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If one looks at the situation regarding children missing from children’s homes, a similar theme emerges. In 2005, 290 children went missing on one or more occasions. In 2006, the figure was again 290, and in 2007 it was 300. In 2006, 370 children went missing for more than a month while apparently being looked after by social services. This is of particular concern, as it highlights the dangers of child exploitation and the trafficking of children.

Research published by UNICEF shows that in an 18-month period 330 children were believed to have been trafficked into the UK and that 183 of them went missing from the care of social services. The Government have published guidance for local authorities, but more will be required if we are to make a real difference and to put child protection to the fore. We must avoid the horrendous situation in which children come under the protection of the state but the state cannot deliver on its obligations to them. They should and must be protected. Just one example concerns Vietnamese cannabis factories that are currently being raided, with findings of children being exploited, misused and abused.

The question arises of what checks are done on family members. In certain circumstances, children who have been arrested are handed back to supposed family members, but there is evidence to suggest that they are not actually relatives but part of the criminal gangs responsible for the trafficking. Further checks must be carried out to ensure that children are not handed back to the gangs that want to continue to exploit them.

Operations such as Operation Pentameter and the current Operation Pentameter 2 deal with the sex trade. Does their scope need to be broadened to take account of children who are trafficked not just for sex but for other forms of exploitation? That underlines the need for not just the reporting and collection of information but the swift adoption and ratification of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. I urge the Minister to press ahead with that and identify the necessary mechanisms for it, whether under secondary or primary legislation. He has our assurance that the Opposition want that delivered as quickly as possible.

We need to deliver also on other practical measures to ensure that proper checks are made at borders and that we have a robust and effective border police force that can minimise the dangers that are highlighted by the Bill.

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I am realistic about the fact that, given the stage of the parliamentary year, the timetable will not allow this important, although very short and concise Bill to reach the statute book. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, South, on promoting it and on once again providing a platform to highlight the terrible suffering and problems that lie behind the need for the Bill. In the understanding that it is improbable that it will reach the statute book in this Session, I urge the Minister to work on the basis of the Bill to make the necessary changes and bring in effective checks and balances to give more help and protection to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. I urge him to give real meaning to the expression and show that every child really does matter.

2.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) for her continuing commitment to children and young people, which is well known throughout the House. I commend her, and the other members of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, for their tireless work to improve services for such young people. She rightly challenged me, using Bob the Builder as an example. Can we fix it? I think we can. I hope she will welcome what I say in response to her Bill.

I am pleased to be given a chance to speak about the Bill and the important issues that it raises about the support that we offer vulnerable young people. Every child does matter, including those who run away from home or go missing. The Government have clear aims for all children and young people, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families was set up to make those aims central to what we do in Government.

We want all children to enjoy a happy, healthy and safe childhood that prepares them for adult life, so that they can make a positive contribution. Running away is a clear sign that something is wrong in a child or young person’s life, and we must ensure that action is taken to keep the 100,000 young people who run away safe and give them the support they need to deal with their problems. We need to protect them from the risks that they face.

According to the Children’s Society, which has been mentioned, about one in 12 runaways are hurt or harmed. Even when a child does not come to direct physical harm, running away can seriously affect them in all sorts of other ways, such as through missing school or missing the chance to develop both relationships with their peers and their physical and mental health. That is why it is vital that we do everything we can, not only to support young people who run away but, when appropriate, to prevent them from reaching the point at which they feel that running away is their only option. We need to mobilise services to spot and stop those problems early, before they develop.

We have already done a lot to combat the problems of vulnerable young people. Indeed, reference has been made to that this afternoon. The Every Child Matters reforms have transformed the way in which local services work together, using the common assessment framework and sharing information about children at risk of harm.
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Better joined-up working and information sharing across professional boundaries mean that children are now less likely to slip through the gaps, because professionals have a better picture of their needs and can tailor support for them, drawing in other professionals and services as necessary.

We introduced a duty under the Children Act 2004 for a range of bodies, including children’s services, health services and the police, to have regard to the welfare and safety of children and young people. All local authorities must now also have a local safeguarding children board, to bring together partners to co-ordinate safeguarding services. All local authorities are currently reforming targeted youth support services, to improve how they identify children at risk and prevent their problems from reaching crisis point.

There has been considerable progress in recent years, but we know that there is still more to do to help the most vulnerable children in our society. We took a significant step forward on Monday, when I was delighted to join my hon. Friend at No. 10 Downing street to launch the publication of the young runaways action plan—the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who spoke for the Opposition, mentioned it too, and I noticed that my hon. Friend had a copy in her hand while making her speech. She played a big part in the genesis and development of the action plan, working with us in the Government and all the agencies involved in putting it together. It was a pleasure to launch it with her at No. 10.

The plan sets out our next steps to help and support vulnerable children and young people. I would like to take this opportunity to outline the commitments made in the plan and how they relate to the Bill. It is not a coincidence that my hon. Friend’s Bill has helped us to focus on the right measures to take, which have been outlined in the plan.

Our No. 1 priority is prevention. The earlier we can spot a problem, the better. We must therefore improve our ability to pick out children at risk, identify their problems and try to resolve the underlying issues that make them run away. The youth taskforce will work with local authorities to put the issue of supporting young people at risk of running away at the heart of their targeted youth support arrangements. The action plan also includes a commitment to developing new resources to help schools and youth centres to play a stronger role in educating young people about the risks of running away and in telling them what support is available if they are experiencing problems. There will always be some children who run away, probably no matter what we do—the problem is not a new one, as hon. Members know. The action plan therefore sets out how we will try to improve local services to ensure that they respond more effectively to those who run away.

Every year, about 17,000 young runaways end up sleeping rough, at great risk to their health and safety. We need to do more to ensure that there are safe places for runaways to go while their reasons for running away are addressed. We will be working with the Government offices to help local safeguarding children boards to put in place effective action plans to keep young runaways safe.

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A review of existing research on emergency accommodation is already under way. The action plan means that we will investigate with local authorities ways in which they can improve the commissioning of such accommodation at the local, regional and sub-regional levels by this autumn, and we do not intend to stop there. Next spring, we will publish updated guidance on children missing from care and home, ensuring that it joins up with guidance on young people missing from education, and guidance on trafficking and sexual exploitation, to meet the points that the hon. Gentleman made. The new guidance will give local authorities practical examples of how they can support young runaways better.

The support of our partners has been central to the development of the action plan. It is vital that strong local partnerships exist between the agencies concerned with protecting vulnerable children, such as the police. The National Policing Improvement Agency has established a new Missing Persons Bureau to act as an exchange for information connected with the search for missing people and to co-ordinate consistent policing activity in the search for missing people. The bureau designs guidance for police forces, and will fully review the existing guidance on the management, recording and investigation of missing persons.

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of data collection on runaway and missing children. She has quite rightly banged on about that for some time. Ensuring that all parties have access to the right information at local level is crucial to greater co-operation, to effective intervention, and ultimately to ensuring that no young person slips through the net when it comes to getting the right support. That is why we have introduced the new indicator in the national indicator set on young runaways that was referred to earlier.

The new indicator shows the priority that the Government place on improving services for young runaways and will act as a lever to catalyse the change that we need. It will allow local strategic partnerships and children’s trusts to begin to establish the scale of problems in their local area, to put services in place to respond accordingly, and to establish local targets if appropriate. I expect it to facilitate better collections of data about vulnerable young people, and to help to secure effective joint working between children’s services, the police and other local partners. However, to ensure that it achieves those objectives, we will need to see how it works in practice. We are to review the indicator in 2009-10, monitoring it on a quarterly basis, and if the evidence shows that the indicator is not driving better collections of data about this vulnerable group of young people, we will be prepared to consider the introduction of legislation to ensure that that happens.

The indicator will be supported by police data collections, which is another point that my hon. Friend has raised on many occasions. The Missing Persons Bureau is working to ensure that data—including data on young runaways and missing children—can be transferred automatically and electronically from local police forces to the bureau, so that it can develop a national picture of missing persons. To support this work, the bureau is working with the Association of Chief Police Officers
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and the Home Office to introduce guidance on police data collection methodologies that has statutory status as a police code of practice. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that. I note that she is nodding.

Helen Southworth: This is possibly one of the most significant factors needed to safeguard children. Police forces have many priorities, and the House must make it clear to them that the protection of missing children is essential, as a public protection issue, as is the collection of information so that they can work with local authorities.

Kevin Brennan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I hope that this measure will help in regard to her Bob the Builder test of what is needed to fix these problems. I know that she has been calling for it for some considerable time, and I hope that it will be a helpful addition to today’s proceedings.

I fully support the principles behind the Bill. As so often happens with a strong private Member’s Bill, my hon. Friend has been able to use her proposals to achieve many of her objectives so that, rather than implementing the Bill, we now need first to address the issues raised, in order to improve services for young runaways through delivering the commitments set out in the action plan, through the revised guidance to local authorities, and crucially, through the new indicator and the development of the police code on data collections—which, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out, is vital if we are to see whether we have made the required progress.

I expect co-operation between the Government and local partners to build on the successes achieved through Every Child Matters, so that they can flourish over the coming months during the implementation of the action plan. I fully expect cross-agency working to be enhanced by our new data indicator.

Although I am unable to give Government support to the Bill today, I am able to endorse the need for the action that the my hon. Friend has so ably campaigned for—and, quite honestly, so ably won. Through the publication of the action plan—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood Adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 17 October.

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Remaining Private Members’ Bills

iraq war inquiry (No. 2) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 17 October.

sovereignty of parliament (european communities) Bill

Order for Second reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 17 October.

road traffic (congestion reduction) Bill

Order for resuming adjourned debate on Question [13 June], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 17 October.

leasehold reform Bill

Order for resuming adjourned debate on Question [22 February], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 17 October.

citizens’ convention Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 17 October.

fixed term parliaments Bill

Order for resuming adjourned debate on Question [16 May], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 17 October.

drugs (roadside testing) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

drugs (reclassification) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 17 October.

20 Jun 2008 : Column 1265

Post Office (Leyton High Road)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Tony Cunningham.]

2.32 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I am extremely grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on the issue of the Leyton Green post office on 674 High road in my constituency, which has been marked down for closure. That closure is unreasonable, unfair and damaging to the local community who use it and depend on it. The post office is excellently run by Shanaz and Nashir Bashir, and it provides a first-rate service. It is a community resource while also being profitable, and it is always busy.

The process of the closure programme has been deplorable. The consultation period of just six weeks was far too short. The former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, set in process a judicial review, which has been taken on by the current Mayor, Boris Johnson. I have with me a letter dated 28 May from Ian Clement, the deputy Mayor. It says that the Mayor, Boris Johnson,

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