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17 Jan 2007 : Column 800

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that my only interest is in what is right for the armed forces; I do not have defence interests in my constituency, although I did serve myself. In today’s statement, there is nothing to suggest why Metrix and Wales were chosen. It might be the right decision, but nothing in the statement made public today indicates why it was made. Will the Secretary of State elaborate, in a spirit of openness?

Des Browne: Coming to the House to announce a decision is, in some circumstances, quite restricting. There is a comparatively short period in which to make a statement, and I am trying to stick to that requirement. To supplement the information available to hon. Members, I have placed a significant amount of background information, including the independent verification of technical assessments, in the House of Commons Library. Members can look at that information at their leisure if they wish to satisfy their curiosity or if they wish to be certain that we have been open. A detailed, complex technical assessment of the bids was made against a number of criteria that were set out in the bid process—I have made the information to tender available to the House of Commons, too—and on value for money the Metrix bids were the significant winner, which is why they were chosen. We must get down to details and discuss the terms of the contract to see whether those complex services can be delivered.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems is located in Blandford in my constituency. The South West of England Regional Development Agency estimates that the economic footprint of the military presence at Blandford is nearly £300 million a year, so the impact of any move will be significant. The Ministry of Defence has spent nearly £100 million developing the Royal School of Signals at Blandford into a centre of excellence, so I think that the decision is wrong. However, I want assurances about the future of Blandford. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the headquarters of the Royal School of Signals will remain at Blandford, that the signal officer in chief will remain there, and that in future Blandford will be the natural base for all signal regiments when they are located in the United Kingdom?

Des Browne: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire to extract those assurances from me, and he will understand my inability to give them to him. I have already said some quite detailed things about Blandford, and I confirm that we are still reviewing the implications for the headquarters of the signal officer in chief and the other units, including research and development facilities at Blandford. I cannot say any more at this stage.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I very much welcome the awarding of the contract to St Athan, which brings a period of uncertainty to an end and will unquestionably benefit the Welsh economy as a whole. Did the Ministry consider keeping the training contract in the public sector, or was the PPP approach the only one to be considered?

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Des Browne: I have already indicated in reply to previous questions some of the advantageous characteristics of the PPP, but the most significant advantage was that it allowed us the opportunity to make capital investment that, I candidly admit, we could not otherwise make. After decades of failure to invest in the infrastructure that delivered our training, the scale of investment required was such that it would take decades to secure it if we had used any other method. This way, however, we can secure it in the time scale that I gave in the statement.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am delighted that all training in Leconfield in my constituency will continue, and I congratulate the staff at Europe’s premier driver training centre on convincing both bidders of the strengths of their operation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the £40 million investment that is cited in the documents that he released to the House of Commons Library this morning will be invested in Leconfield, and will not be subject to any Treasury cuts in future?

Des Browne: I do not have any experience, either as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or, indeed, as the Secretary of State for Defence, of the Treasury cuts that people keep talking about. I do have experience, however, of significantly increased real investment in our armed forces, certainly compared with the money spent on them by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. I would be the first to say that we could do more if we invested more, and things that have been highlighted in recent months suggest that there are areas in which we need to invest more. I do not have with me the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but if its detail refers to a planned investment of that nature in his constituency, that is what is planned.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): There is a standing joke in the armed forces about RAF Cosford, Blandford and the garrison at Aldershot: when the barracks finally get a lick of paint people know that the building is going to be sold. There was a major project at St Athan, as £70 million was spent building a massive aircraft hangar to repair Tornadoes
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and Harriers, only for the entire project to be scrapped a year later. Will we see some better spending by the MOD?

Des Browne: Independent audit and assessment have confirmed that the MOD is getting progressively better at investing public money so that it can deliver for our armed forces. There is no question about that, but no one, whatever party they represent and certainly no one from a party that has governed the country, can be happy with our ability to do so in the past. We must be honest, and accept that in the past we made some significant mistakes. We do not need to enumerate them, as we all know what they are. We are on a path of improvement, and we will continue along that path.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): The Secretary of State generously congratulated the respective bids on the strong cross-party support they received and, in turn, I congratulate the architects of the Welsh bid, which will be well received in south Wales, not least by the Labour candidates for the Welsh Assembly elections next spring. It is a sad day for Shropshire, and a very sad day for my constituency. Will the Secretary of State confirm what he said in the statement about the details of the bid, and confirm that new build will be required to provide the training in St Athan, which, of course, was not the case with the Cosford proposal? I should like to take up his offer to explore a national manufacturing skills academy in Cosford, and I am happy to work with Government Members to progress that proposal in the near future.

Des Browne: At the risk of repeating myself, of course we will do all that we can to make sure that the best use is made of the Cosford site, to the advantage of the local community. I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman’s question was, but he said that one bid did not require new build while another did so. In any assessment of necessary investment, there is an argument that it is a positive aspect of any bid to provide modern, state-of-the-art accommodation for our people, particularly members of the armed forces who are training. The hon. Gentleman’s point therefore cuts both ways.

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Points of Order

1.28 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I need your guidance because, as you are aware, in many constituencies, including my own, health issues are paramount. The loss of the proposed super-hospital for Hatfield has been very hard for us, particularly as before the election the Secretary of State for Health visited us. Since the election, I have requested meetings with Ministers to discuss the failed proposal and debts. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), had been to St. Albans on 10 December, because I was unaware of that visit. I was unaware, too, that meetings were held to discuss the hospital bid. Will you give me guidance on the matter, Mr. Speaker, as the Minister has not as yet given me any indication that he will discuss the matter with elected Members, although parliamentary wannabes seem to receive that courtesy?

Mr. Speaker: It is a courtesy for any hon. Member who visits another constituency on an official matter to extend notice of the visit to the Member who represents the constituency. Whether it is a Minister or a Back Bencher, they should inform the sitting Member of Parliament that they are visiting their constituency. It is different, of course, if it is a private matter. I do not have any powers to tell a Minister to meet a Back Bencher, but I served as a Back Bencher in opposition, and it was always good to go and see a Minister. Ministers should consider seriously any request from an hon. Member to come and see them about a constituency matter. If a Member of Parliament cannot represent his or her constituency, who can?

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I, too, ask your advice as the Back Bencher’s friend and as the guardian of the House against a sometimes over-mighty Executive? The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced today by way of a written statement the merger of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. This is a significant change to the machinery of government, involving millions of pounds and intimately affecting communities throughout the country. Today we are discussing the business of the House, rather than pressing legislation. Why has the right hon. Lady not come to the House to make that statement? This is a pattern on her part. Whenever matters of controversy—for example, the abandonment of the home condition report element of the home information pack—are before us, she makes a written statement and does not come to the House to answer questions.

Mr. Speaker: My view has always been that a Minister should inform the House. How that information is conveyed is for the judgment of the Minister. I will leave it at that.

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Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children

1.31 pm

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I beg to move,

In November 2005, the House gave consent to publish a Bill to protect runaway and missing children. The Bill was published last year with support from the National Missing Persons Helpline, the Children’s Society, Parents and Abducted Children Together, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Crisis, the chair of children’s services for the Association of Directors of Social Services, the lead officer for runaways from the Association of Chief Police Officers, and many hon. Members. That Bill’s purpose was also to place a duty on the Secretary of State to safeguard children.

It does not seem too much to ask that vulnerable children are identified so that they can be helped, that information is collected when a child is reported missing to the police, and that there is effective co-ordination to ensure that such children receive help. However, the House did not find time to give the Bill a Second Reading. Safeguarding vulnerable children is, however, the core business of Government. It is our responsibility and we cannot ignore it. We need the Bill.

The Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills do not even know how many children have gone missing over the past 12 months. A large number of local authority children’s services—the bodies responsible under “Every Child Matters” for safeguarding young runaways—do not know how many children in their own area were reported missing to the police in 2005. Of the 120 authorities that responded to my recent request for information, 71 did not know the statistic for their area, 23 could not say how many of their looked-after children—children for whom they were directly responsible—were reported missing to the police in 2005, and 42 did not know how many children on their child protection register had been reported missing to the police.

Police forces have been making progress during the past 12 months, but fewer than half are currently using the computerised systems designed to make recording and management of reports effective. Research by the Children’s Society indicates that around 100,000 children go missing each year. Those estimates are corroborated by research for the Government’s social exclusion unit review of young runaways in 2002 and by statistics from the Metropolitan police.

That means that, on average, every five minutes of every day a child goes missing in the UK. Most get home safely and are cared for and cherished, but many do not. They are running from danger into danger. Those children must have someone to turn to and somewhere safe to go. It is our responsibility to make that happen. Today there are only 10 places available in
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refuges run by charities for children who have run away. National and local charities are the main providers of emergency help.

The National Missing Persons Helpline has set up a dedicated runaways helpline, totally funded by voluntary donations and grants, which took 57,000 calls in 2005—calls like one from an 11-year-old girl who phoned in the early hours of the morning, asking for help because her mother had kicked her out of the house. She agreed to speak to social services, but hung up. She phoned again a few days later at 10 pm and asked for contact with social services, which was arranged by the helpline.

Almost a month later the girl rang again late at night, saying that her mum had thrown her out again. Social services advised her to go home, but she said she would rather stay on the streets than go back. The helpline night worker was able to persuade her to talk to the police, who picked her up at 1 am, very cold and scared. This little girl is 11 years old and has special needs. Without the helpline, she would have been out on the streets on her own through several nights.

The London Refuge provides emergency accommodation and specialist support for children who have run away. Among the children whom it has helped in the past 12 months was a 14-year-old girl referred to the refuge by the police. She ran away because she was being hit by her mother. She disclosed physical abuse over a sustained period of time. She said that her mother had burned her with an iron, and showed the staff a serious scar on her stomach. She had special educational needs and attended a school for children with special needs. She had run away several times before.

The refuge made a child protection referral, arranged for an advocate and contacted a solicitor on the girl’s behalf at her request. She said she would not go home because she was too scared. Her solicitor attended the administrative division of the High Court on her behalf. The court ordered that she should be accommodated by the local authority, pending assessment and investigation. She was placed in foster care that day. The refuge does not have funding to continue its work beyond this financial year.

Those children found someone to help them, but thousands of other children do not, and we do not even know how many of them are out there on their own. According to the Children’s Society research, many young people sleep rough, stay with someone they have just met, or employ strategies such as begging or stealing to survive. There are serious risks to children surviving in this way. More than 8 per cent. had been hurt or harmed on the most recent occasion that they had run away. Children who were away for more than a week were twice as likely to have been hurt or harmed. The surveys indicate that over 20,000 children are missing for a week or more each year.

The police have given me some anonymous case studies, and they are heartbreakers. A 14-year-old boy with a deteriorating sight condition that means he is partially sighted was being abused by his mother and so
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was put on the child protection register, then placed in a care home. He ran away from the home 23 times between the end of October 2005 and the end of January 2006. On the last occasion that he went missing, he was robbed and assaulted.

Other cases—some were far worse—depict time and again vulnerable children, including children in local authority care, children with special needs and children with mental health problems, persistently running away and being exploited by predatory adults, getting trapped into drug abuse, drug dealing, sexual exploitation and prostitution. One 15-year-old, born HIV-positive and in local authority care, was reported missing 120 times. A 16-year-old girl in care went missing 111 times.

Yet Lancashire police, working with children’s services and charities, have demonstrated that good information, appropriately shared, interviews with children and action to tackle their problems radically reduces the number of runaways, and in addition gives police the information that they need to prosecute abusers. The problem can be solved only by effective joint working. Because children who run away cross administrative boundaries, that co-operation must extend beyond the local area.

If we want to buy a book or a piece of music, five minutes on the internet will find it for us. We can pay our road tax online or contact friends whom we have not seen for years. Information is available to us at the press of a button. The Bill will require police and Government bodies to use technology to record when a child goes missing. Local authorities will know that a child in their care has run away before that happens 120 times, and will be able to identify and tackle problems in their care homes. The Bill will also require agencies to work together so that police officers do not return a vulnerable child to its abusers, predatory adults are not left free to pick up children off the street, and charities can access statutory support when a scared and vulnerable child makes contact in the middle of the night.

One does not need to be a philanthropist to back speedy action, just someone who will not put up with waste. It costs £1,000 in police time to investigate a missing person. The young boy with impaired sight whom I mentioned earlier, who was abused at home and ran away from care 23 times, cost £23,000 of police time in those three months. How much better that money could have been spent. How much does it cost to keep someone in a young offenders institute? Ninety-four per cent. of the inmates at Thorn Cross YOI in my constituency said that they had been runaways before becoming involved in crime. Early intervention can save children and save money.

In short, a child is running away every five minutes. More than 100,000 will have run away in the past 12 months. Some of them will have been running from serious abuse. About 8,000 of them will have been hurt or harmed while they were away from home—some very seriously hurt. We do not know how many were murdered. Information technology and communications are now so advanced that a single telephone call from a child
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anywhere in the country, day or night, should give them access to safety and help. It is our job to make this happen, and it is about time that we did.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Helen Southworth, Ann Coffey, Dan Norris, John Battle, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. John Denham, Ann Keen, Ms Dari Taylor, Jane Kennedy, Mr. Stewart Jackson and Mr. Paul Burstow.

Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children

Helen Southworth accordingly presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to establish a national strategy to safeguard runaway and missing children; to make provision for the collection and reporting of information about runaway and missing children and for related co-ordination between local authorities and other bodies; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 47].

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now come to the motion on conventions. I must tell the House—

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With no disrespect to the Chair with regard to the selection of amendments, I merely want to draw attention to the question whether the practice of comity between the Houses has led to the fact that the proposed amendment, which would replace the words “with approval” with the words “with interest”, has been the reason for—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of this House and knows full well that the Chair does not enter into debates about why amendments have been selected or otherwise. I have to tell the House that the amendment on the Order Paper has not been selected.

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