I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require police forces to submit standardised information to a national missing persons' register within a prescribed time; and for other purposes.
Anxiety is growing over the way in which we handle the problem of missing persons. [Interruption.].
Research by the Church of England Children's Society shows that, in 1986, 98,000 people were reported as missing. Although this includes individuals who go missing more than once during the year, it is calculated that some 50 per cent. of disappearances go unreported. Although a significant number of people are recovered in days or within a week, many remain missing. Far too many of these head for the bright lights of London. The Central London Teenage Project reports that, although some 40 per cent. of teenagers coming into the capital originated in London and the south-east, 16 per cent. were from the north and north-west and 12 per cent. were from Scotland. These are young people who arrive at King's Cross or Euston, many of whom fall prey to the predators of crime, prostitution or commercial exploitation.
In the circumstances, the British Transport police do a valiant job in coping with these runaways, but they have to waste an immense amount of time trying to establish the identity of many of the young people whom they pick up. The teenage project, which assists young people in its centre, always makes checks with Scotland Yard's missing persons register and has made the disturbing discovery that only 39 per cent. of runaways are registered as missing and 61 per cent. are not. We should ask, why not?
We have a haphazard system of recording missing persons. The system has grown like Topsy. We have 53 police forces, each with its own policy. In my county of Kent, missing persons are classified as vulnerable or not vulnerable. These are basically minors, pensioners or those with medical, psychological or suspicious records. The rules require them to be registered as missing within four hours of report and details are forwarded to neighbouring divisions or forces that are thought relevant to the case. They are reported to New Scotland Yard only if the person is thought to have headed for London. All cases are reported to New Scotland Yard after three days.
I have also looked at the position at my own Gravesend police station. It has had 103 cases of disappearances so far this year. Overwhelmingly, those have been solved within 48 hours. When I made my inquiries, there were only two cases outstanding—one from the previous night and one reported six days previously. To what extent do other forces follow suit? Are they as tight in informing New Scotland Yard? Why is it that the Central London Teenage Project found that 61 per cent. of runaways were not registered centrally? Could it be loose policy by some police forces? One Welsh force, for example, only forwards details of vulnerable people to Scotland Yard after 14 days. Could it be that the two thirds of runaways from home come from families who do not bother to notify the police or are scared to do so? One third of runaways come from social services care. Could that reflect the supervision and sense of responsibility of a number of those departments?
This is not a new problem. Dick Whittington came to London to seek his fortune and in the 19th century, Charles Dickens's Fagin displayed in a genteel fashion the way in which young runaways could be led into crime. However, the scope for the international exploitation of young, vulnerable people is new. With a vast increase in travel, there may be an expansion of white slaving and of the involvement of young people in drug running. Clearly, that motivated the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to recommend the co-ordination of national offices responsible for tracing missing persons. But if international mobility and, possibly, the sophistication of criminal exploitation have increased, so too have the technological aids available to the police.
Scotland Yard has operated a police national computer at Hendon since 1974. In addition to a variety of registers, it has run an index of wanted and missing persons since 1978. Last year, it held files on 9,951 missing people. They included 495 boys and 425 girls aged under 14, 980 youths and 1,172 girls aged 14 to 18, and 3,696 men and 3,183 women over 18. By the end of the year, 2,156 of those people were still missing. Of those reported missing, 5,000 returned home voluntarily. Nearly one third were found as a result of police inquiries or publicity, 2 per cent. were found dead and 3 per cent. were held by the police because they were accused of offences.
The police national computer has several hundred terminals held by force headquarters and some divisions. They can be used for viewing and entering data, although only about one half of the forces can interface them with their own computers. The index is essentially a passive and voluntary aid to our 53 police forces. If it were to become a standard requirement to enter specified data within an obligatory time frame, a more complete and systematic response could be achieved.
We require a framework that establishes an obligation to register all minors, pensioners and those considered vulnerable on medical or psychological grounds. Experience shows that immediate inquiries following clearly established leads tend to produce a contact with the overwhelming majority of missing persons within 48 hours. It is, therefore, reasonable to require notification to the national register within that time limit for those cases whose lack of solution demonstrates potential seriousness. A requirement for cancellation and for frequent case review, perhaps fortnightly by originating forces, is clearly essential to avoid clogging the system.
Clearly, all this will involve resources, both to operate the enhanced national register of missing persons on the national police computer and to develop methods to take advantage of the wider scope of information. The Association of Chief Police Officers has submitted a report to the Home Office, which has yet to pronounce upon it. I stress to Home Office Ministers the urgency and importance of addressing the matter.