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9 Jan 2008 : Column 305

Runaway and Missing Children

12.32 pm

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

Every year in the United Kingdom, more than 100,000 children go missing from home or care. Most of them return home safely, but research by the Children’s Society indicates that about 10,000 children every year are hurt or harmed while they are missing. Many thousands of those children are running away to escape abuse in the first place; they have no safe home to return to. Some children are hurt very severely while they are away and suffer lifelong consequences. Vulnerable children on their own are targeted by predatory adults. Evidence from police and children’s charities has identified children drawn into prostitution, trafficked or groomed into drug-running by adults who pretend friendship. Some children disappear without trace. Police estimate that about 50 children every year die or are killed while they are missing; that is a child death each week that could be prevented.

All such figures are estimates because, astonishingly, there is no requirement for data to be recorded or collected nationally; and without data identifying need, statutory bodies are not allocating resources to safeguard these vulnerable children. A small number of police forces are leading initiatives to identify and protect runaway and missing children and the Association of Chief Police Officers issued guidance on the management and reporting of missing persons in 2005, but a number of police forces are still using paper-based systems. Better information is still available nationally on missing cars than on missing children. Police have a key performance indicator set by the Government on vehicle crime, so they allocate resources and collect information. Children are more important than cars, but the Department for Children, Schools and Families—the lead Department—collects no data on runaway and missing children.

Recently, a welcome announcement was made that children missing from home and care will be included as a national performance indicator for local authorities from April 2009. But the relationship between the police and local authorities is crucial, because people report a missing child to the police, not the local authority. Police forces must have a proper and effective method of collecting and analysing information about missing children. Some 40 per cent. of police forces are unable to provide information about the level of need in respect of runaway and missing children in their area.

In November 2005, and again in January 2007, this House gave consent to publish a Bill to protect runaway and missing children. Both Bills received support from Missing People, the Children’s Society, Parents and Abducted Children Together, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Crisis, the lead officer for runaways from the Association of Chief Police Officers and many hon. Members. In the previous Session, more than 200 hon. Members supported the call for time to be granted for
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this Bill’s consideration. 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 between the police, health authorities and local authorities.

We must ensure that a child who is calling for help can get it. In October, the sponsors of this Bill and other hon. Members held parliamentary hearings, where we received evidence from a range of charities, police forces, local authorities and Government bodies. We heard about some excellent joint local working between the police, local authorities and voluntary organisations. Such partnerships demonstrated effectiveness in reducing the incidence of running away, in better protecting children who had gone missing and in tackling predatory adults who target runaway children to prey on them. Such effective partnerships are few and far between, and the reality for many children is bleak, with no local service either in place or planned.

The Children’s Society has just completed an extensive review of services for runaways in England on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It told us that there was exemplary practice in few locations and that adequate services do not exist in the majority of places. The survey identified that only about 12 per cent. of local authorities have organised responses to the needs of young runways. More than two thirds of local authorities are not even planning a response, despite the fact that having a plan is part of the local authority guidance issued under a local authority circular by the Department of Health in 2002. More than two thirds of local authorities are not fulfilling even that part of the existing guidance, and that serious failure is leaving some very vulnerable children and young people without any protection. Poor data collection is making it impossible to identify failures or to direct resources and allocate priorities. We received a wealth of evidence relating to real dangers that are being faced by some young people who are alone in Britain’s streets today and identifying that this issue must be made a clear and urgent safeguarding priority.

Lancashire police’s “Mountains into Molehills” project produced significant evidence of risk levels to young individuals and the successful results of early intervention. The force also identified the hugely wasteful cost to police authorities and the hugely attritional effect on children’s life chances of having only a reactive approach to missing children. It worked out that just investigating cases was costing Lancashire police about £6.2 million a year. Some 77 per cent. of the force’s missing person cases involved young people under the age of 18, and the same people were going missing over and over again—one girl from a care home was the subject of 78 missing person investigations. Three children did not survive; one was killed in a road traffic collision while missing, one was murdered and her body was never found and the other visited some adults who had chaotic lifestyles and who plied her with drink and prescription drugs—she died as a result.

Many runaway children return home safely, but we repeatedly heard evidence of children being targeted by predatory adults for sexual or drug-related exploitation. Such children were being encouraged to run away repeatedly
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by people who were pretending to be their friends. The police’s ability to tackle such predators depends on the good retrieval and recording of information from young victims, who often feel no trust in authority figures.

The most effective local action depends on a good working relationship between police, local authorities, health authorities and the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector was consistently cited as a key partner because of its role as a trusted friend for young people. However, despite their crucial role in supporting children at risk, most of the charities working to provide support for runaway and missing children are uncertain about continued funding for their work. Most do not know whether they will have funding to continue in just three months’ time. Even Missing People, the national charity that provides 24/7 helplines for missing people and their families and a runaway helpline that took 50,000 calls last year, receives only modest core support from Government and does not know whether it will receive any funding beyond March this year. More alarmingly, the National Policing Improvement Agency, which took responsibility for missing people, including missing children, from September, has been allocated a budget of only £261,000 from the Home Office in this financial year.

ACPO has calculated that the social cost of policing runaway and missing children is £220 million a year, which is set against a total Government investment to tackle the issue of £1.1 million in the last year. It beggars belief. Targeted early intervention, using data to identify children at risk and involving senior-level leadership are proven to reduce the number of children who run away, to help those who do run and to tackle the underlying problems. Early intervention saves money and saves children. Urgent action must be taken to make the simple changes that are needed to reduce the number of children who run away or go missing in the first place and to ensure the immediate safety of those children who go missing. The Bill is a simple measure to require the collection and reporting of information. It is our job to protect those children and it is about time we did it. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Helen Southworth, Ann Coffey, Dan Norris, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Russell Brown, Alan Keen, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. David Chaytor, Mr. Kevin Barron, Ms Dari Taylor, Annette Brooke and John Bercow.

Runaway and Missing Children

Helen Southworth accordingly presented a Bill to make requirements regarding the safeguarding of runaway and missing children; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed [Bill 51].

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Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

12.43 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,


Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings

    New Clauses relating to section 127 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; amendments relating to those new Clauses.

    Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

    New Clauses relating to self-defence; amendments relating to those new Clauses.

    Three and a quarter hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

    New Clauses and new Schedules standing in the name of a Minister of the Crown relating to sentencing, the release or recall of prisoners, or bail, except those relating to the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984 or referral orders; amendments relating to those new Clauses and Schedules.

    Four and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

    Remaining proceedings on consideration.

    Seven hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order, or 7.45 p.m., whichever is the earlier.

I recognise that the Opposition will undoubtedly not share the Government’s wish to support the programme motion. I almost anticipate the fact that the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats will oppose it. Indeed, Mr. Speaker, I shall let you into a little secret, between ourselves: if I were an Opposition Member I might well oppose the motion myself. I know that it will be very difficult for us to discuss some of the amendments before the House in the time that we have allocated for today’s debate. I am sincerely grateful to the Government Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), for securing extra time for today’s business, beyond the normal point of interruption, so that we can continue the Third Reading debate until about 8.45 pm.

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My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I understand that the official Opposition and others would like to have more time. We have tried to use the programme motion to make available as much as possible, consistent with the need to get the Bill to the other place on time.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I do not understand the logic of the Minister’s argument. He concedes the position of those who oppose this dire programme motion and says that we must complete our deliberations in the time available, but it is in the Government’s power to ensure that legislation is not forced or rushed through. It should not be left to the House of Lords to deal with the Bill, so why do not the Government withdraw the motion so that we can adopt a proper approach to the business?

Mr. Hanson: I understand the concerns of the Opposition. With my right hon. Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Whip, I have tried to make available as much time as is practicable, consistent with the need to get the Bill through this House and the other place.

The programme motion ensures that the House will have eight hours today for Report and Third Reading, on top of the 47 hours that we had in Committee. The Bill was debated fully in Committee, where hon. Members of all parties supported the Government’s programming provisions.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I note what the Minister has said about the Committee proceedings, but hon. Members had no opportunity to discuss the new clauses being introduced today. They include new clause 1 on blasphemy, new clause 2 on prostitution and, to a lesser degree, new clause 17 on graffiti. That last new clause is my own modest contribution to the Bill, but although I believe that the Secretary of State is sympathetic to it, we are not likely to reach it.

Mr. Hanson: As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I have tried to structure today’s proceedings so that there is a reasonable amount of time to debate three significant new additions to the Bill. We had a full debate in Committee and covered all the matters that arose then. In fact, we completed the Committee stage 15 minutes before the allotted time expired, but we have made available a reasonable amount of time so that the new clauses that we have had to introduce—on the reserve statutory prohibition on prison officers taking industrial action, the clarification of the law on self-defence, and the proposed changes to sentencing and bail arrangements following Lord Carter’s review of prisons—can be considered by the House.

I recognise that the programme motion will be debated, and that the Opposition will not support it. However, given the circumstances and the extra time that we have been able to secure today, I commend it to the House.

12.47 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May I begin by congratulating the Minister on his ability to keep a straight face?

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This Bill was first presented to the House before the summer recess and its Second Reading debate took place in the spillover period of the previous Session. In those days—at a time when the Government and their spin doctors were threading their wobbly way through the Corridors, bars and Lobbies of this building, having returned from the hazy pleasure domes of Bournemouth—a general election was in the air. We all expected the Prime Minister to announce when it would be held: certainly, the topic and was being spoken of by journalists and by the younger and more excitable members of the Cabinet.

Indeed, political commentators were promised not only an election in the first week of November but a crushing victory for the Labour party that would see the end of the Conservatives as a credible party of opposition. What that meant, of course, was that the Bill that we now have the misfortune to be considering was intended to die with the Parliament. It was, as anyone who has given it even the most cursory glance will know, a disastrously muddled Bill. As I suspected when it was published—and my suspicions have only got stronger since—the Bill was not meant to be passed into law; instead, it was intended as a headline catcher to give the impression that the Government, despite the departure of Tony Blair, were still at work.

Today is a dark day for the House and for parliamentary democracy as a whole. The Government—who do not enjoy the public’s trust or confidence, or the respect of the membership of this House—now tell us that this Bill should complete its remaining stages by 7.45 pm, or possibly earlier. Were this a 10-clause Bill that had gone through Committee with a few amendments, this timetable would not be objectionable and the motion would pass without debate, let alone a Division, but let us see what sort of Bill this is and the timetable into which the Government intend to fit our debate. The Bill that left Committee bore little resemblance to the Bill that was debated on Second Reading, and the Bill that we are debating this afternoon bears little resemblance to the one that left Committee. It had 128 clauses and 23 schedules on Second Reading.

It was, by any standards, a large Bill. That had much to do with the fact that it was the product of two ministries, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that Ministers from both Departments would privately prefer that this Bill had nothing to do with them because neither ministerial team wants to take responsibility for the mess it has become—and I do not blame them. Success has a thousand parents and failure is always an orphan, and this Bill is a legislative failure. It has been used as a dumping ground for every half or ill-considered idea that has been languishing on the shelves of the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and Downing street.

We heard evidence in Committee from several witnesses who pointed out numerous deficiencies in the Bill that were the result of the omission of necessary or desirable provisions and the inclusion of provisions that would not work or were not likely to deal with the problem they were said to be curing. Of course, the Government paid no attention to that.

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