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Mr. Chope: It is probably the most supreme of ironies that the defence that the Minister uses against my Bill is one of bureaucracy, because my Bill is designed to identify the enormous costs to our taxpayers and our people of the EU bureaucracy. She has the temerity to
20 Jun 2008 : Column 1252
say that if I were to get together a commission of five people to look into this matter, that would be too much bureaucracy. What irony!

I wish to use the short time available to me to thank a few people. First, I thank all my colleagues who have been here to support the Bill either in interventions or in full speeches. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for the support of the Liberal Democrats, which came as a bit of a bonus, because I had not banked on it. I had expected—I was not disappointed—to have the support of my Front-Bench team, and I was delighted with the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois).

Those of us who are familiar with the processes that take place on Fridays know that getting private Members’ legislation on to the statute book is an iterative process. In the light of what the Minister has been saying, I have to accept that my Bill will not receive Royal Assent in this Session. Nevertheless, we have the basis for bringing the Bill back—perhaps that will happen in the next Session, although we may have to wait for an incoming Conservative Government to give it legs. The Bill will be the basis of a future justification of the costs and benefits of our membership of the European Union. Anybody who has been following our proceedings will know that there is a petition on the No. 10 website in support of the Bill. I believe that people will be able to sign that petition until some time in the middle of next month.

It was extraordinary that the Minister supported her case for membership of the European Union by citing the example of Cornwall, which is a county that I know well. Let us consider what is happening in Cornwall. Money that we gave to Europe is being given back to us, and we are being told how we can spend it in Cornwall. We do not have the freedom to spend it as we would wish. It is extraordinary that the Minister should think that that is a bonus, rather than a detriment of membership of the European Union.

On the Opposition Benches, we concentrated on the costs of membership because we knew that the Minister would balance the picture by mentioning the benefits. She failed to address the issue of costs, which are now estimated to be between 4 per cent. and 10 per cent. of GDP every year—enormous costs. We need a proper evaluation of those costs and whether the benefits are worth that money. Would it be better to have a renegotiation and a looser and freer arrangement with the European Union along the lines of the support given in the recent poll, in which more than 40 per cent. were in favour of a trading relationship with Europe, but not of all the European bureaucracy and interference of which we see so much?

Most of all, we support the rule of law, and it is a pity that the Minister did not say one word about the ruling in the High Court today. I shall not dwell on that, except to say that it takes me back to the first comments that I made in this debate. If the European Union will not listen, it risks a popular revolt. If the Government will not listen to the people of this country on the issues of Europe, they risk a popular revolt. Indeed, that is already happening. The arrogance of the Government on this matter will not protect them against the British people.

20 Jun 2008 : Column 1253

Question put, That the Bill be read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 8, Noes 0.
Division No. 227]
[1.42 pm


Baron, Mr. John
Burns, Mr. Simon
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Davey, Mr. Edward
Francois, Mr. Mark
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Robert Syms and
Mr. Nigel Evans

Tellers for the Noes:

Tony Cunningham and
Mr. Sadiq Khan

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than forty Members had taken part in the Division, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Runaway and Missing Children Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.52 pm

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the House and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for making time available for this important Bill. This is the third year that the Bill has been brought to the House, but the first time that it has reached a Second Reading debate. It is a very modest Bill, with a single substantive clause in which a duty is imposed on the Secretary of State in relation to runaway and missing children. The clause states:

It is a small Bill to deal with a large problem. It is estimated that every year in the United Kingdom, more than 100,000 children run away or go missing from home or care. The vast majority of those children get back home safely, but many do not. Some are harmed while they are away: information from the Children’s Society suggests that every year some 10,000 children are hurt, some extremely seriously, while missing from home or care, and the police estimate that each year about 50 children die while missing from home.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I support the Bill 100 per cent. Many people will be amazed to hear that it is not already an Act, or that all the bodies it lists are not already obliged to work together. Why are we having to wait so long for the measures to be given proper recognition?

Helen Southworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my good friend, for his intervention. He raises an important issue. Part of the problem is that the children in question disappear. They are missing; they are not there. That is one of the key issues that people raised with me when I first introduced the Bill. By definition, when a child goes missing, we do not know where they are. Some exceptionally good police officers have worked in this field, and they have been very frustrated at not being able to get the sort of co-ordination that the Bill proposes. They say to me that unless we ensure a better way of indicating what is happening, so that we can focus resources to tackle the problem, those children will fall below the radar. In police terms, they appear again only when they are the victims or perpetrators of a crime. As we all know, that is way too late.

The purpose of our work is to pull the process back, to ensure effective early intervention and to make sure that we can identify the children who are at risk of running away or going missing, so that we can put strategies in place for an alternative, and so that they can find other ways of dealing with problems. We all have problems that we have to think about and use quite a lot of skills to deal with. Some of the children whom we are talking about do not have the life experience to do that, and many of them do not have family and friends to whom they can turn for help. In the first instance, we have to reduce running away and give children alternatives, but secondly we must be able to
identify quickly those children who run away, and put something in place for them, so that they have a safe adult to turn to and a safe place to go.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): The hon. Lady said that the Bill covers children who are in care, so presumably children in the care of local authorities who run away—a vulnerable category—would also come within the scope of her Bill.

Helen Southworth: Yes. In fact, the point of the Bill is that it brings together all children; it does not select single sets of children, but covers children who go missing for any reason, whether from home or from care, and whether they have run away, are trying to escape abuse or have been abducted. In the extensive work that we have done on the subject over the years, we have found that those groups have a common purpose. We have to put in place infrastructures that will be able to react and respond to individual children and cover them all. There are mechanisms that we can put in place, as identified in the Bill, that can deal with that.

Some children who run away are running to escape abuse. Running away can seem to them the most sensible thing to do at the time. They are very frightened and they are trying to escape from something. There is a real concern about what they are escaping to. I am afraid that other children—quite often, they are children in the care of a local authority—are targeted by predatory adults who try to groom them, and pull them away from a place of safety to get them involved in things that are definitely to their disadvantage. The Bill will protect that whole range of children, and that is incredibly important, because any child who is missing who does not have access to a safe place to go and a safe person is at serious risk.

The evidence demonstrates not only that very serious, deliberate harm happens to children, but that some children who are alone as a result of going missing are far more prone to accident. They are very likely to be children who have low self-esteem, do not have a good sense of safety, and cannot evaluate situations. Evidence that I have brought before the House on a number of occasions has identified a series of young people who have put themselves at risk, or who have been put at risk by adults, with serious consequences, some of which will last them for the rest of their lives. Shelter has said that a young person who runs away or goes missing is much more likely to become homeless in later life. Work done in my local young offenders institute identified the fact that the vast majority of young offenders had run away from home or care before they committed any crime. Work that was done with young prostitutes found that the overwhelming majority of them had run away from home or care before they got involved in prostitution, and that they had been targeted and drawn into that activity by adults with ill intent.

The co-ordination proposed under the Bill would allow both local authorities to put in place support services for children and police to identify such adults and to take action against them and remove them from being a danger to children.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I have spoken to members of the Children’s Society in my constituency about this issue, and the hon. Lady is to be
congratulated on bringing the Bill before the House. I hope and assume that it will have support from Members of all parties. If the Bill is enacted and this information becomes available, what measures does she hope the Government will take? Does she hope, for example, that these children will be included in the Every Child Matters programme—and why are they not included in that already?

Helen Southworth: That is an incredibly important issue, and it has been a focus of attention over the past three years for myself, other Members and the organisations working in this field—particularly different Government Departments, because we must ensure that it is intrinsic to Every Child Matters, which is an excellent piece of work and is enacting a very good framework to make sure that every child does matter.

On the matter we are discussing now, the key issue is the nature of the problem. If a child runs away or goes missing in my authority area of Warrington, within 25 minutes they can be in Liverpool or Manchester, and they can have crossed a number of authority areas. Every Child Matters is based around where children live, but children who have run away are moving. That makes addressing such incidents incredibly difficult unless we have an infrastructure in place whereby police, local authorities and voluntary organisations have worked out ahead of time what they are going to do and how they are going to do it—unless they have the protocols in place and they can share information, and unless they have collected that information in the proper manner in the first place so that it can be shared quickly. We must ensure that all those different bodies can connect up and follow the child, and be wherever the child wants them to be.

That leads on to the crunch issue: the collection of information to ensure that each case involving a child can be managed individually, and so that resources can be targeted allowing services to be commissioned to be available for children within a particular area. We must also be able to monitor the effectiveness of that process, in order to make sure we are actually providing for these children—to make sure that if, for example, a child telephones at two o’clock on a Saturday morning from anywhere in the country, they can get access to a helpline that can tell them where there is somebody local who can help them and listen to their problem, and who can make sure that a safe adult gets to them at the telephone box they are calling from or wherever they are on a mobile phone. That is what we must do: we must be there for these children wherever they are. In the situations we are discussing, the child is moving, which is exceptional under the Every Child Matters agenda—they are moving across different agency and authority areas.

That leads me on to address what is currently happening on the ground. At present, 40 per cent. of police forces cannot provide information about the level of need in respect of runaway or missing children, and Children’s Society surveys have identified that only about 12 per cent. of local authority children’s services have an organised response to the needs of young runaways, which means that more than two thirds of local authorities do not currently have a planned response. That is an appalling situation, and we must address it.

The all-party group on runaway and missing children recently contacted local authorities asking them for information. Some 23 of them could not say how many of their looked-after children—children in their care, for whom they are directly responsible—had been reported missing to the police in the last year. Forty-two did not know how many of their children who are on the child protection register had been reported missing to the police. There have been excellent examples in both the police and local authorities of people trying to resolve this problem, but individuals by themselves cannot deal with it, and neither can individual authorities.

Realistically, police forces have better information on missing cars than on missing children. None of the police forces’ missing persons databases can share information electronically in real time with the national missing persons bureau’s database. There is no knowledge of how many police forces may or may not be able to share information electronically in real time with the police national computer system. There is no national requirement for police forces to use electronic management systems or to provide the missing persons bureau with their data, and there is no national requirement for forces to share among themselves data about runaway and missing children.

Those requirements are essential if we are to have effective working between police forces. We have exceptional officers who are dedicated to finding and protecting children who have run away or gone missing. We have to have a system that supports those officers and ensures that situations can be dealt with rapidly, that the information that is collected is kept so that predatory adults who target individual children can be identified rapidly and dealt with, and that social services departments can be supported in their work to target resources at those children. Lancashire police force has been incredibly effective in that regard, and it has been able to identify children at risk and work directly with their local authority to provide support.

I do not want to speak for too long, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say, and I know that other Members want to contribute. The Bill is very short and very carefully worked out. Very many people have been involved in its drawing up, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, social services departments, many Members, many voluntary organisations and many young people. I should like to ask the Minister with responsibility for children whether he will take his guidance from Bob the Builder. Can we fix it? Yes, we can. So let’s do it.

2.6 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) on bringing the Bill before the House? I pay tribute to her for her tremendous work as chairman of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, and for her campaigning over many years on this sensitive and important subject.

The hon. Lady’s Bill highlights a number of serious issues. According to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children under 16 run away each year. The society’s research indicates that such children are often fleeing family conflict, neglect and abuse, but they may also be pulled away to be near friends, or as a result of grooming
by an adult. Such children often sleep rough and are at much greater risk of sexual exploitation, violence and drug taking. One in 12 young runaways is hurt or harmed while away.

The key point that the Bill rightly identifies is the current lack of information about missing or runaway children and the lack of co-ordination between the relevant agencies to act when a child at risk has been identified. The hon. Lady puts her point clearly and starkly when she argues that better information is available nationally on missing cars than on missing children. The number, age and gender of children who are reported missing from home are not collected centrally. Such a facility has been available in the United States, for example, for a number of years. It is said that the new National Missing Persons Bureau, which the National Policing Improvement Agency launched on 1 April, will seek to develop national information to support local police operations.

One of the priorities for the bureau is to carry out a strategic assessment on missing people to formulate, develop and measure future policy initiatives in close consultation with the missing persons strategic oversight group. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House what progress is being made with the strategic assessment, when it will be completed and what areas the policy formulation is expected to address in general, and specifically in relation to missing children. The Government’s young runaways action plan talks about the bureau acting as a hub for the sharing of best practice and to co-ordinate consistent policing activity in the search for missing young people, with promises of revised guidance for police forces. However, are the Government planning to develop a central register of missing persons? Perhaps the Minister could provide some clarity on that, as it is not clear from the statements that have been made so far.

Can the Minister confirm how many police forces use the computerised system to record and manage reports of runaway and missing children? It has been suggested by the hon. Member for Warrington, South, among others, that fewer than half the 43 police forces do so. Is that number correct, and if so, why are so few police forces using it?

It is not just law enforcement agencies that need to focus on obtaining better information on missing children. Schools, local authorities and local social services departments also need to examine closely the issues of missing children. The Government have said that a new indicator in the national indicator set is to be introduced, covering children who run away from home or care, with data being monitored on a quarterly basis. Will that provide details on how many young runaways there are? How will it secure more effective joint working between children’s services, the police and local partners? What monitoring of the response of local strategic partnerships to the collection of data will be undertaken?

Collecting information is one thing, but as we have seen in other areas, doing something about it is another. That crucial factor was starkly highlighted by the recent Home Affairs Committee inquiry on domestic violence, forced marriages and “honour”-based violence. The Committee highlighted disturbing evidence of children having gone off school rolls without anyone tracking where they are, and noted concerns that some of those missing children may have been forced to marry overseas.
Although Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools has reported that most authorities have “good” procedures in place, in a few areas there is a lack of an overarching, co-ordinated approach to collecting and recording data relating to missing children that makes it difficult to establish their whereabouts. The Minister has acknowledged that there is scope for developing some standard definitions for local authorities to use in collecting information. The Government are currently consulting on updated, extended statutory guidance on identifying children not receiving a suitable education.

The Committee said that the whole situation caused it “great concern”, adding, at paragraph 166:

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