of facilities for them.

When I was in Chicago, I was struck most by the fact that people there have been working on the problem for 30 or 40 years. Through federal funding, they have managed to establish a network of shelters that provide a basic minimum—a first safe harbour—for young people. Ultimately, those shelters create a pathway that will lead those young people back home. We need a similar national network in this country.

In Chicago, one shelter had more beds for young runaways than the total number of such beds currently available in this country. The scale of the problem here is different, but the need is still great. That is why I very much support what the hon. Lady has said today and I agree with the examples that she has given. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to the debate and, if she has not already done so, I trust that she will look at the report published by The Children’s Society about the trip to Chicago.

In conclusion, we need a clear legal framework with long-term political backing, as there is in the United States—which has stable and long-term core funding with a secure service infrastructure and a co-ordinated approach locally and nationally. That is what we need in the UK to create safe pathways home for those who run away.

6.25 pm

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) on securing the debate, and I thank other Members for their contributions. I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s keen interest in the issue over a long period, especially from recent meetings that she has held with
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me and my ministerial colleagues and departmental officials. I know that Members on both sides of the House share our deep concern for the well-being of all young people at risk, including runaways. I also pay tribute to all the local and voluntary organisations who work with vulnerable children and to national bodies such as The Children’s Society, whose vigorous campaigning helps to keep these important issues high on the public agenda.

In these debates, it is always frustrating to have only a relatively short time to do justice both to the issues that have been raised and the importance of the subject, but I shall do my best. First, I recognise that all vulnerable young people need specialist help when they need it—whether in respect of teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, care or home life, or when they are running away or go missing.

Thankfully, running away from home is not an issue for most children; they are well looked after, grow up in decent homes and receive good care from their parents or carers, but for some children life reaches a crisis point. For a small but significant number, running away seems at the time to be the answer to their problems. They do not do so lightly; it is usually a last resort and it is a cry for help of some sort.

It is important to bear in mind that running away is not an end in itself; it is not a problem in its own right, but an indicator that other serious things are going wrong in the young person’s life, as the cases described by my hon. Friend graphically illustrated. It is a symptom rather than a problem in its own right.

Our information about young people who run away comes mainly from a social exclusion unit report and The Children’s Society research, which tells us much about who runs away, where they go and why. The Children’s Society estimates that about 100,000 young people run away every year; the SEU estimate is a little less, but the issue is not about numbers. Some marked differences emerged between runaways from birth-parent families and step-families and between boys and girls.

My hon. Friend described some harrowing cases and a minority of runaways are certainly seriously at risk, but there are big differences between the young people who run away. The majority return overnight, 80 per cent. return with 48 hours and almost all return home within a week. Most of those who run away are not sleeping rough and without a place to go; the vast majority—about 86 per cent.—go to family or friends. That may not be an ideal solution, but at least they get on with their lives. However, as my hon. Friend illustrated, some do not and, what is worse, their problems may be magnified by other risks to their well-being: drugs, prostitution, exploitation of terrible kinds and, sometimes, life-threatening situations. Their main problem is not that they are running away; they are running away because they have other serious problems. I am determined that, in tackling those problems, we generate practical solutions for young people that address those multiple root causes.

Two fundamental questions arise from the reports that I mentioned: first, how do we best prevent young people from running away in the first place, and secondly, how can we best ensure their safety and safe
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return and address the underlying problems? It is true that runaway young people need someone to talk to and somewhere to go, but crucially they also need help with the underlying problems that cause them to run away in the first place.

My hon. Friend called for a national strategy, and I think that she meant a national strategy for runaways. In fact, I would say to her that we do have a national strategy—it is called “Every Child Matters”. Since the social exclusion report, it is the “Every Child Matters” programme that is driving improvements, and the better and more comprehensive response from agencies for all young people, but particularly for those most vulnerable young people, including runaways. All the measures within that programme, including improved information sharing, a common assessment framework to assess young people’s needs, and identifying a lead professional who can coordinate that support, are equally relevant to the needs—often multiple needs—of young people who run away, and together they provide the sort of help that young runaways need in meeting some of those problems. I firmly believe that it is through the universal strands of “Every Child Matters”, not a separate strategy for runaways, that we shall best meet the needs of these young people.

Mr. Burstow: I entirely agree with the point about the universal strands being the best way to deliver these services. The key question is, how do we ensure that commissioners can look beyond their own boundaries to commission services for their residents who have run away and are miles away, in another part of the country?

Beverley Hughes: I agree that although “Every Child Matters” is the relevant framework, there is more to be done in ensuring that all local authorities and all local organisations, including those working in the voluntary sector, have the issue of runaway young people on their radar screens as an issue that must be addressed in the context of their wider “Every Child Matters” work. At a recent meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South, we discussed with her and with The Children’s Society the possibilities for furthering the work that we have been doing by updating existing guidance about best practice for local authorities, and discussing how else we can help local authorities to articulate, understand and address the needs of runaways, to spread best practice, and to ensure that the elements in their existing architecture, such as the children and young persons plan, include measures that they need to take locally to address the needs of runaway young people, whether it is their own young people running away or young people who have run away into their area from elsewhere.

It is important before we finish to say something about lookedafter children. Many of the cases that my hon. Friend mentioned related to lookedafter children, the vast majority of whom—about 64 per cent.—go into care because of abuse or neglect at home. It is really important that they receive high quality services, are kept safe and helped to reach their potential. I know and accept that children who are looked after by the local authority cause considerable concern, not only because some go missing, but because across the board their general outcomes are falling behind those
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of other children and young people. That is unacceptable. If children go into state care because their home care is inadequate, they should not emerge from that state care in a worse situation than they were in before. Their wellbeing should have been improved.

For that reason the Government, across a number of Departments, are working very hard to identify the barriers to helping lookedafter children progress. We are working hard to ensure that young people who come into care, because of a multiplicity of really serious problems and often serious abuse and neglect, are actually helped, and not allowed to experience a lack of controlled care and a lack of careful dealing with their problems in the multiagency approach that we want.

The guidance relating to children missing from home and care already requires local authorities to have a number of measures in place, including drawing up
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protocols with the police and measures to monitor missing-from-care incidents. In fact, I think that compliance is rather greater than my hon. Friend was able to inform us. None the less, these measures are not enough. That is why we are publishing a Green Paper later this year, hopefully in September, in which we want to make sure that we can introduce measures with local authorities that really stop looked-after children from drifting. We want to make sure that the kind of cases that we heard about today do not happen. In the context of the national strategy of “Every Child Matters”, it is, at the local level—

The motion having been made at five minutes past Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes to Seven o'clock.

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