Protection of Runaway and Missing Children

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth Labour, Warrington South 3:32 pm, 15th November 2005

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a national system to safeguard runaway and missing children;
to make provision for the collection and reporting of information about runaway and missing children;
make provision for co-ordination between local authorities and other bodies;
and for connected purposes.

Children who run away or go missing from home are not bad children; they are children in a bad situation, at very real risk of danger. They need us to act together to help sort out their problems and keep them safe. We know the high risk that lone children face, yet we do not know how many children are reported missing to the police nationally, where they are missing or where they go. We do not have the information that we need to direct resources to deal with a critical and very complex issue.

The most comprehensive information that we have is from studies conducted by the Children's Society and the National Missing Persons Helpline, both of which are charities. The Children's Society undertook a new national survey of young people in the first half of 2005, involving more than 11,000 young people aged between 14 and 16 in mainstream schools, special schools and pupil referral units in 25 areas of England. The findings were stark. An estimated 100,000 young people under 16 run away or are forced to leave home to escape problems, while 77,000 children are running away for the first time each year.

The reasons for leaving home or care are very varied. Some young people are testing the boundaries, or find it difficult to negotiate and resolve difficulties in their families. Some have experienced bullying and a high level of conflict. Some are escaping abuse, neglect and danger. A quarter of young runaways said that they were forced to leave home and two thirds of children running away overnight were not reported missing to the police on the most recent occasion of going missing. Those findings are consistent with a smaller study conducted by the Children's Society in South Yorkshire and with evidence taken from the United States.

One in six runaways slept rough while they were away. If extrapolated, that means more than 10,000 children aged between 14 and 16 are sleeping rough every year in England alone. The risk of being hurt or harmed increases with the time spent away from home. Children who were away for a week or more were twice as likely to have been harmed as those away for just one night. Only a fifth of children sought help from anyone while away from home.

The university of York studied children who had used Message Home—the National Missing Persons Helpline 24-hour service—and found that while four fifths of those questioned had run away, one fifth reported that they had been forced to leave. The majority had gone missing from their family home, with a quarter reporting abuse and nearly a tenth bullying or other school problems. Many of those who had run away had stayed in very risky environments. Almost a third had stayed with a stranger, and more than two fifths had slept rough.

In the York study, one in eight reported having been physically hurt and one in nine reported having been sexually assaulted while away. Young people reported feeling unsafe or frightened while staying with strangers. Some stayed with adults whom they thought were friends only to be subject to abuse and placed at risk. The report concluded:

"It is difficult to over estimate the degree to which young people are vulnerable to exploitation when they are away from safe adult care".

Some young people have horrifying and very dangerous experiences that would test the courage and resilience of anyone in this Chamber—and the impact can be felt for many years.

Crisis, the charity for single homeless people, argues that research shows that children who run away are more likely to become homeless in later life. Crisis believes that it is important to intervene as early as possible to prevent runaway children from settling into a homeless lifestyle. The circumstances in which young people run away or are missing from home or care can be distressing, frightening and dangerous. It is difficult for the police and local authorities to predict the risk in individual cases.

Huge improvements have been made in children's services since the Children's Society set up the first UK refuge for runaway children in 1985. The social exclusion unit reported on young runaways in November 2002 and the Department of Health statutory guidance issued at the same time places requirements on local authorities to establish joint protocols to co-ordinate joint working across all agencies—including police, social services and health—for children who go missing. Each authority must have a senior manager to oversee those protocols and their implementation, and must produce an annual strategic monitoring report.

Part of the complexity of supporting children who have run away or are missing from home is that many children do not stay close to home. In my constituency, for example, they could be in the major cities of Liverpool or Manchester within 40 minutes of leaving home, crossing several local authority and police boundaries in the process. Police boundaries are rarely coterminous with those of local authorities.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has published guidance this year on the management, recording and investigation of missing persons, with standardised data collection requirements and case management procedures. For the first time, there are national standards to work to and forces can be inspected on them. However, the guidance does not yet have the status of a code of practice, and does not yet have the IT infrastructure to underpin the reporting requirement. Indeed, some police forces are still using paper-based systems, making information sharing very labour intensive. ACPO has developed protocols and IT systems with the National Missing Persons Helpline and the Home Office has agreed to make the IT systems available to forces at cost.

The Bill will establish a requirement for a single comprehensive national database and for the reporting of information to enable effective planning, to identify trends and to inform service commissioning and the sharing of best practice. There is no national co-ordination in place for providing services to young runaways—despite the very clear fact that running away is an act that can take children and young people across local authority and police boundaries and right across the country. The UK Police National Missing Persons Bureau, which conducted a strategic review earlier this year, could play a key role in managing data, running briefs and debriefs on critical incidents, and providing information for the commissioning of local and strategic services. But it needs a clear remit, and to be properly resourced as part of a national strategy.

Voluntary organisations are providing very important support services for vulnerable children, some of whom do not relate to, or feel intimidated by, statutory services. Some of these organisations are strategic service providers such as the Children's Society and the National Missing Persons Helpline, but a wide range of charities and non-governmental organisations also play a vital role supporting runaway and missing children and young people. In my constituency, "Talk Don't Walk"—a new, local charity-managed joint partnership project with the police, the local authority, health services, Connexions and the voluntary sector—is having a significant impact on reducing incidents of running away. Early this year, it worked with children in local authority care and their care staff to deal with issues of concern to them, and to prevent them from needing to push the boundaries by running away. The number of runaway incidents was cut from 83 to 39, and overnight episodes were cut from 67 to just one. On the basis of Home Office figures, which state that an overnight episode costs more than £1,400 on average, the total saving in terms of service resources was in excess of £78,000, but the saving in anxiety, risk and danger to those young people was far greater.

There are a significant number of local and national agencies and departments whose activities and responsibilities need to be brought together to support vulnerable children who are susceptible to running away. Advice and counselling, and help with negotiating boundaries and managing relationships, could assist such young people in finding alternative strategies to deal with problems at home and in school.

We need a national overview of projects working with missing children, so that we can learn what works best and roll out best practice. We also need a strategic body to commission or purchase cross-boundary services such as a nationally accessible 24-hour helpline; an appropriate number of children's refuges; and safe, supported accommodation. The National Missing Persons Helpline is dependent on donations, grants, charity shops and volunteers for its survival. The Children's Society's "safe and sound" campaign has highlighted the fact that there are only three children's refuges in the UK, offering a total of just 10 beds. Moreover, Government funding for the two runaway refuges in England will end in March 2006.

This Bill will establish a requirement for the national collection and reporting of data on children reported missing to the police, and a requirement for a regular national survey of young people similar to the British crime survey, in order to identify under-reporting. With co-ordinated leadership from national Government, it will also establish a national co-ordinating body that will include key statutory and voluntary agencies, in order to develop integrated policy and service provision.

We need to do this to protect vulnerable children, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Helen Southworth, John Battle, Ann Keen, Rosemary McKenna, Liz Blackman, Dan Norris, Ms Dari Taylor, Paddy Tipping, Laura Moffatt, Kitty Ussher, Peter Bottomley and Mr. Paul Burstow.