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Exploitation of Missing Looked-after Children — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 23rd October 2019.

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Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Independent, Stockport 2:30 pm, 23rd October 2019

I totally agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the new computer system. A system that cannot manage information in a way that keeps children safe is not fit for purpose, so I am pleased he has raised that point.

Moving children to unknown and unfamiliar placements, particularly at short notice, causes anxiety, distress, fear and anger, as well as causing further trauma to children with both short-term and long-term impacts. The reaction of many is to go missing, enticed by those who have targeted them for exploitation. In June, research by Missing People that looked at nearly 600 episodes involving more than 200 missing children found that one in seven of the children had been sexually exploited, and one in 10 had been a victim of criminal or other forms of exploitation while missing.

There is an issue about the take-up of return-home interviews, which can be an invaluable source of information about further risks to that child and other children when they go missing. Research by the Children’s Society found that, on average, just 50% of missing episodes resulted in return-home interviews taking place, despite its being a statutory requirement on local authorities to offer them each time a child goes missing. That means that opportunities to safeguard children are being missed.

The Howard League told our inquiry that children are sometimes placed out of area to protect them from exploiters. Although that is often done with the best intentions, and sometimes successfully, there are considerable concerns about the practice. The Howard League said, for example, that criminals increasingly control children using social media, the reach of which extends wherever children go, and through threats to family members and siblings, which means that removing the child from a location does not resolve the problem and could make it worse.

The Howard League also said that children who are being exploited may be used to groom and exploit other children in their new location, and that children who are in out-of-area placements are separated from their families and support workers, and therefore more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. We received evidence that county lines gangs had been sent to areas where young people were predominantly placed out of area to scout new opportunities where they could develop business and recruit new members.

The individual experiences recounted by children to the inquiry were a salutary reminder of the misery experienced by some children in care. One girl told the inquiry that she had run away 100 times since being moved out of her home area. Another boy tried to hang himself on Christmas day. Another girl walked 10 miles home to see her mum. That is the reality behind the statistics. The increasing number of children going missing is a protest by those children, who feel that the social care system does not care about them. It is the only protest they can make.

One area of increasing concern, which we raised in our report, is the rise in the number of older children, aged 16-plus, being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation—a shady twilight world. Some 80% of the police forces that gave evidence to our inquiry expressed concern about the increasing numbers in those unregulated establishments, which are off radar, because, unlike children’s homes, they are not registered or inspected. More than 5,000 looked-after children in England live in unregulated accommodation, which is up 70% on 10 years ago. Such accommodation is not registered by Ofsted because it does not provide care, although it is difficult to imagine under what circumstances a vulnerable 16 or 17-year-old would not require care as well as support.

The police gave us many examples of inappropriate and dangerous placements in unregulated homes, including a young person bailed for murder being placed in the same semi-independent accommodation as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs in a county lines gang. Another boy was sent to live more than 50 miles from his home area where he began drug-running and committing crimes. When he was returned to his home area, he took children from his new area back home to involve them in county lines because they were unknown to the police. Other examples included a girl who had been sexually exploited being housed alongside a perpetrator of sexual exploitation, and another young girl victim of sexual exploitation who was moved some distance from home and then targeted by a local organised crime group.

We should not forget the impact that unregulated accommodation, in which young people are not properly supervised and become involved in criminal activity, can have on the surrounding neighbourhood. After our report was published, I was contacted by a mother in Greater Manchester who described her “devastating experience” of the consequences of unregulated accommodation. Her two daughters were seriously attacked as they walked home by a group of older boys who were living in an unregulated home in their neighbourhood. Local residents had been reporting incidents of antisocial behaviour, sexual harassment, criminal activity and drug-taking in and around the accommodation for about six months. If the home had been regulated, there would have been a process by which it could have been closed down, but it continues to operate.

There are some good providers but, equally, there are some poor providers that should not be let anywhere near a vulnerable young person. One police force told us:

“Where there are areas of high deprivation, these will always present opportunities for potential unscrupulous organisations to set up ‘pop up’
children’s homes with little or no regulation, where the housing market is much cheaper, heightening the risk of the most vulnerable of children being exploited.”

I was recently made aware that there may be connections between organised crime gangs and providers of unregulated accommodation. It would be a logical extension of their business model to gain profit from providing accommodation at high cost to local authorities and, at the same time, have access to young people whom they can exploit to sell drugs.

Our report called for a regulatory framework that would ensure national standards, including checks on the suitability of providers and the qualifications of staff supporting young people. That is becoming urgent, as children under 16 are being placed in unregulated accommodation. As I have said, there are extremely good providers and very diligent social workers, but unregulated care is wide open to abuse. All the evidence shows that that abuse is happening.

Over the years, there have been many improvements in data-sharing, guidance, notifications, multi-agency partnership work and understanding child sexual and criminal exploitation and the grooming process. Attitudes to children have changed and the term “child prostitute” has been replaced in law with “sexually exploited child”. There is an increasing understanding that young people can be groomed into criminal activity and county lines gangs. That understanding is reflected in the increasing number of children accepted on to the national referral mechanism as victims of criminal exploitation.

There is some excellent provision in the private and voluntary sectors and in local authority children’s homes. I pay tribute to the people who work in residential care homes with the most challenging young people. Government cuts have had a devastating effect on children’s social care; we are often asking social workers to safeguard children in the most difficult circumstances without the resources they need. An important part of providing resources is ensuring that there is sufficient residential provision to meet the needs of the children we take into our care. That is not happening.

We talk a lot about the voice of the child and how that should be at the heart of what we do, but it cannot be at the heart of decisions when we have no options to offer that child. The children’s homes market is failing and broken. There is widespread agreement and evidence that it is not providing a sufficiency of placements to meet the needs of the children we take into care. Until that is sorted out, we will continue to have care provision that is unsafe for some children and we will continue to fail in our responsibilities to the children who need us most. Urgent action is now needed.

The main recommendation of our APPG report echoes the recommendation made by the expert working group in 2012. We recommend that the Department for Education develops an emergency action plan to significantly reduce the number of out-of-area placements. The Government must take responsibility for ensuring that there are sufficient local placements to meet the needs of looked- after children. The plan should address the supply and distribution of children’s homes nationally and the use of unregulated semi-independent provision, and it should be backed by funding.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure a sufficiency of school places to meet the needs of children in their area. The Department for Education provides capital funding and investment so that they can meet that statutory responsibility. It could equally provide the investment and capital funding to ensure a sufficiency of local places to meet children’s needs, working with local authorities and private and voluntary providers.

Section 22G of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to take strategic action by requiring them to secure sufficient accommodation in their area that meets the needs of their looked after children,

“so far as reasonably practicable”.

When private providers are unwilling, as they have been in the past, to run children’s homes in certain regions of the country, local authorities should be encouraged to develop their own direct provision. There is no way forward without the Department for Education taking leadership and responsibility for this. We do not need any more working parties or reports. There is widespread consensus among practitioners, professionals and children with experience of the care system that the children’s home market is failing children, and that urgent action is needed. Warm words are not enough, better data sharing is not enough, and more awareness is not enough. None of this enough, if we cannot provide sufficient good care placements to meet the needs of children who have been failed by close adults in their life, and who are now being failed by a care system that cannot keep them safe and that leaves them wide open to criminal and sexual exploitation.