Children's Refuges

– in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 20 January 2000.

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Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household) 7:15, 20 January 2000

My Lords, as proceedings on the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill have been curtailed, the time available for this evening's Unstarred Question increases from one hour to one-and-a-half hours. The time limits indicated on the published speakers' list no longer apply. However, all noble Lords taking part in the debate should limit their speech to 15 minutes, as recommended in The Companion to the Standing Orders.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will set up a nationwide network of children's refuges as recommended in the Children's Society study, Still Running.

My Lords, as the saying goes:

"The tumult and the shouting dies,

The captains and the kings depart, And we are left with large supplies Of cold blancmange and rhubarb tart".

We have just been discussing those who may receive an inadequate defence. I now try to direct the attention of such of your Lordships as remain to some who are without any defence at all: children under the age of 16 who run away from home. My occasion for drawing attention to this problem is the report published by the Children's Society, Still Running--a piece of research carried out by the Children's Society in conjunction with the Social Policy Department of the University of York. It is a major piece of research with a very large sample. It has been carried out extremely thoroughly and, as far as I can see, with exemplary care.

A great deal of attention has already been given to the problem of children who run away. Although a number of small studies have not done so, this report has brought out the scale of the problem. I have been well aware of the problem for many years but I had no idea that it was on the scale that this sample has found. The calculations show that in one year at least 129,000 children under the age of 16 run away. Of those, at least 77,000 are running away for the first time. From that, one quickly derives that 42,000 in a year are running away for the second or subsequent time. The authors say that 46 per cent of their sample have done so more than once and 12 per cent more than three times. That is why the report is entitled Still Running.

Those occurrences are not, as we used to believe, single episodes of a childish tantrum. At least, if some of them are, it is in the minority of the cases. These are continuous underlying problems to which a return home does not produce a solution. It is estimated that 11 per cent of the whole age group run away at least once. That is an awful lot of children.

The other significant finding of the report is that of the sample of children who run way, 19 per cent do not leave home voluntarily; they do so because they are thrown out by their parents. The estimate is that some 14,000 children a year are forced to leave home before the age of 16. That is one in every 50 children.

Perhaps I may, for a moment, step a little outside the immediate context of the report. That is why I have felt for some time a considerable sense of misgiving about the Home Secretary's parenting orders, because I fear that the process of subjecting parents to those orders may lead to an increase in that number. That would not be good.

The research method of this study is basically one of self-reporting. The children were asked for their own accounts of why they did what they did and what happened. Probably the biggest single category reported by the children was cases of violence inflicted on the children by both parents, not just by their fathers, and of violence between the parents themselves.

In general, those problems are not just about parent-child relationships but problems of the functioning of families as a whole. There were controls over the self-reporting by checking what general problems the children were aware of in the household and seeing what correlations there were; by checking questions about situations and seeing what correlations there were. It was found that 10 per cent of the sample had step-parents--that is, the whole sample, including runners and non-runners--but 20 per cent of those who ran away had step-parents. Clearly there are difficulties in the job of running a step-family, as has been known to literature for many centuries. One does not gather where the responsibility lies within the family but there are clearly stresses which have not been dealt with.

A number of the children felt that they had been used, as sometimes happens within a family structure, as scapegoats. One of them said to the survey, "Why do they want me to be someone else?"

However, certain matters are clearly under-reported. The survey itself believes to have under-reported problems of children forced to leave home either because they are gay or because they take drugs. All of us, whatever our inclination on the matter, should take pause from the child who said he was thrown out for "ordinary things like cannabis".

What does emerge from that is that returning the children back home does not solve the problem. The instinctive assumption has been that if there is an under-16 run-away, he should be returned back home to live happily ever after. It does not seem to work.

One of the questions in the survey was the open-ended question, "What happens in the end?" One child gave the bleak reply, "Nothing changed; it just got worse. So I took an overdose. Unfortunately, it did not work". So clearly we need to think beyond simply returning the children home.

There are very severe legal problems in the way of helping any run-away child under 16. If you take them in, you are guilty of harbouring them. That is a crime. That means that the children avoid advice centres, social workers and any responsible adult who may be in a position to help them. Typically they tend to go in for what the report describes as "sofa searching". But of those who are away for more than two nights, 16 per cent used what the report describes as "risky survival strategies"--stealing, begging, taking food out of dustbins and selling sex or drugs.

Some of those are probably quite significantly under-reported by the survey's method. It is an interesting comment on our present values that the children seemed to be far readier to report stealing, when it was the only way they could get food, than they were to report either selling drugs or sex. That is not the first study which has found that sort of thing happening but it is the clearest and the largest. It reaches the point where it compels attention.

There is a legal remedy on the statute book for handling this sort of problem. It is in Section 51 of the Children Act 1989. For that I must pay tribute both to the Children's Society, which did a great deal of the work which placed it there, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Under that Act, it is lawful to set up refuges where the children can be taken in for up to two weeks without anyone facing any penalties for harbouring them which allows thought about what should be done for them. Of course, in some cases where it is appropriate to return them home, some negotiation with the parents is necessary before they are returned home, where there is a problem with the whole family function which needs to be addressed before they can be safe.

But at present there are only two such refuges in the whole country. In 1996, when my party first committed itself to a policy of increasing the number, there were three. Now there are two. So it is not true that things can only get better.

We do not need new powers. The powers in the Children Act are right. But we need more money. The cost involved is not overwhelming. We were advised that we could make a significant difference to that problem, if not solve it, for £5 million per year. I am extremely grateful to Centrepoint, which runs one of the refuges, for a great deal of detailed advice on the costings.

There is always a cost in doing nothing. A great many of those children started taking drugs while away. As one of them said, "I took drugs in order to stay awake for the burglaries", which were necessary to get him something to eat. Others become involved in crime because there is no visible legal means of support. They need to get something to eat somehow. Others who do not complete their education do not acquire skills for the labour market and end up on benefits, which, of course, cost a great deal. A few who sell sex will end up contracting AIDS, and the cost of one case of AIDS goes a very long way compared with the cost of providing the emergency help which is needed. A great many others, simply because they become dysfunctional, depressed, upset and withdrawn do not become earners.

Humanity is not only the right thing; it is also the best policy. Among many other reasons it is the best policy because I believe that at the end of the day it is cheaper.

Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench 7:27, 20 January 2000

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on instigating this debate on a very important subject. It is an important subject but it is often as neglected as the children about whom we are speaking.

I remember, on my first visit to Rio de Janeiro, driving to the hotel from the airport. We encountered a minibus full of children who were being let out of the bus by the woman in charge of them near the Copacabana beach. I was informed that they were some of the thousands of street children in Rio. They attend a refuge run by a charitable organisation in the evenings but refuse to stay during the day for education and other worthwhile activities because life on the beach is so much more exciting for them so long as they do not get shot. There are shadowy elements allegedly connected with the law enforcement agencies who are involved in the shooting of street children.

It is a great blessing that the sort of things that happen in Rio do not happen here and that we are more caring towards children who fall through the safety nets. Certainly, we do not shoot them! However, the evidence of the excellent report from the Children's Society and other organisations is that we do not care nearly enough. In relation to our wealth and highly developed social provisions, we are not doing at all well in caring for our street children.

Some years ago, in connection with my work at the time, I met in a hostel for homeless young people in Coventry a young man. His stepfather said, "On your 16th birthday you leave this house"; he meant it. As a birthday present to his stepson, he threw him out. With his mother's connivance, for a few nights he climbed back in and slept at home, escaping before everyone was up. But eventually he was discovered and had to go. He slept for quite a few nights in the park before being found by the social services and accommodated very well at the hostel where I met him. He was lucky; many are not so lucky.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, told us of the 100,000 children who run away every year, 18,000 under the age of 11 running away for the first time. Another 18,000 are thrown out, as was that young man, by their parents. Some keep running away. So we must assume that when they go back things do not get better for them. It is important therefore to take note of the recommendations in the report not just for a network of refuges but an interview by an independent person for each returning runaway and a coherent response across government departments.

The proposals in the report should be considered on grounds of common humanity for the sake of the individuals and the common good. We must also take note of them because, by ignoring them, we are in danger of ignoring our international obligations. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as anyone under the age of 18, states that,

"children's rights require special protection and call for continuous improvement of the situation of children all over the world".

The convention commits the Government to,

"ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being".

Any child, it continues,

"temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment ... shall be entitled to special protection and assistance by the State".

The convention requires the Government also to take,

"all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child".

I apologise for those rather long extracts, but they serve to remind us what our international commitments are. It is not clear that those obligations are always in the forefront of the Government's thinking when policies on children are being developed. It is therefore in accordance with the obligations to take this report very seriously.

The recommendations the report makes are the minimum we should be doing. It might be said that we cannot afford to implement the recommendations; that £5 million is a lot of money; and that the recommendations must take their turn in the queue with other demands on social spending. I suggest that that is a false economy; we cannot afford not to. The costs of not doing what the report recommends are greater than the costs of implementing it. The costs will come in the future from the consequences of neglect.

It is clear that not all young runaways will get into trouble and end up in prison. Far from it. Some, like the young man I met in Coventry, will go on and do very well. But we know that those young people who do get into trouble and who end up in prison and in mental hospitals, living lives that engender enormous social costs, come from backgrounds exactly like the ones described in the report. The links have been well established. The backgrounds of the young people who run away are the backgrounds that lead to prison. Four out of the five runaways who left home, so the report says, did so to escape family conflict, violence or abuse.

NACRO research on imprisoned young offenders published last November found that 60 per cent of those questioned had come from unstable living conditions. In 1997 the chief inspector of prisons in a survey of young people in prison, found that one quarter of them were homeless or had come from an unstable background. A more detailed report prepared by NACRO in 1998 looked at the backgrounds of a sample of young people in prison. It found that the young prisoners came from a background of family instability and disruption, which included violence, harsh physical punishment and other abuse, imprisonment of other family members, and alcohol abuse by parents. It identified 11 risk factors which made it more likely that crime and prison would be the young person's destination. Those included missing school, friends involved in crime, family conflicts and not having a stable home. The majority had a history of care or social services contact.

The NACRO report was prepared with the involvement of KPMG. It showed that spending money on earlier and better intervention would have been cost effective. An intensive programme to support a family and improve relationships can cost as little as £3,000; when successful, it can save, according to the estimates, £62,000. The Rand Corporation in the United States carried out a similar study in California. It looked at whether it was more cost effective to bring in a harsher sentencing law or spend the money that that would cost on prevention. The study concluded that,

"investments in some interventions for high-risk youth may be several times more cost-effective in reducing serious crime than long mandatory sentences for repeat offenders".

That is, it is better to spend the money on the problem when it starts rather than on the consequences of it much later.

This is hard research by a hard-nosed think tank. It supports the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the point I am making here; namely, that the costs of setting up a network of refuges may seem great, but those costs are bound to be less than the costs of not doing so.

I thank the noble Earl for instigating a valuable opportunity to discuss this issue and look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of The Earl of Rosslyn The Earl of Rosslyn Crossbench 7:38, 20 January 2000

My Lords, I too begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important report. We also have reason to be grateful to the Children's Society, whose work in developing services for vulnerable children and for promoting understanding through research is so much valued by policy-makers and practitioners alike.

I should like to make one or two observations from a policing perspective. In so doing, I should declare an interest as a serving officer in the Thames Valley, where I currently lead on youth justice issues for the force.

The report's estimate of the scale and prevalence of young people being away from home is, even in the context of what is known from previous studies, disturbing. The associated risks, both physical and psychological, are plainly set out in the report, so I shall not repeat all of them. Although the majority of young people relied on informal support networks to survive while away--not in themselves risk free--for others altogether more hazardous strategies were required. As the noble Earl mentioned, these included begging, stealing, selling drugs and selling sex. One in seven of young people who ran away overnight were either physically or sexually assaulted.

While the report reflects on the more positive consequences of being away, with five out of six young people feeling that it had given them time to think and over half saying that it had helped them to sort out their problems, four words from the report stay in my mind; namely, hungry, thirsty, lonely and frightened.

The vulnerability of such young people while they are away is underscored by a recent Police Research series paper entitled Missing Presumed. This reveals the scale of the links between going missing and prostitution in a study where one in seven of young runaways coming into contact with streetwork projects had traded money for sex in order to survive. In a local survey of young missing persons undertaken in Manchester, 20 per cent reported an involvement in prostitution. The paper also refers to the Street and Lanes project in Bradford, whose initial work confirmed the strong link between incidents of sexual exploitation and going missing. In its first year of operation 84 per cent of project users had been reported missing at some stage.

If we are to minimise the risks and build on the positive opportunities to which the young people interviewed referred, some expansion of refuges, street-based outreach work and drop-in centres seems to me to be highly desirable. That such provision is required nationally is surely established by the finding of the report that there is a significant prevalence of running away in all parts of the United Kingdom, however categorised.

In recent years we have heard much about justice by geography and of healthcare standards relative to where one lives. Can it be right that sources of support for young people who run away should be available other than on a national basis? I have heard it suggested that the provision of a national network of refuges might actually encourage young people to leave home. But I find that a somewhat fanciful notion in the light of the experiences of young people that are described in the report. Young people largely run away from harmful situations rather than to the bright lights of the city centre. The report conclusively disproves the idea that they do so for trivial reasons or for fun.

So what of the role of the police? Stereotypically the police service is associated with activity after a young person has run away. This is indeed important, as the longer they are away the more likely young people are to resort to dangerous means of survival and the more likely they are to be hurt. But there are, I believe, opportunities for police officers to be involved in strengthening the protective factors that militate against a young person running away in the first place.

The report identifies that being in trouble with the police can act both as a trigger for running away and form part of the broader context in which such events take place. The way in which the police approach such offending may, therefore, influence quite powerfully a young person's subsequent actions.

Since 1997 our force has been applying the principles of restorative justice in addressing early offending by young people and, in particular, when cautioning young offenders as an alternative to court proceedings. Many such cautions are delivered as part of a community conference in which the victim, offender and others affected by the offending behaviour are brought together with a trained police facilitator guiding them through a discussion of how the crime occurred, how it has affected their lives and how the harm caused can be repaired.

The emphasis is on reparation, restoration and taking responsibility rather than punishment and blame. The conference will also agree with the young person what interventions and support are needed to address the underlying causes of the offending behaviour. It seems to me very likely that some of those interventions will also address the sort of problems in the home, which four-fifths of young people identified as the reasons for running away.

We have also used such conferencing techniques in schools both to deal with incidents of bullying and to help schools address disciplinary issues, using the conference process as an alternative to excluding a pupil. The report highlights the significant link between persistent bullying and running away and a similar link with exclusion where one quarter of children excluded were found to have run away overnight on at least one occasion.

In ways such as these, I believe that the police service can play a role rather more complex than its search and rescue stereotype. But in the end, for those who do leave home and become detached from their families after running away, it is a refuge that may provide the essential shelter, safety and support.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 7:45, 20 January 2000

My Lords, I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and my noble friends have made very clear the deep seriousness of this problem. In my own experience I have talked with young people of about the age of 16 who have run away. They have told me about their problems; for example, distant fathers, mothers who are drunk and who find only fault with all their actions. Obviously, over many years it is a life-sapping experience and one can hardly be surprised when they eventually try to escape. When they do, there should be someone to listen to them and to give an appropriate response to their needs.

I have visited the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Centrepoint refuge in north London. It is a four-storey semi-detached house with a back garden. It is Victorian and its age is comforting. The interior is light and welcoming. The offices are situated in the basement and the next three storeys contain bedrooms, some of which are shared. There is also a television room and an activity room, together with a kitchen. Although there are locks on the bedroom doors, the children are allowed to spend as much time in their rooms as they wish. They are allowed privacy and a space to think, as far as is possible.

The refuge caters for approximately 300 children each year. These are referred by the police, or outreach workers from the homelessness agencies. Each child's arrival is notified to the police who can then inform his or her carer. The refuge can then hold the child for a maximum of 14 days at its secret address.

The primary purpose of the refuge is to ensure that the child moves on to a place of safety. It achieves this by assessing the child's needs. First, the staff interview the runaway. This is followed by consultation with the child's carers, the school, the police and other involved adults. Finally, an assessment report is drawn up. Social services have no duty to act upon this. However, the refuge can directly refer the children on to other services, such as counselling services, without consultation with carers or social services.

The staff are qualified social workers with experience elsewhere, or supervised social work students. Currently, three of the staff are accredited social work teachers. Their work is very tightly regulated by the Children Act. This rightly demanding regulation makes the service particularly expensive for the charities to run, as we heard earlier.

Relations with the social services are generally good. It is often essential to have the child interviewed by a local authority social worker sometime before his or her 14 days have expired. It may only be then that a child can receive the services that he or she will need. However, social services are often under great financial and time pressures. Social workers' decisions can be based on expediency rather than on what is best for the child's safety. They may not be available for interview early enough in the process. How will the Minister ensure that the safety of these children is always the foremost consideration?

In addition, local authorities more often than not refuse to pay for the children's stay at the refuge. Much of the manager's time is spent chasing local authorities. Unpaid accommodation is a further strain on the charities involved. Can the Minister say how local authorities are to be encouraged to meet these costs?

The refuge provides a service to improve relations between runaways and their families. This mediation is provided by Safe in the City and NCH Action for Children through their "Turnaround" project. Its manager and two project workers offer a course of six sessions to work with families on the causes of the child's flight. The service's aim is to prevent further running and street homelessness when the child is an adult.

A service to help young women out of prostitution, Breaking Free, is also provided with funding from the NSPCC. The three-person team advises young women at risk of sexual exploitation on issues of safety. It can also provide an escape route, should the woman want one.

I hope that this description of one refuge has been helpful to this debate. The Centrepoint report Nowhere to Hide drew attention to the fact that many children call Childline each day and those who get through are enthusiastic about the support they receive. However, many young children cannot get through to an operator. The service is much overburdened. Is there anything the Government can do further to support Childline? We must all think that it is terrible for a child to reach out for help only to be frustrated, as they report. They feel angry about that.

I return to the topic in hand. When will this necessary service--the provision of refuges--be extended to all children nationally? Should children anywhere in Britain feel that they have no one to turn to and nowhere to go but the streets?

Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative 7:52, 20 January 2000

My Lords, I agree with every word of the noble Earl who initiated the debate and the three subsequent speakers. They speak with vastly more experience of this matter than I possess. I intervene only to say how glad I am that the Children's Society has produced the report we are discussing and how little it surprises me that the need for more refuge accommodation is at the forefront of the opinions of the children interviewed in the surveys. One sees that at pages 165 and 179 of the report.

I am moved to speak in the debate by a recent experience of my wife. I realise that I may be acquiring something of a reputation for reciting my wife's experiences in debates in this House. I promise not to do so again for quite a time.

Recently, my wife was passing through one of the major Underground stations in London at night. She saw an obviously destitute young man who appeared to her to be sitting in a state of complete hopelessness. He was not begging. She approached him and asked how old he was. He said that he was 16, but she thought that he was rather younger. He had nowhere to go and appeared to have no idea what to do. There was no notice or advertisement of any kind to indicate where someone in these circumstances might seek help.

My wife made one or two inquiries. She tried to ring Centrepoint--I have the greatest admiration for that organisation--but received only a recorded message. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made the point about children not being able to get through to an organisation on the telephone. She tried to phone another organisation and by the time she had finished the young man had gone. My wife considers it important--I share her view--that whatever accommodation is available should be advertised on notices or advertisements in such public places as railway and Underground stations. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind and comment on it, either now or in writing. That would be valuable.

Whatever our backgrounds and experiences of happy or unhappy homes--fortunately, my homelife was enormously happy--we can all still be aware that as regards the children in the age groups with which the report deals, and especially as regards younger children, their horizon is about six inches in front of their nose. If something goes wrong at home--the place, above all, where security is most important and most needed--there is nothing beyond that in the hopes, expectations, beliefs and consciousness of the child concerned. It is therefore far from surprising to note that page 165 of the report states:

"The most common need identified for under-16s ... was more accessible emergency accommodation".

The report states that the accommodation,

"could provide a safe space to collect thoughts, staff who listen carefully and do not judge ... possibly have a mediation service attached ... Young people felt that short-term accommodation of this kind would be a better option than going immediately into substitute care".

That must be right. At page 179 of the report, much the same points are made by 16 and 17 year-olds and the professionals involved in these matters. The report is extremely shrewdly targeted in that regard. I share the hope expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who initiated this short debate, that the Government will find resources to enlarge the number of refuges which, as the noble Earl said, is at the moment pathetically low.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 7:57, 20 January 2000

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for initiating this important debate and for raising the issue of children's refuges.

I have read, thoroughly, Still Running. Like the noble Earl, one cannot fail to be impressed by the depth and breadth of the research undertaken or by the complexity of the problems involved. We welcome the initiatives mentioned in the report. We on these Benches wish to congratulate the three charities on an excellent report which will certainly help to improve the current situation.

As the noble Earl said, it is a startling and worrying fact that each year in the United Kingdom 77,000 children run away for the first time, and around a quarter of children first ran away before the age of 11. Indeed, Childline staff have seen children as young as eight coming to their refuge. These statistics must be of serious concern to all those who place the family, and the welfare of children, as important to a civilised society.

As a parent myself I was extremely disturbed to hear the noble Earl say that 14,000 children--that is a fifth of all runaways--are thrown out of their homes by their parents each year. The noble Earl mentioned "gay" and drugs problems. I believe that there is also a problem as regards children with special needs which needs to be addressed. I was also shocked to read in the report that a small but significant number of children had been completely detached from any form of support--the children whom no one notices when they disappear.

A report produced this year by the charity Safe in the City, paints a picture of young people who are struggling with a multiplicity of risk factors. These include acute poverty, family relationships under strain or fragmented--particularly if arguments lead to hitting--and other experiences of exclusion, such as moving house frequently and being excluded from school.

Although it is only one of a number of recommendations made in Still Running, the noble Earl has identified the most common need for under 16s--safe houses. Some 25 per cent of the 200 young people who were interviewed wanted accessible emergency accommodation on a homely scale, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew said, to collect their thoughts and where they would be listened to and offered mediation to return home.

Like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I draw the attention of the House to the work of the only registered refuge for child runaways in London and the South East, and one of only two nationally. The Centrepoint/NSPCC refuge was established in 1993 as a result of the Children Act 1989. As the noble Earl mentioned, it provides a safe environment for up to eight children and young people in which to tackle the problems that made them leave their parental home or care placement. With staff who listen and do not judge, it helps them to find an appropriate solution to those problems.

The refuge address is never given out. As the noble Earl said, most children are referred by Childline, the police or another agency, and are normally collected by taxi from an arranged pick-up point.

The Department of Health is contributing £50,000 per year for the next three years to help support the refuge, but the Children's Society currently receives no statutory funding for its runaway programme, which costs £1.8 million per year. Can the Minister say whether the Government are proposing to support refuges in any other part of the country?

The Minister will be aware that two years ago Sir William Utting, in his Government-commissioned report, People like us, recommended the development of a national network of refuges and street-work services for young runaways, and that such a development must receive financial support from both local and central government.

The Opposition feel very strongly that we should be dealing primarily with the root causes of why children run away, rather than simply looking at how to deal with the effects after the event. Prevention is better than cure. We need a more co-ordinated national response to children running away from home or from care.

Centrepoint is working to try to intervene at an earlier stage in young people's lives. I should like to mention two specific examples of its preventive work. First, Centrepoint encourages homeless young people to go in to schools to warn others of the dangers of running away. I was told by Centrepoint on the telephone this morning that this has been very successful. Secondly, its national development unit works in 12 areas around the country to bring local agencies, and housing and social services together. They then draw up strategic plans for reducing and preventing youth homelessness.

To prioritise prevention, Centrepoint would like to see more investment in family support and schools-based services at a local level. The schools service is particularly important, as 23 per cent of the children interviewed in Still Running had been persistently bullied at school, a point mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn. In the same report, children have suggested confidential counselling services to deal with bullying and abuse.

I understand that different departments and agencies overlap on this specific matter. However, I should be grateful if the Minister can confirm whether the Government are considering implementing this suggestion.

Finally, in order that a coherent response can be made to the other pressing problems highlighted in Still Running, will the Minister confirm that the Government will consider as a matter of urgency--this is an important point--how different departments and local authorities can co-ordinate their efforts to prevent vulnerable children running away?

I very much look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of Lord Burlison Lord Burlison Government Whip 8:05, 20 January 2000

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, deserves credit for raising the subject of children's refuges. I know that it is one which deeply concerns him. He has a lot of experience in this area and demonstrates a great commitment to adding his strength and assistance to it. I should like to join with other noble Lords and thank him for giving us the opportunity to discuss the many important issues that the consideration of children running away from home raises.

This is a most distressing and upsetting feature of our society. We are greatly indebted to the Children's Society for the research it has commissioned and we welcome the publication of the report Still Running.

We continue to consider carefully whether a national network of children's refuges is the right answer. At the moment we are not persuaded that it is the best way to tackle this dreadful problem. Leaving the safety of home must be seen as a last, desperate resort of a child. It is one that no child should feel compelled to take.

I should like to describe to your Lordships the comprehensive package of measures that we are implementing to try to prevent children getting into a state where they want to run away. We must be careful to ensure that our response is holistic--running away should not be regarded in isolation. The Government's Supporting Families programme, the wider agenda for all government action in the UK to strengthen family life and improve opportunities for children, together with the Quality Protects programme to transform social services for children in need and their families should help to ensure that services are put in place which will prevent children feeling the need to run away.

The Supporting Families agenda includes ensuring that all parents have access to the advice and support they need, including parenting support, education programmes and family mentoring schemes. It also addresses the need for better support for families facing more serious family problems and for early intervention programmes to tackle problems before they escalate into crises. These services--which might include family mediation--will be complemented by our broader strategies on social exclusion to address the underlying problems of poverty, poor housing and lack of opportunity. This should help to reduce the pressures felt by families, both from outside and within the family, which can lead to family conflict and breakdown of relationships, a point mentioned particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

Other developments should also contribute to the prevention of children running away. A child's behaviour at school, or indeed absence from school, can offer indicators of problems elsewhere. It is important that schools are aware of a child's home circumstances and of liaising with other agencies, including social services, and where necessary to identify and ensure a joined-up response to the child's needs. It also includes the introduction of pastoral support programmes for children who appear to have problems or difficulties. The new youth support service for 13 to 19 year-olds will also have a significant effect in this area.

The youth support service will be a unified, integrated and identifiable service for young people. Its function will be to arrange or provide a comprehensive range of services for all 13 to 19 year-olds. It will ensure that young people with problems are identified and given appropriate support.

By making improvements in the care system we hope to reduce the number of children who run away from care. One way we intend to do this is by giving children more of a say in the decisions taken about their care. Children's participation is an important part of the whole Quality Protects programme. Within this context, our main aim is,

"To actively involve users and carers in planning services and in tailoring packages of care; and to ensure effective mechanisms are in place to handle complaints".

Refuges can provide runaway children with a temporary breathing space to talk about and attempt to resolve the problems that caused them to run away. Refuge workers can also undertake rehabilitative work with isolated and distressed children who have become alienated from either their parents or the local authorities looking after them.

The Government do not intend to provide a national network of children's refuges. It is not the role of the Department of Health to provide direct care to children through funding refuges but to provide guidance and assistance to local authorities. Local authorities already provide children's homes and foster homes for children who are looked after. Local authorities may wish to consider whether there is a need for refuges in their areas.

There are two refuges operating which have been mentioned by a number of noble Lords: the Centrepoint refuge in London and another in Leeds, run by the Children's Society. We welcome the work they are doing. I understand that the Children's Society will be using the money it receives from the Millennium Children's Promise final hour appeal to help runaways and to establish more refuges.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. Were the Government to decide that the responsibility lay properly on local authorities, would the Government then agree to vary their standard spending assessments accordingly?

Photo of Lord Burlison Lord Burlison Government Whip

My Lords, I note the point made by the noble Earl. I am certain that this debate will be studied and any meaningful recommendations that may come from it will be considered in due course. I hope that I may be able to cover that a little more as I progress through the comments I wish to make.

The Department of Health will consider such applications carefully. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, as regards whether progress can be made in the area of establishing refuges in the future.

We are greatly encouraged by the developments the Children's Society is seeking to bring about. Refuges are one of the services, together with drop-in centres, advocacy for young people, emergency foster care placements and night-stop accommodation, which go to make up street-work services and, of course, they need to be developed in close collaboration with the statutory services; namely, social services, the police, education and health, within the strategic framework of the local authority's children's services plan.

In January 1998 the Local Government Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers issued guidance to local authorities on procedures and good practice when children go missing. My department was on the working party which produced this excellent guidance and we will be developing it further with the publication this spring of practice guidance.

The Children's Society wants each child who runs away to be offered an interview to assess their reasons for doing so. The joint guidance produced by the Local Government Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers advises that children who run away should be given the opportunity to explain their reasons for doing so. In this way their needs can be identified and met to ensure that they do not feel so desperate as to run away again.

The Government's response to the Children's Safeguards Review made it clear that accurate records must be maintained of every incident and senior managers should examine the reasons why children have gone missing and any variation in the rate at which they run from different children's homes and foster carers. This data will help us all--both local and central government--to gain a clearer picture of the extent of this problem in order to provide a more strategic response.

For a minority of runaways a pattern of sleeping rough may follow. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said recently:

"... education is key in alerting young people to the consequences of sleeping rough. We are already funding a project run by Centrepoint which allows people to hear first hand from their peers about the realities of rough sleeping. We are currently looking into expanding this to other areas around the country".

Our measures to support families and carers should help prevent problems escalate to the point where a child or young person runs away. However, I think we need to look at ensuring that where necessary there is an appropriate multi-agency response. A major improvement may well be the setting up of the new youth support service. It may provide the key because of its close involvement with individual young people and the way in which it will be working with other agencies, including social services, where there are serious concerns.

I welcome the Children's Society's research, which greatly improves our understanding of this problem. We are anxious to do all we can to prevent children feeling the need to run away. To this end I can tell noble Lords that department officials will shortly be meeting Ian Sparks, Chief Executive of the Children's Society, to consider this pressing and complex issue.

I shall now respond to one or two points that have been made in the debate. If I am not able to cover them all, then--as was suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew--I shall study Hansard and write in response to any matters that I may have missed tonight.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made the point that Home Office parenting orders may be dangerous as they could lead to more runaways. I hope that I have made it clear in my comments that the Government are determined to work with families to break the cycle of youth offending and social exclusion. Parenting orders are only one part of the package to reduce offending. They have their place in ensuring that parents face up to their responsibilities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, spoke of the consequences for the future. The Government are well aware that some children and young people who run away may establish a pattern that leads to social exclusion. It is for those reasons that we are taking forward a whole raft of measures aimed at preventing social exclusion.

The noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, pointed out the role of the police in this area. I know that he has considerable experience and first-hand knowledge of the events of which he spoke. I should like to thank the noble Earl for pointing out the important role played by the police in this area and the assistance they give to tackling the problem. Not only do they receive reports of missing children and return them, but they can play a role in identifying the problems which may lead to a young person running away. It is vital that the police and social services work together for the child. I welcome the work of the Association of Chief Police Officers and indeed local government.

The noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, asked what is being done to tackle the problem of those involved in prostitution. The guidance, which was published at the end of last year, includes a new section which draws on the Home Office and Department of Health draft guidance on children involved in prostitution. It states that local agencies should develop inter-agency protocols to guide action when there are concerns that a child is involved in prostitution, including guidance on sharing concerns about the child's safety and the identification of a child involved in prostitution or at risk of being drawn into prostitution. This should always trigger agreed local procedures to ensure the child's safety and welfare and enable the police to gather evidence about abusers and coercers.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked about government support for Childline. The Government have supported Childline and the invaluable work that Childline undoubtedly does. They are committed to developing systems for children to make their voices heard. One example is the priority being given to children's participation in the £375 million Quality Protects programme. The noble Earl also asked about encouraging funding for local authorities. There is a specific reference in the children's services guidance to the need to plan services for runaways on a collaborative basis with other agencies and to institute effective monitoring arrangements. That is designed to provide major inputs for better financed, targeted and supported services. The Department of Health will reiterate the importance of this issue in its good practice guide to local authorities in the spring.

I have tried to deal with as many points as possible. I realise that I may not have covered one or two. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked whether the Government will adjust the standard spending assessment. I have an answer in front of me, much to my surprise. The Government are investing an additional £375 million in local authority services for children. We will be encouraging local authorities to consider the development of refuges.

This has been an excellent debate. Considerable thought and good intentions lay behind the speeches of all those involved. Perhaps we will see the day when the kind of progress which we should all like to see will come about.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he look at my question about bullying in schools? I do not expect an answer now, but I should be grateful for a letter. Perhaps the noble Lord could also put a copy in the Library.

Photo of Lord Burlison Lord Burlison Government Whip

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. I missed his point. I asked my noble friend Lady Amos whether she had caught it, but she, like myself, had had her attention diverted. I shall of course respond.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past eight o'clock.