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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 June 2011

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Conflict Prevention

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Philip Dunne.)

9.30 am

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Thank you, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak. Through you, I want to thank Mr Speaker for giving us this opportunity to debate the Government’s policy on conflict prevention. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), to his place on the Front Bench today.

In the briefing that the House of Commons Library prepared for this debate, there is one particular article that summarises why I wanted us to have this debate, and my view is shared by the colleagues from other parties with whom I have the privilege of co-chairing the all-party group on conflict issues. I welcome the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to the debate. Our third co-conspirator, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), cannot be with us this morning and sends his apologies. This debate is very much a cross-party initiative, rather than a personal one.

The particular article in the Library briefing that I want to start this debate by referring to is a BBC Online article from 11 April this year, headlined, “Aid spending should target conflict, World Bank urges”. It states:

“Poverty rates are 20% higher in countries hit by violence, so aid should target violence, the Bank says. The World Bank is recommending a major difference in the way aid is spent. A quarter of the world’s population live in states affected by conflict. In a report released on Monday, the World Bank says that there should be far more focus on building stable government, and on justice and police, than on health and education. The report says if there is not a major refocusing of aid in this direction, then other targets on poverty, health and education will not be reached. There is far more spent on alleviating the effects of conflict than preventing it from breaking out, and conflicts tend to be repeated. Ninety percent of recent civil wars occurred in countries that had already had a civil war in the last 30 years. The report found that cycles of violence were hard to stop, for example in South Africa and Central America. In Guatemala, twice as many people are dying now at the hands of criminals than died in the civil war in the 1980s. Poverty rates are 20 percentage points higher in countries affected by violence, but up to now, the World Bank found, there had been too little focus on ending corruption or reforming state institutions and justice systems. For instance, reform of justice was not one of the Millennium Development Goals...The report’s author Sarah Cliffe says this is the greatest development challenge facing the world. “It’s much easier for countries to get help with their militaries than it is with their police forces or justice systems, and much easier for them to get help with growth, health or education than it is with employment,” she says. “Our analysis would indicate that that should change.””

That is where I begin today and I am very grateful that, since the last election, the Government have made it clear that they give a great priority to conflict prevention. I am also very grateful to the Foreign Secretary who,

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when I have raised this specific issue with him on two occasions since the general election, has also made that clear, both generally—as a matter of strategy—and in relation to the initiative that he took recently to extend our diplomatic presence around the world. He said that those diplomatic missions would see conflict prevention as a key part of their work. So this is not a debate that has been called in order to rap the Government over the knuckles, but to encourage the trend in government, which began under the previous Government, to place a greater priority on conflict prevention for us as a country and for all the relevant partners in Government that work together on these issues. That means not only the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence.

A few years ago, at the prompting of people from outside this House to whom I now pay tribute, the all-party group on conflict issues was formed. I hope that it has already been effective, if only in a modest way, in bringing issues to the attention of the House and in opening up debates. Indeed, in Westminster Hall we have had debates on the legacy of Northern Ireland, and debates between representatives of Russia and Georgia. Recently, we have had two sessions involving young people from Israel and Palestine talking about their vision for the future.

The themes of those debates and sessions are recurrent. It is all too easy to respond militarily when something goes wrong and then to try to pick up the pieces. It is much more intelligent and much cheaper to intervene to prevent a country, community or part of the world from falling to pieces in the first place.

About a fortnight ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and I were part of a delegation that visited Israel and the west bank. If ever anyone wanted an example of a legacy of desperate failure to prevent conflict, they only have to go to those places. Whatever the good work that we, DFID and the FCO do to try to reconstruct community and civil society in the west bank or in Gaza, it is—bluntly—a much taller order than it would have been if there had not been the years of conflict in the first place.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for examining conflict prevention in the round. I support the aspiration to achieve the aid target of 0.7% of Britain’s GNP. However, does he share my view that, just as aid is very important in promoting conflict prevention, so is the role of our armed forces? They could play a much greater role in conflict prevention. In fact, their role is to prevent conflict and not to engage in it. However, if they are under-resourced they will be less able to play that role.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about that point. I have a brother who is still working for the MOD and who has been in the Army in various parts of the world. However, it did not take him to remind me that it is more useful for the Army to stabilise a situation and to teach the skills of conflict avoidance and so on, than it is for it to engage in conflict. Sometimes conflict prevention is not perceived as being the dramatic work by the armed forces for which we pay our taxes, but it is both the most productive

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role of the armed forces and—frankly—the way that we can save not only the lives of people in faraway countries, such as Afghanistan, but in countries such as our own, including the lives of our service people who would otherwise pay a very high cost.

I also share my hon. Friend’s view that we not only need to have an ambition about the share of our national cake that we give to overseas development but that we need to have our armed forces fully committed to conflict prevention, as they want to be and as they increasingly have the skills to be.

I want to give one or two examples of how successful conflict prevention can be, if it is got right. They are examples of the work of the United Nations Development Programme which, since 2002, has assisted fragile countries to build resilience by strengthening what the UNDP calls “infrastructures for peace”. I commend the work of the UNDP’s Chetan Kumar, who has shown how extraordinarily efficient and effective very small financial contributions can be in transforming difficult situations. Let me give some examples of the UNDP’s success.

In Ghana in December 2008, there were rising tensions between different regions. Chieftaincy-related conflicts in parts of the country and the discovery of oil led to new tensions as the country approached national elections. When the elections were held, there was the narrowest margin of votes recorded in an African election—only 50,000 votes separated the winner and the loser. With tensions rising still further, the National Peace Council of Ghana, an autonomous and statutory national body that was established with assistance from the UNDP, helped to mediate a peaceful political transition. As part of Ghana’s peace infrastructure or peace architecture, regional and district peace councils are also being established.

Then there is the example of Togo in 2005, which shows that all this is not past history; it is very recent history. There were about 250 deaths in the 2005 national elections. However, in 2010 the establishment of a platform for political dialogue prior to the national elections and the ability of civic actors to conduct a sustained peace campaign led to a reduction in tensions and to peaceful elections, as well as to a stable post-electoral period. A code of conduct for political parties and a public peace campaign were developed and implemented with UNDP assistance. Further development included consolidation of a national peace architecture as a priority in 2011.

In Timor, between 2007 and 2009 the peace process that had followed the establishment of East Timor as an independent state nearly collapsed, after a massive return of refugees and internally displaced persons. With UN assistance, a network of community mediators was established; the mediators were trained and deployed; and other conflict resolution efforts enabled the return and resettlement of 13,000 families by 2010. The Government there are now working with the UNDP to establish a new department for peace building so that the country has its own standing internal mediation system.

In Kyrgyzstan, the UNDP facilitated dialogue between civil society, the electoral commission and security agencies.

In Kenya just last year, there was a constitutional referendum without a single violent incident, in contrast to elections just three years previously when 1,500 people

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were killed and 300,000 displaced. I am very conscious that the Foreign Office Minister here today, who has responsibility for Africa, takes an active interest in these matters. One reason for what happened last year was that, in advance of the referendum, the UNDP provided support for national efforts to reach a political agreement on the new draft constitution and helped to implement an early warning and response system that prevented violent incidents from cropping up, and local peace committees were strengthened in all districts of the country.

I could go on with examples, but we do not have the time so I shall give just two illustrations of the cost-benefit, which is also a consideration in times of straitened finances. Kenya’s leading business association assessed economic losses from post-election violence in 2008 as being $3.6 billion. In contrast, the 2010 constitutional referendum, which was plagued by similar tensions, did not see any violence, and the supported prevention effort cost only about $5 million. In Kyrgyzstan, the recovery costs from the inter-ethnic violence in mid-2010 were estimated to be $71 million, but the regional UN efforts to restore political and inter-ethnic confidence cost approximately only $6 million. I could go on, but I think that people understand my point.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the examples he has given of UN funding and support the key is the local buy-in—local people arbitrating peace in their own countries? I am afraid that I cannot stay for the Minister’s response today, but perhaps the Government will consider doing as they do in the field of aid, and support local projects that are designed to resolve conflict as well as, of course, using military intervention where necessary in an immediate crisis.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. All the best evidence is that grass-roots initiatives that are long term, engage the village—and the tribes in a tribal community—and are led by local people rather than external agencies, with the support of the international community, are far more likely to be successful.

I want to put the matter in another context. There are various authoritative indicators of conflict around the world, including the International Crisis Group and the “Global Peace Index”, and they tell us something which, if we paused for a second, we would realise for ourselves: after a very welcome decline in the number of conflicts in the past few years there has been a recent increase in violence in the world. The point that I made at the beginning of my speech when I quoted from the article on the World Bank is that inter-state conflict is now not nearly as frequent as it was. The bigger problem is internal conflict, which is likely to increase because many places are afflicted by not just political and economic crises but environmental ones such as water shortages, and other effects of climate change.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I have taken an interest in many countries where there has been internal conflict and civil war, and as long as there is increased pressure on food, water and housing supplies—the normal needs of a community for economic prosperity—it is more likely that tribal and racial tensions will grow. We therefore urgently need to see those environmental problems as a priority

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if we are to prevent conflict in many of the poorest parts of the world, because they are often the most likely to be afflicted.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. There are two examples of environmental or food-based conflict, one of which is Darfur. Although the situation there is complicated, many people have arrived in the area as environmental refugees as a result of desertification. In Kenya, and to some extent in Tanzania, many people are being pushed off their land because very wealthy western countries and corporations buy land for their own food production, thus impoverishing the poorest people in those countries who then end up in slums around Nairobi and the other major cities. That is a huge source of misery, poverty and conflict.

Simon Hughes: It is, and two other things strike me. For example, west Africa is very rich in natural resources, but the benefit of those resources has historically not gone to the local communities for community development because the resources, particularly the oil, have been taken out by international corporations and there has been abuse, with flaring and so on. In other parts of the world, there is enforced privatisation of natural resources—water, for example—as part of a World Bank or International Monetary Fund programme that has actually reduced the capacity of the community to develop in its own way.

I want to make just two other general points and then end with some questions. I do not want to set out the Government’s stall because the Minister is quite capable of doing that, and there is a good story to tell, but I want to push them to go further. The UK has been working very hard to bring its operations together across Departments, and we have the capacity to be one of the world leaders in conflict prevention. I encourage the Government, through the Minister, to go that extra mile and pick up some of my ideas. It has been put to me that we have 21st-century conflicts but 20th-century institutions. The best example of a case that I have been closely involved with in recent years is that of the Sri Lankan civil war, as it came to its end. In theory, the United Nations had the power to intervene, under the responsibility to protect, but it was completely paralysed and did absolutely nothing. The conflict went all the way, with all the implications that we now know. I sense that internationally, through the UN, and nationally we sometimes intervene too late, because we do not have the international levers that we can pull early.

Since the beginning of the current situation in Libya the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has been raising the point that it is comparatively easy to intervene militarily. It is not so difficult to scramble together a military intervention, and it should be as easy to scramble together a conflict prevention mechanism, but it is not. We need to think about how we get the balance of decision making and priorities right, in our Government and in others. The people on the ground, especially in countries where there is repeated, periodic or cyclical conflict, know that it is jobs, justice and domestic security that are likely to give them the most secure future. An illustration that helps us easily to picture these things is that it is often better to respond to an illness by dealing with the early signs of infection than

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to wait for the epidemic. In the past, we have often responded to the epidemic rather than taking preventive action.

Mr Slaughter: The right hon. Gentleman has hit on another key point in relation to the Arab world. Not just in Libya but in all the countries of the Arab spring, the degree of violence and the difficulty, even if things go well, of creating civil society, is due to the legacy of having supported tyrants rather than democratic organisations in those countries over many years. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is a lesson that we, and all western Governments, need to learn?

Simon Hughes: I absolutely agree. There is so much, both academic and practical, that we should have already learnt. The age of the empires of the world mercifully is coming to an end, but there is still a view that that sort of intervention by force is, in the end, what we need to display as our effective international activity, even though all the evidence is that different sorts of interventions are now much more needed.

I am grateful to all those who have briefed us for this debate. It should really be a seminar rather than a debate. I commend Saferworld, which has supplied some very good material and I shall summarise its five points about the areas on which Governments should concentrate. First, it picks up the point made by Labour Members, namely that we need to understand the context and put it first, and that each context is different. Secondly, we have to put people at the heart of conflict prevention. Thirdly, we have to work cross-departmentally in Government. Fourthly, we have to work with our international partners. Fifthly, a crucial issue is the arms trade and the need to curb it—many of the poorest countries spend large parts of their funds on arms rather than on other things.

I also commend the work of PATRIR—the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania—and Kai Brand-Jacobsen, the director of its department of peace operations. Ministers and others will have seen its work. It has identified 22 lessons for country-level prevention, as well as lessons for international support and prevention efforts, improving effectiveness and preparedness, and identifying key gaps and challenges, and the way in which we can apply those from here.

I have, with the help of the officers of the all-party group, prepared some questions. I have given the Department notice of them, so I hope that they do not come as a frightening surprise to the Minister. I will then end with some key requests. It would be good for the Government to set out what they mean by conflict prevention and which programmes they are funding in which countries to prevent which conflicts—we would then have more transparency about the details of the Government commitment—and how they evaluate the effectiveness of those programmes. It would be helpful if the Government could regularly gather information from the existing data sets on work around the world and learn the lessons from it. It would be good if the Government would consider establishing an organisation similar to that in Washington DC, to study, educate and train in the field of peace building, covering all elements of policy, from grass-roots policy to international diplomacy in the voluntary, public and private sectors and the like.

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What in-house training are members of the civil service and diplomatic service receiving on conflict prevention? Are we able to get the Commonwealth to do more? It is for ever looking for an effective role. As a big supporter of the Commonwealth, I think there is an opportunity for it to play a much more direct role in conflict resolution and prevention. In the case of Sri Lanka, it was a lamentable failure for a Commonwealth country to be engaged in such a situation. The Commonwealth Secretariat could work with the Government on the issues.

Would it be possible—I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this, although it is not just his decision—for the Government to agree to an annual opportunity to stocktake conflict prevention? I would like us to have an annual debate on the issue. We have annual debates on the armed services—the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force—and it is just as important that we have an annual opportunity to review conflict prevention in the world. It would be a strong signal marker of our collective wish as a Parliament and a Government.

Will the Minister tell us how much the Government spent last year on conflict prevention and on overseas military intervention, so that we can compare the two? Is there a cost-benefit analysis of those two forms of spending? Is there a way of projecting how the cost benefit would be helpful as we think, in these straitened economic times, about how we are going to spend our resources abroad? That would produce obvious answers in relation to where we ought to prioritise.

There has been growing cause for concern in Sudan in recent days, and now the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed concern about the situation. Are we, in our overseas development work, supporting the civil organisations on the ground in such countries to help prevent conflict, rather than just going in and using more traditional responses?

Do the Government monitor the infrastructures for peace developments so that we can promote good practice in other places around the world? Following on from a point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), are we learning the lessons from the past year of the Arab spring about engaging with local communities in the Arab world, as opposed to just dealing with the governance in some pretty unsavoury places, so that we are with the people preparing for the change? Are we making sure that it is local citizens who are leading such developments? This country’s education processes are also an issue. Will the Government consider adopting the same approach as that in the Department for International Development’s policy paper, “The engine of development”, to make sure that we always have stakeholder dialogue—I hate the word “stakeholder”—between key participants?

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has missions in potentially troublesome places in the Balkans and eastern Europe. Can we work with it to go to other places that look as though they are at risk of conflict in the future? Can we get better co-operation between the OSCE and the European Union in enhancing common foreign and security policy?

What about the places—this has been one of my perpetual frustrations since I have been in this place—where there have been stalled peace processes? Cyprus, for

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example, has been on the agenda every year that I have been here. There has just been another round of talks, which do not appear to have moved anything. We should seek to move things on. In the end, Northern Ireland resolved its problems as much through grass-roots movements from the community, particularly those involving women, as it did through political forces from the top. Cyprus desperately needs, and would benefit from, the same. Finally, is there any capacity within Government to expand the resources of the new stabilisation unit and the new strategies that the Government have put in place?

I hope that that is a helpful short tour of the horizon. I hope that the Government will say that they will seek to build a more formal and systematic approach, based on best practice, across Government Departments, and that they will accept that we need to beef up our capacity to lead on conflict prevention around the world. I hope that they will see the stabilisation unit as something that prioritises not just stabilisation but conflict prevention. I think that that has been the lesson of Afghanistan. I hope that they will be honest about the gaps and the challenges and give us an opportunity of annual stocktaking. Finally, I have one suggestion. I am always wary of tokenistic titles, but as there are three Departments that have to work together—the Ministry of Defence as much as the others—it may be that the Government need to think about who is the lead Minister across Departments for making sure that there is a driven policy for integrating the policies.

It would be a commendable and good thing if the way in which we organised Government was seen to give as much priority to prevention as it does to defence and military matters. A minister with responsibility for conflict prevention in the world would be a way forward. Other countries are setting up departments of peace, rather than departments of war, and are realising that we need to shift from ministries of defence to ministries of peace. We may not be culturally ready for that yet, although many would welcome it, but we need to move in that direction. I hope that this debate will show that a growing group of people in this Parliament and in all the Parliaments of the democratic world want this move. There is now a network around the world.

I shall end with a plug. For those who want any more information, there is a website entitled www. conflictissues.org.uk. I hope that this is the beginning of a debate that engages not just us but many others outside this place, and that the Government are ready to respond warmly.

9.58 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise to you, Mr Turner, and to the Minister, because I will have to leave at 10.30. The group of MPs who represent constituencies around Heathrow airport have secured a ministerial meeting about night flights. Heathrow is in my constituency and it has taken us a long time to set up the meeting, so I will have to attend it. I apologise for that. I mean no discourtesy to the Minister, and I will read his response in Hansard.

I want to follow on from the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). I call him my right hon. Friend because we have worked together on this issue

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for a number of years. That does not mean that we have done so on an almost fortnightly basis—I do not send him stroppy letters saying that I will never speak to him again if he votes for a Government proposal—but we have worked closely on this issue over the years. Part of the genesis of this debate was a ten-minute rule Bill on establishing a ministry of peace that we sponsored some time ago—




I do not know why my phone is going off. I apologise, Mr Turner. I cannot turn the thing off. Sorry about that. The song is Bruno Mars, “I’d Catch a Grenade for You,” which is bizarrely appropriate. My phone is now switched off.

As I was saying, the genesis of this debate was a ten-minute rule Bill that we sponsored that called for a ministry of peace. The objective was to secure a debate on how we can make conflict prevention and resolution more central to Government policy making. My hon. Friends and I had a range of debates in this Chamber about different examples of conflict prevention around the world in southern Africa, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We basically picked the brains of people who had worked on the ground. Kai Brand-Jacobsen from the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania is a good example of that, but there were others as well. As I said, we heard from people from southern Africa and people from Northern Ireland from all sides. Following on from that, we formed the all-party group on conflict issues, which has worked successfully on an all-party basis and has brought in a range of expertise.

The stimulus for this debate is the Government’s expected publication of policy papers on the development of conflict prevention. We want to influence the longer-term decisions about investment in this field. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said that the debate is more like a seminar. I suggest to the Minister that it would be extremely helpful if we had a ministerial seminar to which we invited all-party group members and other stakeholders from interested parties and organisations that have helped to brief us for the debate. If necessary, that debate could be held according to Chatham House rules. That does not matter, as long as we can have a free and flowing discussion about where we go from here on this important subject.

When we had the original debate, we set out a number of key factors that needed to be put in place if we were to make conflict prevention and resolution an integral part of Government policy making. The first factor is obviously political will. The atmosphere has changed dramatically as a result of our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. There is much more of a political will desperately to seek conflict prevention solutions and resolution at the earliest opportunity. As my right hon. Friend said, during the original debate we argued that such an approach is a cost-effective mechanism of intervening. We have proved that point time and again. Therefore, there is political will on all sides to develop conflict prevention as an integral part of Government policy.

The second element is the need for structure within Government. Under the previous Government, we had a major breakthrough with the establishment of a conflict pool. Departments such as the Treasury, DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence were brought together to work with each other

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on not just the disbursement of resources, but the development of expertise in Government and the investment of resources in concrete projects. There is a need to consider the structure of Government again. I am pleased that the Stabilisation Unit is in existence and will continue, but I note that Richard Teuten, formerly the head of the Stabilisation Unit, and Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy head of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit, which evolved into the Stabilisation Unit, are recommending that we bring elements dealt within the FCO within the remit of the Stabilisation Unit. They also recommend that we review the structure within Government, so that it is strengthened and there is a more direct and authoritative lead within Government policy making.

I also welcome the suggestion that we have a named Minister dealing with the issue. I do not in any way wish to make the post grandiose but, of course, the Minister would be accountable to Parliament and would play a key role in co-ordinating other Departments. It is important symbolically to state that we are about conflict prevention and resolution, and that we give the matter such importance that a ministerial title is given to such work.

The other ingredients are obviously expertise and engagement, which have been mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark raised the issue of ensuring that we learn from experience elsewhere. We have argued for some time that there should be open and transparent access to such information within Government, and that we should establish a database of the experiences of conflict prevention and resolution across the world. That would feed into the ongoing debate about what works, what does not work and how we can learn those lessons.

We have been briefed in advance of this debate about the global peace-building strategies that are taking place, particularly in relation to 14P. That initiative ensures that civil society fully participates in the peace-building initiatives within countries and works with Government, across the world. We have given examples of the conferences that are planned in Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere. The Government may well want to consider the practices that are taking place as a result of that initiative and how the Government can add their weight and support to such programmes.

One of the other ingredients that we have suggested, which has come from the practices that have been demonstrably successful elsewhere, is the need to ensure that we have some structure for stakeholder engagement within this country. There should be some form of stakeholder panel through which we can draw in external expertise and advocates for peace within our society.

Simon Hughes: Just for the record, may I correct the hon. Gentleman? The organisation he is referring to is “I”4P—Interactions for Peace. I just want to ensure that, when people read the debate, they know what we are talking about.

John McDonnell: That is what comes from reading it and hearing it. I was trying to work out what 14P stands for. I have read all the briefing documents and could not understand it. I thank my right hon. Friend for that—I am very grateful.

Jeremy Corbyn: This is an education.

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John McDonnell: It is.

The key issue around the stakeholder panel is that it would give stakeholders the opportunity to advise the Government on what they need in terms of support for civil society, particularly in terms of investing in the studying of peace techniques. It is also important to train peace-builders—that has happened elsewhere, but less so in this country—who can work on the ground, engage in peace initiatives around the world and come back and teach us the lessons we can learn as a result of that.

A further element is obviously the ingredient that relates to resources. I am grateful to the Government for maintaining the existing level of resources and the various initiatives that the previous Government pursued, which is a result of our winning the argument on the cost-effectiveness of that investment. As part of the Government’s consultation on future policy, it would be helpful if we talked to others about the real level of resources required in the future, particularly on the issues that my right hon. Friend has identified: the threat of climate change and whether that will result in further conflicts, and the issues around the continuing struggle for limited natural resources. Those matters are not necessarily always related to climate change itself. That would give us the opportunity to build up a level of information and knowledge that we can discuss with the Treasury and in Government more widely on behalf of the Minister who will eventually be responsible for conflict prevention. We need to argue our corner and ensure that a stable supply of resources is put into this field over time.

A further element is accountability. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned parliamentary accountability. It is absolutely critical that we come back here regularly and have parliamentary debates on the matter. It would be more valuable if that were instituted by the Government in Government time, because that would demonstrate the seriousness of the Government’s commitment to this field of activity. The onus is on the Government and all of us to encourage a wider stakeholder debate and to take the debate on our role in conflict prevention and resolution to the country. In that way, we can engender more support within our communities for investment in this field. I do not want to get into the debate we have had with DFID about spending more of our resources in this country than abroad, but we must win the argument again: investment in conflict resolution and prevention is in the interests of us all and, in the long term, will save resources for our country as well.

More specifically, one element that we have always emphasised in debate is that we will further the cause of conflict prevention and resolution, and of peace overall, if we tackle the issue of the arms trade and the role of our country in it. The Government have a critical role to play in the negotiations for the next UN arms trade treaty in 2012. I would welcome the Government’s undertaking to have a full and thorough debate in Parliament and the wider community about how to construct that treaty so that we can engender support for it across the globe, but in this country in particular. That means, if we are to play our full role in combating conflicts resulting from the proliferation of weapons throughout the world, acknowledging that this country’s involvement in the arms trade must be reduced and

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eventually eliminated. That would throw up a whole range of issues—the impact on jobs and employment—which means we must have a serious discussion about conversion policies, allowing real arguments to stand up for those individuals and communities currently dependent on the arms trade.

An urgent matter at the moment is what is happening to the Nuba people in Sudan. In my constituency is a group called the Nuba Democratic Forum, consisting of refugees from that area of the world who have come to this country and have campaigned consistently over a number of years to ensure that the Nuba people can at least live in peace and at some level of decency if not prosperity. As the Minister is aware, the Sudanese Government have sent troops in, and there has been heavy artillery and aerial bombardment in the Nuba mountains, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. The word coming back to families in my constituency is of appalling suffering, with a lack of water, food and shelter. I urge the Government to step up the application of pressure on the Sudanese Government, working with the US and through international bodies, to end the conflict and now, just as importantly, to secure humanitarian aid and access to it in that area. Although the world’s attention is not on the area at the moment, it will be soon because of the immense human suffering that will be played out if we do not act swiftly.

A wider debate could be had on conflict prevention and resolution, which is why I would welcome a ministerial seminar. Climate change has an impact and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said—globalisation and the continuing exploitation of the developing world are key. In addition, a new focus which we need to discuss is the use of sovereign funds in the developing world, to extract natural resources and to exploit individual communities. If we do not address that major agenda, it will be a new source of conflict and division in society, and globally.

Britain is known for its military and imperial history. We now have a real opportunity for Britain to be great again; it could be great as a world leader in securing peace. The development of Government policy—in cross-party partnership—on conflict prevention and resolution could make a major contribution to enhancing the status of this country in the eyes of the world as a peace-builder, rather than as a country that engages in wars and conflicts.

10.14 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Turner.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for proposing this debate, which is important, timely and supported by what I might call a broad coalition. The contribution of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was welcome as well.

My right hon. Friend was right to refer to the BBC Online article, which pointed out the economics of conflict. In addition, the Secretary of State recently quoted Professor Paul Collier from Oxford university, who described conflict as “development in reverse”, and he cited some astonishing statistics:

“a civil war is estimated to cost a low income country an average of about 64 billion US dollars. In other words, the cost of a single conflict is more than half of the value of annual development aid worldwide.”

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He also pointed out that

“the higher a country’s GDP per capita, the lower the risk of internal war. A typical post-conflict country with no economic growth has a 42% risk of returning to conflict within ten years. But with 10% growth, the risk declines to 29%.”

The issues of development and conflict are intertwined.

That was also my experience when working for Oxfam for some years. We saw conflict adding to poverty and destroying infrastructure in health, education and transport, often driving the most skilled people in a country into exile or displacement, or getting them killed, and disrupting the education, employment and training of everyone else. Conflict disrupts economies, normal politics and civil society, it wrecks agriculture and it destroys the ability of countries to support themselves. Clearly, we have common ground in that any money spent or effort made by the Government and other Governments internationally to prevent conflict must be well done.

Part of the question concerns how the money is spent. Most obvious is peacekeeping, but in one sense that is intervention at the point of failure. In effect, events have developed so far that we need soldiers on the ground and enormous effort to retrieve a situation. Other things help to fuel a conflict that is potential or just breaking out, and the arms trade is the single most important one. We must also look deeper, at the sources of tension and conflict, which are commonly social, religious, ethnic and political. Increasingly, especially with the impact of climate change, conflict will be over resources. I must echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who talked about our recent trip to Israel and Palestine, where we can see every single one of those different elements of conflict fuelling each other and adding to a toxic mix, making us most concerned for the future of that region.

I therefore very much welcome the Government’s mapping out an increasing amount of spending in what is called the conflict pool budget, which has risen from £229 million last year to £256 million this year, and will reach £309 million by 2014-15. Part of the conflict pool—about £76 million—is devoted to peacekeeping. On top of that, a separate peacekeeping budget now consists of £374 million, so something like two thirds of what is being spent annually by the Government goes on peacekeeping. Yet that, in a sense, is intervention at the point of failure, so perhaps we need to look at how much of the focus ought to be on anticipating and preventing conflict in the first place.

Even if we break down the remaining money in the conflict pool, which is spent on conflict resolution, discretionary peacekeeping—yet more peacekeeping—and stabilisation activities, including the excellent work, which I strongly commend, of the cross-departmental Stabilisation Unit, the countries on which that money is focused are a list of war zones and former war zones: Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and, slightly more distant, Lebanon and Cyprus. That is right because, as discussed, the risk of recurrence is high in regions that have already had conflict, but if we are to have a theme of anticipation and prevention, perhaps there is room for exploring where else the strategy needs to go.

My noble friend Lord Ashdown’s recent report on humanitarian aid and assistance emphasised the importance of building anticipation and resilience before emergencies strike. We need the same approach, if possible, in conflict

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prevention. We need the tools to build resilience to conflict. I would like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark to commend Saferworld’s briefing on this debate to Ministers, including its points about emphasising the context of each country, as well as the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about focusing conflict prevention efforts strongly on people’s experience.

Saferworld made those good points, and I would add that we should look for countries in which there is systematic denial of human rights and democracy, which is often the source of conflict. In his recent address to both Houses of Parliament, President Obama drew an interesting lesson from the experience of the Arab spring, which was exactly right. He pointed out that the west collectively had been supporting some tyrannical regimes that had given the impression of being stable. He said that

“repression offers only the false promise of stability”,

and that it puts a lid on conflict and often suppresses legitimate democratic, ethnic, political and even religious aspirations to the point where there is eventually an explosion. It would be good if the Government looked at a slightly more anticipatory approach with an eye on human rights and democracy.

It is excellent that the Government are developing the so-called BSOS, the building stability overseas strategy, and we must build into it and pay particular attention to institution-building, human rights, and particularly the rights of minorities and marginalised groups who are not part of the mainstream in each society. We need an anticipatory approach.

It is also excellent that in BSOS and many other policy areas that I mentioned we see three Departments—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development —working closely together. Ministers should be commended on the extent to which there is a cross-departmental approach to many of the issues. Clearly, when there is an opportunity to join up, that is more effective and often more cost-effective. The one thing I would add is that the same lesson also applies at European level, and if we can join up and co-ordinate our stabilisation efforts with other European countries and, indeed, the European Union as a whole, we may have an even more effective and cost-effective approach. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the arms trade, where an international approach is necessary.

It is right that the Government are pressing on towards an arms control treaty, which is vital, but it is also important to look at what environmentalists might call domestic effort. The steps that the Government have already taken are welcome in the wake of the Arab spring, or the Arab awakening as some people are now calling it. They have instituted a review of their arms export licences, and have already revoked 160. The list of licences that had been issued—sadly, that was under the previous Labour Government—is a cautionary tale. Although human rights and repression were supposed to be part of the criteria, we sold arms to almost every regime in the middle east, including the former regime in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We were selling not just small arms, parts or communications technology, but tear gas, and something described as crowd control ammunition. I cannot conceive how that could be used peacefully and democratically.

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I strongly welcome the revocations, and I urge the Foreign Office to consider making the current review of the arms control and the arms trade licence regime as robust as possible. It has been done in a hurry, and although it was right to do it quickly in response to events, I would welcome a more inclusive and wider review. Various right hon. and hon. Members have made the point that if we are to prevent conflict, we need an anticipatory approach. Many good suggestions have been made during the debate for enhancing the role and profile of conflict prevention, and there is a real opportunity for the coalition to show great leadership and to gain widespread support.

10.24 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I will be brief to allow the Minister and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman sufficient time to respond to this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing it. It is crucial, and I am sorry that more Members are not here to take part in it. I recognise that we have an annual debate in this Chamber on human rights, when the Foreign Office usually responds to the report on human rights from the Foreign Affairs Committee. That is an important debate, and this one is equally important. Perhaps we should think in terms of an annual three-hour debate on this subject. I support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others, and the suggestion of a seminar arranged through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on conflict prevention and how we go about it.

The debate coincides with refugee week. Many of us have been at events in our constituencies and communities commemorating or celebrating refugee week. Indeed, I was at an enormous event in Islington town hall yesterday with hundreds of people from all sorts of communities who have made their home in this country and made an enormous contribution to our society. We should also reflect on the tens of thousands—nay, millions—of refugees throughout the world whose lives have been wasted away in refugee camps and whose brilliance and opportunity are denied to them and to the rest of us by a lifetime in such camps. Conflicts may end with a deal or treaty, but the consequences continue for a long time. People have been in Palestinian refugee camps for 60 years, and in other camps for a very long time. It is a massive waste of human resources.

I want to make three essential points about the major causes of conflict. One is poverty. Poverty, inequality and injustice are fundamental to many of the present conflicts. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, many regimes in north Africa and the middle east were seen as stable, efficient and effective, but they were often presiding over a police state with massive youth poverty and unemployment. The resentment eventually boiled up to the Arab spring, which has not yet been played out. It could go in all sorts of directions, and some will not be nice or pretty. That is the effect of the pressure cooker of denying millions of young people the opportunity to develop themselves and their lives.

The second cause of conflict is natural resources. The United States made itself wealthy from exploitation of its natural resources, in exactly the same way as in the

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18th and 19th centuries European powers, particularly Britain, France and Germany, made themselves powerful from exploitation of their natural resources. Those natural resources were quickly exploited, and worked out, and thus came empire to obtain resources from elsewhere. In many ways, that is what led to the first world war. There was competition between France and Britain with Germany and other powers.

The issue of resources has not gone away. The massive interest in Africa—it is not always a benign interest—by every industrial power at the moment is largely about its enormous untapped natural resources. Indeed, the interest in Afghanistan is far from benign, with China, Russia, the United States and Europe all eyeing up its massive mineral resources.

The third cause of conflict that has a massive effect on people’s lives is the lack of effective democratic government and institutions in so many societies, where there is no opportunity for poorer people to obtain justice and self-expression, and no independent and effective legal system that can redress high levels of human rights abuse. Support for the building of governmental, institutional and educational capacity is important.

As the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark pointed out, it is tempting to talk about every conflict in the world. I shall not do that; I will just mention a couple. The first conflict is that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo gained its independence in 1961, having been the most abused colonial territory ever in history, I think. I am talking about the way in which Leopold and later the Belgian Government administered the Congo, with slavery, decapitation, humiliation, torture—just about everything appalling possible. “King Leopold’s Ghost” is a book that everyone should read.

As I said, the Congo gained its independence in 1961. Its institutions were always weak. The skilled classes, the Belgians, left immediately. The power of the Government to administer the country was very limited. It quickly became a conflict between mineral companies and the military as to who would control the Congo. That still goes on. The institutions are still very weak. Militia, working on behalf of or in concert with mining interests, are killing people. Tens of thousands of raped and abused women survive in refugee camps in the east of the country. Kinshasa is beset by homeless victims of the war, mainly young boys and girls, who are trying to survive. It is a disastrous history. Although it is potentially very wealthy, we all have a responsibility for what has happened in the Congo and we all have an interest in ensuring that there is justice and peace in the future in the Congo; otherwise, the misery and waste of resources will go on and the lives of so many people will be blighted.

The second conflict—a long way away—is that involving central America and Guatemala. It came out of injustice, poverty and the civil wars of the 1980s, often inspired by outside interests, particularly oligarchs who wanted to hang on to power, and the United States, which wanted to hang on to the military interests in that country. The most abused people were the indigenous non Spanish-speaking people. That resulted in the civil wars. There was a peace resolution move in the 1990s. Welcome as it was, it did not result necessarily in peace. It resulted in an end to the conflict in a sense between

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actors on behalf of the state or of other forces. It has now morphed into systematic criminal violence and abuse of people’s rights, particularly abuse of indigenous people’s rights, which means that there are many people living in desperate poverty who are, in effect, refugees from their own homes in a conflict zone. Again, the lack of justice, democracy and sufficient capacity has left the country in that situation.

What do we do about this? We must recognise that our economic policies—the economic policies of grabbing resources and the economic policies of western countries buying up large amounts of land, particularly in east Africa, to grow food for themselves while denying food to the local people—will be a cause of future conflict.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): One of the concerns that certainly I and perhaps many other hon. Members have relates to the insatiable demand of China for the world’s resources. Today’s press underlines again the fact that China’s demand is outstripping supply. Does the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) agree that China’s emergence as a world power causes great concern for Africa in particular, but also for other parts of the world?

Jeremy Corbyn: I absolutely agree. In a sense, the way in which Africa is suffering from Chinese attention at the moment is little different from what the European powers were doing in the 19th and 20th centuries—I am thinking of the grab of resources. China’s economy is unsustainable in the sense that it is growing far too fast and taking far too many resources from elsewhere in the world. That is fuelling an environmental disaster as well as a supply disaster in relation to so many other things. There has to be a coming together of world economic powers to control these things.

This debate is important. The proposals made by Saferworld on conflict resolution and capacity building and the work that it has done are very welcome. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government’s policy on this is developing and particularly whether he is prepared to organise a seminar so that we can start to build the idea that we remove ourselves from armed conflict and instead bring about capacity building.

I will finish on this point. This morning, the Ministry of Defence is saying that it can no longer afford the conflict in Libya. We cannot afford conflicts. We cannot afford the level of arms expenditure that we are spending. What we can afford in this world is justice and peace. That means sharing. It means a slightly different approach to the world’s issues from the one that we are adopting at present.

10.35 am

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing this very important debate and the other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who participated in it. I refer the House to my relevant entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I congratulate the all-party group on conflict issues on its work, which has been discussed during the debate. From the Labour Front Bench, I very much support the

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suggestion of an annual debate in the House on conflict issues and conflict prevention and I welcome the suggestion of a seminar organised by the Foreign Office, which was made by a number of hon. Members.

I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said about the current crisis in Sudan. After decades of conflict in that country, the comprehensive peace agreement—Britain played a central part in bringing that about—was designed to bring an end to the civil war and to prevent a return to conflict. As my hon. Friend graphically described, we have seen in recent weeks reports of up to 500,000 people being displaced as a result of fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and rebel groups in South Kordofan. That is a real and pressing example of the issues that we are dealing with in the debate. I will return to the issue of Sudan at the end of my speech.

The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark referred to the responsibility to protect. That is a very important principle, and we should remind ourselves where it came from. It came out of the horror of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The concept was developed by Roméo Dallaire, who was the UN commander in Rwanda in 1994. He is now a Liberal Senator in Canada, and Canada was at the forefront of the move for the UN to adopt that principle. A great deal of further work needs to be done to turn what is a fine principle in theory into something that can be made to work by the institutions of the world today.

As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, the Government will soon announce their building security overseas strategy. Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to consider some of the challenges and opportunities and to discuss the requirements of that pending strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke about the causes of conflict. He rightly placed poverty and inequality at the heart of those causes. Therefore, development is clearly a central way in which we can prevent conflicts. I am very proud of the record of the previous, Labour Government in setting up the Department for International Development and starting us on the path towards finally achieving the 0.7% requirement. I welcome the present Government’s reaffirmation of that commitment. It is clearly vital that we all make the case for it in the face of the onslaught from sections of the media opposing that very important commitment, of which we as a country can be proud.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North spoke about the Congo. Last month, I had the opportunity to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the first time and also to visit Rwanda with the all-party group on the great lakes region of Africa. The aim was to learn more about some of the challenges that my hon. Friend described. A feature of our growing aid programme is that the United Kingdom is an increasingly important contributor in that country. Some of the work that DFID is doing there is exactly the type of work that should prevent conflict in the future. It involves reconciliation and disarmament; addressing some of the horrific tales of rape and gender-based violence to which my hon. Friend referred; and dealing with the challenges in relation to natural resources. It also relates to how we can promote women’s participation. One of the most striking features of how we deal with conflict

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issues is that women need to be at the centre of the solutions, because women have so often been the victims of some of the worst extremes in the conflicts to which hon. Members have referred.

Others have described the importance of the conflict prevention pool, which the previous Labour Government created in 2009. I welcome the fact that the present Government have maintained it and, indeed, given a commitment despite cuts elsewhere to increase spending from £229 million—the figure for the previous financial year—to more than £300 million by the end of this Parliament.

The other place recently debated soft power, and the concept is clearly of central relevance if we are to prevent conflicts in the future. I am keen to hear from the Minister what role the Government see institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service playing in the promotion of conflict prevention tools. In February, I visited Jerusalem as part of a visit to Israel and the west bank, and I learned of the excellent work that the British Council is supporting with the Palestinian Authority to promote English language training throughout the west bank. I also met the brilliant organisation OneVoice and talked to young Palestinians in Nablus and young Israelis in Tel Aviv who were working together to build the two-state solution to which this country is committed, but which seems such a distant prospect.

Another important innovation in recent years has been the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, whose work I have seen in a number of countries. The foundation grew out of the end of the cold war and the need to support the development of democracy in central and eastern Europe. The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the foundation’s important role in supporting the development of democracy and human rights in the Arab world, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister what plans there are for the foundation in terms of preventing future conflicts.

One issue that has not been addressed is the importance of international justice in preventing conflict. The creation of the International Criminal Court has been an important achievement in recent years. Pursuing prosecutions at an international level of those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide can send a strong deterrent signal and prevent such acts from happening in the future. In Sudan, ICC indictments are currently directed at the current President, al-Bashir, as well as at Ahmad Harun and Ali Abd al-Rahman, who have so far evaded trial. What are the Government doing to support the indictment process so that a real emphasis can be placed on prosecution as a conflict prevention tool?

Is the Minister aware of the gap in the international legal system in terms of the prosecution of suspects accused of crimes against humanity? I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to the work of the crimes against humanity initiative at the Whitney R Harris World Law Institute at Washington university, which seeks to address that gap. Currently, only 55 countries have domestic legislation covering prosecution for crimes against humanity, compared with more than 140 countries that have domestic laws against genocide and torture. Although the ICC is important, it has a narrow remit

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and it is limited by the number of countries that have not signed up to it. Will the Minister set out the Government’s thinking on the proposal to adopt an international convention on crimes against humanity?

Several hon. Members have emphasised the importance of arms control, and I support what they said. The hon. Member for Cheltenham rightly highlighted the serious shortcomings in the UK’s export licensing policy, which have been exposed by events in the middle east and north Africa. I welcome the Government’s decision to review arms export licensing policy, and I look forward to seeing the results shortly. What discussions have the Government had, however, on replicating that review at European level and, most importantly, globally? We can do a lot through domestic and European Union controls, but as my hon. Friends have said, we need global progress. The then Foreign Secretary under the previous Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), lobbied vigorously for commitments to a binding and comprehensive arms trade treaty. Since taking office, the present Government have sent delegations to the UN’s preparatory committee on the treaty. Will the Minister update us on the progress that has been made towards securing the goal of a binding and effective treaty?

Finally, I return to the issue that I started with: the crisis in the Nuba region of Sudan. In the past 24 hours, we have heard that the leaders of the north and south struck an agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, yesterday, and I cautiously welcome that. The agreement allows for the demilitarisation of Abyei and proposes a contingent of Ethiopian peacekeepers. Will the Minister outline the Government’s response to this latest development and their strategy for addressing the deep-rooted crisis in South Kordofan? On the basis of our experience in Darfur, there are real questions about the commitment of the al-Bashir regime in Khartoum to a genuine peace and reconciliation process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, there are immediate and pressing concerns about humanitarian access to the region. There is a fear that we find it hard to concentrate on a number of different crises at the same time. The Arab spring has rightly focused our attention, but the international community has perhaps taken its eye off the ball in Sudan. Let us hope that the agreement in Addis Ababa signals a positive move forward, but we need some serious reassurances if we are to accept that that is the case.

Again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark on securing this important and wide-ranging debate. I echo what colleagues on both sides have said: clearly, it is better to prevent conflict than to end up spending large amounts dealing with its consequences. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised in the debate.

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for securing this important debate on the key issue of how we prevent conflict. I also congratulate him on the work that he has done with the all-party group on conflict issues, and I congratulate colleagues who have supported its work; it is one of the most important groups in Parliament.

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Upstream engagement is essential to help us tackle the underlying causes of conflict before violent and costly flashpoints are reached. The Government have made their work on conflict prevention a key priority. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s announcement of the extension of our network of missions, particularly in Africa and central Asia, bears out our determination to increase our activity and widen our footprint in many areas.

Conflict does, of course, matter. More than 1.5 billion people live in fragile and conflict-affected states or in countries with high levels of criminal violence. Conflict and violence deprive millions of their basic rights to life and security. The economic consequences of conflict for poor countries are enormous: an average civil war—if there is ever such a thing—costs a developing country 30 years of GDP growth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, nine of the 10 poorest countries in the world are fragile states. Not a single fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single millennium development goal.

Neighbouring countries and wider regions are often destabilised by the flow of small arms, light weapons, mercenary groups and displaced people that conflicts can produce. Five countries, all of which are in the midst of conflict, produced 60% of the world’s refugees in 2009. Crime and instability also provide fertile soil for radicalisation and a recruitment ground for terrorist groups.

Short-term lulls in violence can mask the root causes of conflict. Since 2000, nine out of 10 new conflicts have been relapses, as fragile countries have fallen back into war. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made that point and referred to the recent World Bank report. Climate change and resource scarcity are also likely to increase the pressures on fragile countries, mainly in a band running from west Africa, through the Sahel and the horn of Africa and up to west and central Asia.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to some of the drivers of conflict. He pointed out poverty as being one of the obvious ones. He mentioned natural resources and the clamour and demand for those resources, and the pressure that that creates. I refer him to the work that we are doing with the Kimberley process on conflict diamonds, because now about 90% of all rough diamonds are within that process. We must go further, particularly in respect of Marange in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Member for Islington North also mentioned the pertinent point of lack of proper governance, which in turn leads to the lack of basic freedoms and rights. He referred, as indeed did the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nor should we ignore the continuing risk of state-on-state conflict in some regions. The causes of such conflicts are often similar to those within states and similar support and interventions are often required by the international community. When seeking to prevent conflicts through early engagement upstream, we must make sure that we emphasise the need to protect innocent civilians from the effects of conflict, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children. We should remember that no lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met: not only justice for the victims of

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crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices heard.

We need to acknowledge that we will not always be able to prevent conflict. Episodes of political change are often sudden, turbulent, violent and contested, as we see today in north Africa and the middle east. They may generate risks for the UK, affecting our security and prosperity and our ability to promote British values. When such rapid change occurs, the UK needs to be able to take swift targeted action and build popular confidence in positive outcomes, as we are doing in Libya, and as we are working towards doing in other countries. The evidence shows that achieving lasting change takes time. We need to be prepared to stay engaged and help to build strong and legitimate institutions—the best defence against countries falling back into conflict—as we are doing in Afghanistan.

The national security strategy identified shaping a stable world as a core objective for the Government, to reduce the likelihood of threats affecting the UK or our direct interests overseas. The strategic defence and security review made a commitment that we would reduce such threats by tackling them at source. Our response to the Arab spring has demonstrated the Government’s commitment to engaging in places at risk of instability. However, we cannot achieve success on our own. We will work in partnership with others on prevention, with the same intensity as we do in response. That will require a greater investment of our diplomatic and influencing efforts, in particular with emerging global and regional powers such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and with influential Commonwealth partners—because the Commonwealth is incredibly important also.

Similarly, we will identify where and how we can work better through the EU, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and NATO on prevention and crisis management. Recent events, for example in Côte d'lvoire, have shown that the UN is willing, when appropriate, to take a more robust approach. We will actively engage with other regional groupings, such as the African Union. For example, we are exploring opportunities for investment in AU civilian capabilities to support South Sudan. We must also be realistic about the pace of change, providing predictable support over the long run, taking risks and accepting some failures in order to secure transformational results.

I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby: the British Council has an important role to play, as indeed do the BBC World Service and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I would like the British Council to be more flexible, and to be able to surge its activities. A good example is that it has large operations in countries such as Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, but nothing at the moment in Côte d'lvoire. That is a country that has come out of appalling civil war, but is now moving promisingly towards peace-building and stability. There could well be an important role for the British Council.

Our response to the challenges is threefold. First, we need to increase our investment in upstream conflict prevention, to tackle the root causes of conflict to build longer-term and more sustainable peace. I support the idea put forward by the hon. Member for Hayes and

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Harlington (John McDonnell) of a ministerial seminar with all the parties; it makes sense. The prevention of conflict is helped significantly in countries with inclusive political settlements and strong legitimate institutions that provide civilians with security, justice, economic opportunity and jobs. Conversely, countries with weak government, inequality, social exclusion, uncertain rule of law, and poor control of corruption are significantly more likely to fall into civil war.

In line with the SDSR the Government will invest more in conflict prevention. We have announced an increase in the conflict pool’s programme resources over the course of the next spending review period from £229 million in the last financial year to £309 million by 2014-15. As part of that, we will refocus the Stabilisation Unit to do more work upstream. Also, by 2014-15 we will increase to 30% the proportion of UK overseas development assistance that supports conflict and fragile states.

As to early warning and early response, no one predicted the current crisis in the middle east, or that it would start in Tunisia. It is unlikely that anyone could have done, but we must become better at systematically spotting which states are at risk, for example as a result of unemployment or political exclusion, and where shocks, such as food and fuel price hikes or unrest elsewhere in the region, may generate instability. The middle east and north Africa conflict pool programme supports a number of key projects. Priority countries will include Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Yemen.

I want to say something about Sudan and South Sudan, because as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby pointed out, we have put great emphasis on it in the past few months. Indeed, my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development will hopefully be going to Juba on 9 July to witness the birth of a new country. However, I share the dismay and great fear of the hon. Gentleman about what has been happening in Abyei, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile State, and the attacks on south Unity State. Time is obviously running out fast. With less than a month until the secession of South Sudan, we urge both north and south to resolve the outstanding issues under the comprehensive peace

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agreement—particularly the status of Abyei, but also border demarcation and the sharing of oil revenue. I welcome yesterday’s important announcement that the parties have signed up to the Abyei interim agreement. There is obviously a long way to go in rebuilding trust and good will, but it is essential that that good will and the determination to make the CPA work should be established in the next few days and weeks.

I want quickly to answer the questions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. Do we have a strategy? We do indeed. Are we going to learn lessons? Yes, we certainly will. Are we going to look at the idea of the United States Institute for Peace, in Washington? We currently do the same things with a different number of structures—using Government operational staff, policy writers, lesson learners, planners and different think-tanks. The right hon. Gentleman also asked how much we spent on conflict prevention last year. We spent more than £600 million on peacekeeping and conflict prevention through the tri-departmental conflict pool. Our approach to conflict accepts that defence capability and conflict prevention work hand in hand together.

My right hon. Friend asked about monitoring on the ground, and we will certainly make sure that that happens. As to the lessons of the Arab spring, we will of course learn them. The Arab partnership works with those in the region who want to put the building blocks of democracy in place, underpinned by vibrant economies. The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Ministry of Defence—which of course was once the War Office—could become the Peace Department. He ought to take that up with the MOD, but I note his ideas on that.

On the matter of the arms trade, several hon. Members, including, I think, the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Liverpool, West Derby, talked about the arms trade treaty. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that we are working with the EU in helping to develop and deliver member states’ objectives for a series of EU-sponsored ATT seminars. Indeed, we take review and revocation of arms export licences very seriously.

We have a long way to go, but across Government we are establishing co-ordination. We do not want to be just one of the world leaders: we want to be the world leader in making an impact in this vital area.

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Young Runaways (Sexual Exploitation)

11 am

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

This debate is timely, given the growing number of cases of sexual exploitation and grooming of children that have recently hit the headlines in Greater Manchester and elsewhere. Sadly, the latest case involves young girls in the Stockport area, many of whom are repeat runaways. Every five minutes, a child runs away from home or care, and I support the children’s charities’ view that if we can reduce the massive numbers of children and young people running away and going missing from home and care, we can reduce the number of children at risk from violence, drugs, alcohol, sexual exploitation and grooming. It is estimated that 100,000 children run away overnight every year before the age of 16. Missing children will be protected only when they are seen as a priority for every local authority, police force, school, community and youth worker in every part of the country.

I want to thank the Manchester Evening News and its reporter, Jen Williams, for doing a superb job in reporting the plight of Greater Manchester’s runaway and missing children in February this year, including the invaluable role of the Safe in the City project in working with runaways. People in our region were stunned to read that there were 11,819 police reports of children missing in Greater Manchester last year. Of these, 2,281 cases related to children aged 11 or younger. Another shocking figure is that Stockport has the highest number of reports to the police of children running from care across the whole of Greater Manchester at 41% against the regional average of 27%. That reflects not only the higher number of children’s homes in the borough, but the high risk to children living in the borough.

We know from Children’s Society research that children in care are three times more likely to run away and are more likely to appear in police statistics. However, for reasons that I will come to later, there is clear evidence that the number of children in care missing for more than 24 hours is greatly unreported to the Department for Education. I am also concerned, as the Children’s Society research shows, that two thirds of children who run away from their own homes are not reported missing by their parents, meaning that the number of episodes is greater than the available data suggest.

Running away is an important indicator that things are not right in a child’s life. Children’s charities estimate that one in five of those who run away are at risk from serious harm, and many will become involved in the things that worry parents and society the most—drugs, alcohol and falling prey to sexual predators. The recent Barnardo’s report, “Puppet on a string”, states that “going missing” and “disengagement from education” can be key indicators

“that a child is being groomed for sexual exploitation.”

It adds that 51% of the sexually exploited children it was working with when the survey was conducted

“went missing on a regular basis.”

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. There is enormous support across the House for what

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she is saying. The issue is of such magnitude that it is way beyond party politics, and we have a good opportunity today to discuss it.

Yesterday, I was in Torbay with Devon and Cornwall police to work with stakeholders on child sexual exploitation. Sadly, there have been two large paedophile rings in my constituency, so I have come to understand the devastating impact of such horrendous crimes on young people and their families. The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree—she alluded to this in her speech—that we need good local work where everybody in a community understands and accepts that there is a problem and works together? I heard of some very good examples yesterday—

Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): I remind the hon. Lady that interventions must be brief.

Ann Coffey: I know that there is a particular problem in some seaside towns. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we have to have good local partnerships based on good data if we are all to help to overcome the problem. I agree with her.

It has been said that children living in care, particularly residential care, are more vulnerable to targeting by the perpetrators of sexual exploitation. I want to welcome the recent announcement by the Minister of an action plan to tackle child exploitation. It is important that it focuses on the link between running away and child sexual exploitation. Not all children who run away will be sexually exploited. However, all children who are sexually exploited will run away or go missing at some point. Either they will start running away as they become sexually exploited, or they will become sexually exploited as a result of running away.

I also welcome the fact that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, whose headquarters I visited recently, is to take responsibility for missing children. I await with interest its thematic assessment on the extent of child sexual exploitation. I hope that the fact that CEOP will have responsibility for missing children and sexual exploitation means that linking the two issues is now Government policy. I am pleased that there is an interdepartmental ministerial group on missing persons with a lead Minister involving the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Department of Health. That is crucial if there are to be more effective partnerships at a local level.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, I have met Ofsted, the Missing Persons Bureau, CEOP, Greater Manchester police, the Association of Chief Police Officers, West Mercia police, local safeguarding children’s boards, the Children’s Society, Missing People, Railway Children and others. A number of common concerns keep appearing: the ongoing problem with collecting and sharing accurate data; the fact that not all local authorities are adhering to the statutory guidance for children who run away or go missing; and the different priority given to missing children by local safeguarding boards, which are responsible for co-ordinating all actions by local agencies.

On data collection, police forces vary in how they collect and analyse data on missing episodes, making for inconsistencies across the country. Poor data mean that local safeguarding boards will be badly informed.

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Accurate data would enable an intelligence-led response in each area to find out why children are running away, where they are going and what help they need. This would uncover patterns to prevent future sexual exploitation and enable convictions. I know that the Minister is aware that the collection and evaluation of data is a problem. He has rightly said that gathering data and evidence is the first major step to tackling child sexual exploitation and grooming. He is also right to say that the sexual grooming of children in the UK is a much bigger problem than has previously been recognised.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): My hon. Friend has just highlighted an extremely important issue, and I will be interested to hear how the Government intend to resolve it. The Minister is from the Department for Education; the Department of Health is involved; and the police, which are the responsibility of the Home Office, are also involved. The devolved Scottish Government have police, health and social care responsibilities; in my area, Wales, we have the Welsh Assembly; and in Northern Ireland there is another devolved Administration. Yet, in the UK context, child exploitation will cross all those borders. I want to know who holds the reins of responsibility for gathering information across the whole of the UK, because those who wish to indulge in exploitation will not worry about the fact that the Department of Health and the Department for Education happen to apply to England only.

Ann Coffey: My right hon. Friend makes a good point in relation to the UK as a whole. I, too, will be interested in the Minister’s response.

Looking at the data held by the Department for Education on children missing from care for longer than 24 hours, there is a huge discrepancy between figures on missing children reported to the Department by local authorities and the information that I have gathered separately from police forces. I asked a parliamentary question in March about how many looked-after children in each local authority area were absent for more than 24 hours, but the answers that came back did not correlate with the figures provided to me by local police forces.

Figures provided to the Department for Education by 152 local authorities show that in England in 2010 a total of 920 children were missing from their agreed placement for more than 24 hours. However, figures that I obtained from Greater Manchester police, Kent police and West Mercia police reveal that, in those areas alone, more children in care went missing for longer than 24 hours in 2010 than the 920 recorded by the Department for the whole of England.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I have lost count of the number of times that debates about child exploitation and child and people trafficking have been held in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House. I am pleased to hear that the Government have announced an action plan, but in previous debates we heard that children in this great United Kingdom have been sold at £16,000 a time for men to have their way with them. Young children who have not reached the age of sexual maturity

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do not know what is happening to them; they feel only the pain. In this day and age in our United Kingdom, we can have all the action plans that we want, but we need to know that they are working and that children are not being put through a horrific experience, which marks them for life.

Ann Coffey: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He has brought home to us the sort of exploitation that we are talking about in his description of what happens to children. It is truly horrible, and he is right to say that we must take all available action to prevent it.

West Mercia police say that 266 children in care went missing for more than 24 hours in 2010, and Kent police figures for 2010 reveal that 826 children were recorded missing for more than 24 hours. However, an answer to a parliamentary question stated that in Stockport only 45 young people were missing from care for longer than 24 hours in the three years from 2008 to 2010. The Department for Education figures that I mentioned earlier are staggering, given that Stockport police has told me that there were 2,014 missing incidents between July 2009 and June 2010, of which 41% were from care homes.

The police have provided me with their most up-to-date figures for Stockport, which cover the first five months of this year up to Friday 17 June. They reveal that the police received 1,070 missing-from-home reports, generated by 284 children in Stockport under the age of 18; of those, 77 were reported missing from care, and they generated a massive 711 reports. Forty-six of the youngsters were missing for more than 24 hours, and of those 25 were from care.

That shows a clear pattern of repeated missing episodes and a consequent vulnerability to abuse, as well as further evidence of gross under-reporting by local authorities. In addition, two thirds of missing incidents from home are not reported by parents. As I have said, there is good evidence that repeated missing episodes are correlated to children being exposed to sexual grooming. If accurate data are not held by the Department for Education and the Home Office, it becomes more difficult to estimate the risk of sexual exploitation to which these children are exposed. It is important that we get it right.

On that point, ACPO pilots are looking at ways of achieving the collection of meaningful data on missing episodes, so as to determine when a child is missing. It is concerned that children’s homes are reporting children missing when a telephone call could establish where the child was.

All the evidence shows that sexual grooming starts by encouraging children to stay away from home, or persuading them to go home late, in order to create parental disputes and thus drive a wedge between child and home. Removing the protection of families and carers is the beginning of the grooming process, and the eventual outcome is the sexual exploitation of the child. The significance of that should not be lost in any redefinition of “missing”.

The “Puppet on a string” report states that the entrapment of children and young people in sexual exploitation does not occur overnight. If a child goes missing for a few hours, there is a danger that professionals will become complacent. However, that is when the

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child may be at risk from the gradual grooming process that I have described, and these early missing episodes may be the warning signs.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Experience in my constituency, and I suspect in many others, is that the homes may not be able to control the children and keep them in all the time, and the children will always indicate that they have human rights that must be respected. However, is there not a better and more definite way, with the homes and the local police co-ordinating on those who habitually stay out late or who may not return until the early hours of the morning? Could more not be done by the police, the local homes and the local authorities?

Ann Coffey: Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. We must have proper arrangements between children’s homes and the local police. If they do not work together, we will be unable to prevent children from going missing; and we will not know where those children who are that do go missing. He has made an important point.

Barnardo’s says that those who exploit children are all too aware of how the system works:

“These heartless men and women understand the police procedure on runaway children and know if a child goes missing on a regular basis, for a short period of time and then returns home safely, the case is unlikely to attract much attention.”

Turning to statutory guidance, another concern is the mixed picture that not all local authorities are adhering to the statutory guidance on children who run away from home or care, which was published in 2009. The guidance states that local authorities should have procedures in place for recording and sharing information between police, children’s services and the voluntary sector, and that the local authority should have a named person responsible for children and young people who go missing or who run away and that there should be return interviews.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the independent return interview. As the Children’s Society has demonstrated, children are more willing to disclose what has happened to them to adults whom they do not perceive to be in authority. A 16-year-old at Manchester’s Safe in the City project said:

“It was horrible. I felt I could not talk to anyone—friends, family, police, teachers—no-one.”

Eventually, however, the child did talk to the Children’s Society.

I have asked a number of parliamentary questions about implementation of the guidance, but I have been repeatedly told that the information is not held centrally. Implementing statutory guidance should be a high priority for local authorities. Local safeguarding children’s boards have a responsibility to protect children in their areas. The young runaways action plan 2008 asked safeguarding boards to evaluate the risk of children running away and to put action plans in place. The Children’s Society’s “Stepping Up” report found that half of the local authorities surveyed had no protocol for managing cases of children and young people who are missing from home.

According to recent research by the international centre for the study of sexually exploited and trafficked young people at the university of Bedfordshire, there are protocols for responding to sexual exploitation in

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less than a quarter of local safeguarding children’s boards. Ten years on from the introduction of the dual strategy of protecting young people and proactively investigating their abusers, a third of the country has no plans for the delivery of such a strategy.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): An increasing proportion of the sexual grooming of children now takes place online. I imagine that policing that is complex and difficult and that it involves many officers. It is important that funding is kept in place, and if possible increased, to deal with what is a horrific crime.

Ann Coffey: My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is crucial that resources are available to support such initiatives and actions, because without those resources the actions will be meaningless.

Ofsted has a duty to inspect general safeguarding in an area, yet in a letter to the director of children’s services in Stockport in December 2010 following an annual children’s services assessment, it stated:

“In reaching this assessment, Ofsted has taken account of arrangements for making sure children are safe and stay safe.”

Astonishingly, in that letter and in the assessment itself, there was not one mention of the number of missing incidents reported to the Stockport police in that year. I am not clear how an assessment can be made of how well local safeguarding boards are discharging their responsibilities in relation to missing children, but one way might be for Ofsted, in its inspection of safeguarding in local areas, to assess whether local authorities are implementing statutory guidance in relation to the safeguarding of missing children. Another way might be for local safeguarding boards to publish information annually on numbers of missing children in their area together with the actions that they have taken and the outcomes of their interventions. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that. It is important that the statutory guidance is fully implemented in local areas, because such guidance is there for a purpose.

Furthermore, I want to see the development of early intervention programmes that target children who are at risk of running away. The Munro report stressed the value of early help in the area of child protection. I realise that funds are limited, but existing resources—education, health and police—could be used more effectively by developing innovative ways in which we can work with parents and voluntary agencies.

Sarah Newton: The hon. Lady has been generous to us all with the amount of times that she has given way. Does she agree that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has an important role to play? Many new tools have been made available for young people, teachers, parents and carers to raise awareness of the issues of being groomed online.

Ann Coffey: I agree with the hon. Lady. I will emphasise that point later in my speech.

There is good practice. We have seen proactive police work in West Mercia, and projects such as Safe in the City Manchester and SAFE@LAST in South Yorkshire demonstrate the value of good local partnerships. It is vital that children’s charities and projects that help young runaways continue to receive resources. I am concerned to hear about the disproportionate cuts that are being made to such valuable projects at a local level.

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All local authorities and police forces need to understand the link between missing episodes and the vulnerability to harm that it indicates, which needs to be a high priority for child protection and safeguarding in every area of the country.

David Simpson: An early-day motion on guardianship was tabled in the House in 2010. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is a way in which to deal with children who have gone through this horrific situation? I understand that guardianship is a requirement of the Council of Europe, and it may be an avenue that we can explore.

Ann Coffey: I agree that we must consider all possibilities. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this issue and a commitment to improve the situation for children.

In relation to Ofsted, I welcome the publication of the new minimum standards for children’s homes that came into force in April 2011. It set out how children’s homes should develop relationships and work with police forces to safeguard children and young people in their area.

I am also pleased that the recent Ofsted consultation on the new framework for inspection of schools includes an assessment of pupil behaviour and safety. Teachers and other school staff are in a prominent position to help children who run away from home or care and to identify behaviour, including absences, which may be indicative of serious issues in the child’s life. The all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults emphasises the connection between missing episodes and vulnerability to serious harm, including sexual exploitation, in its response to the Ofsted consultation.

We should focus on prevention, which means involving parents and children themselves. I would like all schools to provide information about the risks relating to running away and how children can get help if they are thinking of running away. The subject should also be included in the school’s curriculum, where it is appropriate. There should also be information available for parents about what to do if their child runs away or goes missing.

I welcome the fact that CEOP is going to make the prevention of running away a new educational theme, when it takes over responsibility for missing children on 1 July. I would also like to see all professionals in children’s social care and education being trained in risks relating to children running away to ensure that they can identify such children and refer them to the appropriate services. Such training should also be in the forthcoming youth strategy.

The harm that is done to a child abused for sex is incalculable. Children live with it for the rest of their lives and are haunted by the memories of their experiences. Some never recover, which applies not only to children but to families. We should not forget that children who live in caring families can also be targeted and groomed.

I recently attended a meeting of the coalition for the removal of pimping at which parents whose children had been groomed talked about their experiences. Two of my constituents spoke up and said that their pain

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will last a lifetime. They said that they were not listened to when they expressed concern to local agencies. They said:

“Our experience was that, at that stage, social services seemed to be focusing much more on our inadequate qualities as parents, rather than on the significant risk of child sexual exploitation, which we had brought to their attention.”

Their daughter subsequently gave detailed accounts of having been kept in flats in various parts of Greater Manchester and both sexually abused and sold for sex. Her evidence led to the eventual conviction of 10 men. The parents said that

“the traumatic nature of her experiences has caused her lasting psychiatric problems, including severe self-harm and has also resulted in one of us being off work for a period of two years through the stress of coping with this extended family trauma.”

Parents must be listened to, helped and supported if we are to prevent sexual grooming of children. This is not an issue that divides the political parties, and we must all work together for the sake of our children.

I congratulate the Minister on his commitment and on his positive responses. Together with his colleagues in the Department for Health and the Home Office, he has announced a number of initiatives that deal with the concerns expressed by parents and children’s charities. Sexual exploitation is an abomination, and no excuse can be offered by the perpetrators. Together, we must ensure that everybody working in this area understands the link between missing children and harm from sexual abuse and exploitation; that that training is given a high priority at a local level; that statutory guidance on runaways is fully implemented; and that local agencies work together with parents, children and children’s charities. It is only then that we will be able to protect and safeguard our children in the future from some of the horrific experiences suffered by our children in the past. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

11.27 am

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this timely debate and on leading the work on this issue. Helen Southworth, her predecessor as Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for runaways and missing children, also made an enormous contribution. The all-party group’s inquiry three years ago resulted in the action plan and then the statutory guidance on runaways. It is rather sad to hear today that that guidance is not being fully implemented, and it shows that, as politicians, our work is never finished. Even when we think that we have made progress and produced the paperwork, the action is not taking place. Perhaps worst of all, the action is patchy over the country.

The hon. Lady referred to the lack of data. It is incredible to think that most children who run away are not reported as missing to the police by their parents or guardians. The problem of the lack of data is obviously compounded by the fact that there are different police and local authority responses. Added to that we have the issue of trafficked children, of which we do not know the full extent. It is difficult to see how we can move forward without more data. What we have at the moment is raised awareness, sadly because of the stories and the prosecutions that are being reported currently.

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It makes us reflect on the society that we live in that these practices can happen and that we have been so unaware of them as a nation.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Why does the hon. Lady think that there is such a variation between the statistics that come from the police and those that come from central Government? Does she think that, as a society, we are trying to cover over a problem and that we are not facing the depth of the statistics? Also, does she agree that behind each of these statistics there is a vulnerable child, many of whom are hurting and who will carry that hurt to the end of their days? We had better get the statistics right, before we can know that the action plan will address the problems.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In many ways, he is right. However, I am not convinced that there is a deliberate cover-up. It is actually a case of our being blinkered and not recognising what is happening out there. That is why today’s debate is so timely, because sadly we have so much evidence to refer to.

I want to compliment the many organisations that work day-in and day-out on this issue. Obviously there is Barnardo’s, and its report, “Puppet on a string”, is a really important contribution. There is also the Children’s Society, which has engaged in long-standing work in this sector, and there are so many others. All of that work is important, but we must grasp the hour. People accept that there is a problem, but we are still not very good at recognising it in our own communities. It still tends to be a case of people saying that it happens elsewhere. I could easily say in Dorset, “Oh, it’s up there in the north”, but it is very important that we recognise this is happening throughout our country.

Sarah Newton: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Annette Brooke: I will indeed give way, but I do wish to be fairly brief.

Sarah Newton: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and she is making a very important point, because I think that people do not want to believe that this is happening in every village, every town and every city. I am very concerned by what I think are inadvertent comments about, say, seaside towns having a problem, or big cities having a problem. In fact, this is happening everywhere.

Annette Brooke: I think that is absolutely right and we really need to endorse that point.

The interlinking of issues is incredibly important. The issue of running away must be addressed in conjunction with the issue of sexual exploitation, because children who run away will be in greater danger of being sexually abused or exploited. Equally, children who are being sexually exploited are likely to run away. So we must look at the issues together.

We must also appreciate that there are specific groups of children who are more likely to run away. The hon. Member for Stockport made the point that the entrapment of children and young people in sexual exploitation does not happen overnight. Therefore, we must look at the aspect of vulnerability. It is well documented that

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children in care often run away, but the hon. Lady pointed out that there is a lot of missing data. Children who are facing difficulties in school may well be runaways. Children involved in drugs and alcohol, children in trouble with the police, and the disabled or those with learning difficulties are all vulnerable too. We must think about vulnerability for a moment. Although we might think that the vulnerable are most likely to be entrapped, somebody who has become entrapped will, in turn, become more vulnerable. That makes it so important for us to get everything in place.

I was struck as I read the various reports on this issue that evidence or clues can be picked up in schools. For example, in Emma’s story in “Puppet on a string” it says that she either missed school or behaved badly when she was at school. Missing school is clearly quite an important aspect. So, can the Minister specifically say how his Department will react if the Education Bill passes in its current form, removing the duty on schools, including academies and further education colleges, to co-operate with local authorities? I have expressed before how concerned I am about removing that duty, and the Bill’s explanatory notes state:

“These bodies will be able to decide for themselves how to engage in arrangements to improve well-being.”

I can see that there are arguments for not loading unnecessary bureaucracy on schools and colleges, but if the duty is removed, what on earth will fill the gap? I would really like the Minister to answer that question because there seems to be such an opportunity to identify potential problems at school. The hon. Member for Stockport referred to the obvious need to fully train teachers and social workers, but if we are not going to be blinkered and fail to pick up what is before our eyes we must ensure that everything is joined together.

I would also like to make a brief point about age. I think we became aware of the issue of age during the inquiry on missing children and people that is being led by the hon. Member for Stockport. I worry about classifying, in this context, a child as being someone under 18 because a vulnerable 19 or 20-year-old can be much more like a child than someone under that age. We have to be very careful about being so age-specific because we start to make assumptions. Some work carried out by the Children’s Society, the NSPCC and the university of York states that professionals tend to assume that older children are more capable of looking after themselves. The reality, of course, is that all children are different, and young adults might not have the maturity to cope.

We should either be flexible about 18 being a cut-off for children’s services or ensure that adult social services work really closely with children’s services, and I ask the Minister to consider that gap. We heard a story in evidence of a young man who went missing aged 19 and who, four years on, still has not been found. The police were just not listening to the mother. They said, “Well, he’s just a young man who’s gone off,” even though she said, “But he always phones me.” A teenager from a tight-knit family home will be different in terms of whether they are likely to go off without telling anyone, so it is so important to listen to everyone.

We need this issue to be a priority across all services. We first need to acknowledge the problem of runaways and missing people, and then see the connections between that and sexual exploitation. We need full prevention

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services, support for families and young people, and consistent responses from the police and local authorities, with everyone working together to truly make children and young people a priority in our society and to ensure that they are properly protected.

11.38 am

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on raising this extremely important issue, which affects rural and urban constituencies across the country. It is important to have a co-ordinated Government response.

I want to focus on a couple of key areas, which have been touched on already. My hon. Friend’s points about prevention, assessing vulnerability, recording school absence and supporting parents of vulnerable children are extremely important, and I have no doubt that the Department for Education will fulfil those roles very strongly. I particularly want to focus on the operation of the new agency that from 1 July will take on the National Policing Improvement Agency’s responsibilities. In a former life I was Minister with responsibility for policing, and we had the National Policing Improvement Agency looking closely at these issues as part of its role with missing children under the Missing Persons Bureau. We and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), along with the then hon. Member for Warrington South, Helen Southworth, began the process of looking at how to compile the action plan for an effective response to this issue.

I do not want to make a party political point—this is not a party political issue, as the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) said—but will the Minister clarify how the new responsibilities will operate from 1 July? He is not a Home Office Minister, but it was announced yesterday that he is preparing an action plan, along with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is the Minister with responsibility for crime. How does he visualise the new agency operating from 1 July? I would welcome, in particular, a commitment that the previous budget for the NPIA will not in any way be diluted in relation to the operation of the new agency from 1 July.

It is important that we look at what that does in relation to the important issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. What is the guidance given to police forces, and how will the new agency work with local authorities, not just in the Minister’s area of responsibility—England—but, as I mentioned when I intervened on my hon. Friend, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? We have four devolved Administrations dealing with the issues of children’s homes, education and vulnerability. It is important that the central UK agency has a responsibility for examining and pulling together that information, because although Wales has 40 parliamentary seats and the Welsh Assembly deals with its responsibilities, it is important to note that my constituency is a border constituency—it is 2 miles from the English border—and people can operate in Chester and deal with schools and colleges in my constituency.

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Dr McCrea: From the right hon. Gentleman’s own experiences in the previous Administration, will he enlighten us on what co-ordination existed between the Westminster Government and the devolved Administrations in tackling this issue?

Mr Hanson: If I am honest, it could have been better. One of the things that we tried to do was to look at how to make it stronger. Devolved Administrations, by their nature, wish to maintain an element of control over their areas of responsibility. We had a ministerial steering group, which included Ministers from the Department of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Home Office, but we have to improve the liaison with the devolved Administrations. It is an important issue. There are UK-wide paedophile rings. Children can go missing form north Wales and end up in Liverpool or Manchester, and children from Glasgow can run to London. Co-ordination is, therefore, important and I am not clear about how the new responsibilities will improve it or about what the Minister’s vision is for that co-ordination throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that the Minister will take this responsibility extremely seriously, but it would help if he outlined his vision of a UK response and whether or not the Home Office, which has still not devolved responsibility for policing to Northern Ireland or Scotland, has a central role in managing the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport has touched on the issue of guidance to police forces and has referred to an article in yesterday’s Times, the headline of which was, “Police ‘must be more aware of grooming’: Ministers call for action amid mounting concern”. As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said, that was an issue when I was a Minister and it continues to be an ongoing issue. What will the Minister do differently to improve the co-ordination?

How will the Minister judge the difficult issue of success in three years’ time? We need an assessment of that so that we can judge the success of the plan as a whole. I genuinely do not know whether he has sufficient information about the number of cases involving runaway children—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport mentioned that issue—or about how many prosecutions have occurred, what is happening in relation to support for changing the behaviour of offenders downstream, or how we are to look at the overall picture of long-term prevention.

I would welcome some clarification from the Minister about what he judges to be “success”. We want to see fewer runaway children; we want to see fewer children becoming victims of sexual abuse; and we want to see more prosecutions. As I say, however, I would welcome clarification about how he will judge “success” in due course.

In addition, I would welcome clarification on another issue that has been touched on in the debate, which is co-ordination. How will we improve co-ordination, not only on policing issues but on the issues of tracking and vulnerability within the European Community, and indeed elsewhere? There will be potentially more trafficking of children into and out of the UK by European gangs. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport made some very important points today. My contribution is simply to say that the Minister will have the support of

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the Opposition to do whatever he can to improve the situation for runaways. However, I think this is an opportunity for him to give both Members who are here in Westminster Hall today and the outside world some clarification about what the new agency will mean, in terms of budget, guidance, information gathering, impact on police and local authorities, and in pulling together a co-ordinated response on a UK-wide basis, so that people do not slip through the net because we only have a patchwork of individuals that are responsible for safeguarding, policing and providing advice and support across the country, and indeed across Europe. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on those points.

11.46 am

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Turner.

I join Members from all parties in congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to the work that she does as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. Her commitment to vulnerable children in Stockport and right across the country is admired across the House. Those children, who may never have heard of her, have reason to be thankful that they have such a powerful advocate who battles for their rights in Parliament.

I also pay tribute to the work of the Children’s Society, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s for their work in highlighting the experiences of children in care. The recent report by Barnardo’s, “Puppet on a string”, was a particularly important contribution to raising awareness of this issue. One thing that has emerged throughout this debate is the importance of raising awareness of this issue and of ensuring that people have an opportunity to do so at an early stage.

My hon. Friend highlighted the tremendous work done by the Manchester Evening Newsin bringing to the public’s attention the plight of vulnerable children in the city of Manchester and the surrounding area, and I echo her comments in that regard.

This debate has been very important and very timely, and the message must go out from Parliament today that we are entirely united in fighting the evil of people, including pimps, who prey upon our most vulnerable children, and that no stone will be left unturned in that fight. We must show that this House is united in our determination to protect the most vulnerable.

Members expressed very powerfully the revulsion that we all feel about people who would inflict the horror of prostitution upon children and there is also very powerful evidence in the “Puppet on a string” report about child prostitution. When we, sitting in our relatively privileged position as Members of this House, think back to our own first sexual experience—I was lost in reverie for a moment—for most of us it will hopefully have been a happy one that we look back on with joy and, in some cases, pride. For others, the memories might not be so golden. However, the important point is that the development of our sexual identity is a vital part of who we become as people, how we see ourselves as adults and our path into adulthood.

When we, as parents, look forward to the lives that our children will lead, we hope that that important first sexual experience will be positive. We think about how

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it would feel for our children or, indeed, any children to look back on their first sexual experience not with fond memories, but with harrowing memories and to see sex and sexual experience as a time of fear. Such children might look back on that first trip into adulthood and recognise the fear that, at the end of the sexual experience, if they failed to comply, their lives would be in danger. That is a shocking and harrowing thought for us all, and gives us the determination to stamp out this evil and work together to ensure that these experiences are reduced for children in vulnerable circumstances.

Dr McCrea: In our speeches, it is certainly true that we have shown a united determination to stamp out this despicable trade—the sexual exploitation of children—throughout the United Kingdom. However, although we have had numerous debates, we do not have the appropriate and accurate data to get to the very heart of the problem. Surely, actions—our actions—will speak a lot louder than the words we utter in these debates.

Toby Perkins: My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport focused heavily on the importance of strengthening the data we have. I will refer to that in more detail later. She exposed graphically our failure to identify the scale of the problem. The fact that the number of police reports of missing children is so dramatically different from the number that are being reported to local authorities exposes that failure graphically. The Minister has identified that the importance of evaluating stronger data is the starting point for trying to improve the situation. We absolutely agree with that. Just to finish the point I was making, we all recognise the damage that is caused. For many people, that scar will never be washed clean.

I would like to reflect on the contribution to the debate made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. She particularly focused on three things. The first was the chasm between the figures reported by local authorities and the numbers reported to the police. I am interested to hear from the Minister how he anticipates us improving the situation. Do we need more stringent standards in reporting, or is it about the measure against which children’s homes are judged? Specifically, is the accuracy of those responsible for reporting something that should be judged?

As I said, the Minister has focused on the importance of data collection and evaluation. I would like to know more about how we can address that. Is there a role for Ofsted in measuring local authorities’ implementation of statutory guidance, because considerable evidence has been highlighted today that shows how much worse the figures are than anyone realised? In the case of some two thirds of incidences of children going missing from home, the fact is not reported to the police by parents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport also reflected on the importance of the link between running away and sexual exploitation and grooming. This debate is important in raising awareness, and we must do so across the board.

Much of our debate today is about vulnerable children and children in care, but sexual exploitation may occur in families where there is no apparent evidence of things having gone wrong, where the parents have done everything as perfectly as any of us as parents can do, and when there is no evidence to the outside world that there may be a problem. The Barnardo’s report includes a powerful

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and insightful description of a child who had had a happy upbringing, and discovered that he was gay when he became a young man. He started to go with friends to find like-minded people, but was caught up in a web of paedophilia. The evidence is harrowing. Parents may have no experience or expectation of their children becoming mixed up with such people, and they need a lot more support from us all to enable them to talk about it, and to ensure that their worries are treated seriously and that they have a powerful voice supporting them.

Awareness must be raised among the police, particularly when the focus is on front-line policing. Support must be given to police forces, and we must ensure that vice-ring and paedophile units are not reduced in difficult financial circumstances. Youth workers have an important role to play in identifying the prospects of children coming to harm. They must work closely with children’s homes to ensure that training is available—this was raised by several hon. Members—to the staff to identify children who are at risk, because patterns and regularity of children going missing is a sign that something serious is wrong. Awareness among schoolteachers must be raised, because there is considerable evidence that regular absence from school may be a sign that something sinister is wrong. Awareness is important, not just of the number of separate incidents, but of their regularity.

The question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport asked the police identified that 77 children were reported as being missing for more than 24 hours, and there were 711 reports. That shows the scale of how often some children go missing. There is a danger that when the police or a children’s home sees the same child go missing and then return, it is taken less seriously, but the evidence suggests that that is when we should be most worried.

My hon. Friend highlighted the patterns and tactics used by pimps and others engaged in criminal vice activities. I spoke to a woman who had worked in a hostel with young adults who had often just left care and who were targeted in a similar way. She said that people would often wait outside the hostel to try to encourage those vulnerable young adults to go with them, when they would be given gifts and attention, and were made to feel good about themselves, but their circumstances soon became bleak. They were often targeted because people in that environment knew how vulnerable they were and recognised that they were a soft target. When they succumbed, and started to feel good about themselves because someone was paying attention to them, the situation quickly changed, and they were in a situation of the utmost danger.

[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]

The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) spoke about the importance of raising awareness and the impact of alcohol and drug dependency on children. Alcohol and drugs are sometimes the reason children fall into the wrong hands, but they are also often a crutch once children have got into a situation that they feel unable to react against. The hon. Lady also cautioned strongly against removing the statutory duty and strongly emphasised the importance of us all working together.

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke about the importance of partnerships, and that came across in other contributions. It is important that our police, health services, youth workers, schools and other organisations work together. My right hon. Friend, who represents a north Wales constituency close to the English border, made an important point about how we ensure that there is co-ordination across the border with the devolved authorities, and it would be good to learn more about that. He also requested clarity about how CEOP will operate and wanted to confirm that the budgeting will remain in place for its important work.

Labour Members recognise the Minister’s commitment to do something, and I echo the offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport of our complete support for his work. We support his inter-departmental working group, which recognises the importance of partnership working. Many bodies have a responsibility for raising awareness, influence it and play a role. The Minister has direct control over partnerships such as those involved in youth services, local authority reporting and schools. There is also the responsibility of children’s homes to take their duty seriously, so that they do not phone the police when a simple phone call to someone else could identify where children are. If we can reduce the work that the police have to do to identify where children are, they can focus more directly on serious problems that are identified.

There are other partnerships that the Minister can influence. We spoke briefly about the importance of prosecution. A number of new offences were created by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but it is worrying that there have been too few prosecutions, as has been identified. Often in the situations that we are discussing, the police will seek to prosecute people for other offences, but given the evidence of the number of sexual offences being committed, we need to ensure that there are more prosecutions for them. Sentencing is obviously also important.

As I said, it is important that the police have in place the resources in these difficult circumstances to ensure that they can pursue what is often complicated work. It is important that the partnership between children’s homes and their local police forces works well and that there is proper training, support, respect and partnership working. I also welcome the action plan looking into the link between children running away and sexual exploitation.

It is important to recognise that the previous Government took this issue very seriously and published guidance for local authorities and professionals in 2009. It is disappointing that that guidance appears not to have been followed in many cases. It is important to see how we can work better with local authorities to ensure that the well-meaning measures that have been put in place deliver what we want.

We have a responsibility and a duty to do more for our most vulnerable children and to support children and families on whom this nightmare is visited, apparently from nowhere. It sickens us and it is abhorrent that such things continue to happen in our society, but that reinforces our determination to work together. This problem unites us, and we say very powerfully that it is too important not to work together to ensure that we deliver that safer world that our children deserve.

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12.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I welcome our Chair—he appears to have lost some hair since the beginning of the debate. We have had a very good debate with well-informed contributions, a great consensus about the importance of the matter and a determination to pick up the baton and ensure that we bring about effective action.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), not just on her excellent in-depth and well-informed speech—one would expect it to be so—but on the enormous amount of work she has been doing on the subject, raising its profile in this place and beyond, including in the national media, well beyond the confines of her constituency. I am sure that she, too would pay tribute to the work of Helen Southworth, her predecessor in the all-party group on child protection, who started that work. The hon. Lady is genuinely passionate about making a different to the lives of young runaways, as am I, and I am particularly concerned about the preponderance of children in the care system who fall into these dangers, and I have been working on the issue for some time. I hope that we can continue that work and step it up a gear in the future. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her constructive arguments, and for her communications on this and related subjects.

I will respond to the hon. Lady’s detailed points about data collection, and about the roles of local authorities and local safeguarding children boards in particular, in a few minutes, and I will also pick up as many as possible of the points made by other Members before I make what is a fairly lengthy speech but which I might have time to get through.

I want to say at the outset that I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s view that young runaways and missing children are a very vulnerable group of people who desperately need and deserve our protection. As she has said, the figures are alarming, with an estimated 100,000 children going missing every year—and that is just the ones we know about. That is one child under the age of 16 every 10 minutes, one in five of whom is likely to be at serious risk of being hurt or harmed by sleeping rough or staying with someone they have just met. The figures are stark. The experiences and alarming figures that the hon. Lady draws on from her own constituency are perhaps a result of her local children’s services department and the police being more savvy about the problem and therefore better at detecting it, thus artificially inflating the figures. I do not underestimate the importance of the problem in her constituency but, as she knows, I spent a week there on the front line with social workers last year, and I know that they are aware of the problem and are determined to do something about it.

We also know that young runaways are often affected by other problems, and surveys have suggested that about one third of them have reported problems with substance misuse or involvement in crime, and we have heard about other difficulties, including mental health issues and domestic violence. Although many missing children fortunately return safely, many suffer harm and exploitation while they are missing and some, of course, never return. Once they are on the streets, children can find themselves with few options and no one safe to turn to, leaving them very vulnerable to exploitation by those who would harm them or seek

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to gain from their misfortune. In some cases—too many cases—that includes sexual exploitation, the profile of which, I am very pleased to say, has been raised.

As the hon. Lady points out, there is a strong link between children going missing and children suffering from sexual exploitation, and I can confirm, as she requested that I do, that the Government’s action plan on sexual exploitation will take full account of that linkage. As she indicated, the connection works in both directions: children who go missing are at risk of sexual exploitation and children who are being exploited are more likely to run away from home or care. That is a Catch-22 situation, which the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also mentioned, and I absolutely agree that that is the case. Ever since the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and I really tried to take a grip of this subject earlier in the year, I have been very clear that the problem is much bigger than we appreciate. The more work we do, the more alarmed people will be by the scale of the problem and by how widespread it is.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) said that the problem was not exclusively urban, but existed in market towns and rural areas, as she knows from her own experience—I have met with her and her local police. The problem is also classless, affecting many middle-class, apparently stable families, with children running away from home for all sorts of reasons. We must open our eyes to the extent and range of the problem.

Understanding what young people in such situations go through is absolutely essential to learning lessons and improving our responses to the problem in future. The hon. Member for Stockport has arranged for the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults to meet later today to hear the voices of former young runaways. I will attend that meeting, as will the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins). I was going to say that I am looking forward to hearing young people’s stories, but that is not quite the phrase to use, given how harrowing such stories are. It is important, however, to hear those real-life experiences.

I will now take up a few of the points made, before returning to my substantive speech. The hon. Member for Stockport made a telling point when she said that removing the protection of parents or carers is part of the grooming process—she is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the BBC and the “Eastenders” programme for the storyline run a few months ago—very harrowing, realistic and “in your face”, involving the character Whitney Dean and how she was enticed away from her family by someone who she thought cared for her but in fact was exploiting her, benefiting and profiting in a most nasty way from her misfortune. The wedge driven between her and what stability she might have had with family and friends was key to the exploitation taking place.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the importance of interviews with returning runaways. Absolutely—we need to know the reasons why they run away because, hopefully, we can then support that particular home, family or care establishment, as well as learn lessons for other children and young people in a similar situation.