I congratulate Ann Coffey on securing the debate. I had probably expected that there would be more hon. Members present to discuss this issue, because it is certainly of some importance to me and my constituency, and to many other hon. Members. Perhaps other things have been prioritised, and they therefore cannot be here. It is very nice to see the Minister in her place, and I look forward to her response. She is having quite a busy introduction to all these matters in the House—in two Adjournment debates that I attended, and now in Westminster Hall. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She can be rightly proud of her long record of campaigning for the protection of vulnerable children and young people, which we appreciate. Throughout her time in Parliament, she has been a true champion of the rights of young people at risk and in danger. Today’s debate, which she introduced, is further evidence of that.
I refer to the website of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—an excellent charity—which provides a useful summation of who exactly is defined as a looked-after child:
“A child who has been in the care of their local authority for more than 24 hours is known as a looked after child.”
I thank the Library for the information that it has brought forward. I looked at some of the headlines included in the briefing. Headlines sometimes catch the eye, because that is their purpose. One of the headlines from The Children’s Society was, “Parliamentary inquiry into the scandal of ‘sent away’ children”. The Children’s Commissioner’s headline was, “The same mistakes that led to child sexual exploitation are being repeated with gangs”. The hon. Lady referred to that. Ofsted’s headline was, “Criminal exploitation and ‘county lines’: learn from past mistakes, report finds”. The National Youth Advocacy Service had “Parliamentary report calls for end to ‘national scandal’ of children missing from care”. They are not just sent away; they are missing from care. “BBC News” did a report called, “Care crisis: Sent-away children are ‘easy victims’”. The Guardian referred to the “Surge in vulnerable children linked to the UK drug gangs”.
The BBC, again, referred to, “Teens in care ‘abandoned to crime gangs’”. The Howard League for Penal Reform has produced a report entitled “Criminalising children, the Department for Education and county lines exploitation.” The Times published an article with the headline, “Gangs circle as children ‘dumped’ on seaside”. All those headlines catch the eye and tell an unfortunate story about the issue we are debating.
Looked-after children are also referred to as “children in care,” a term that many children and young people prefer. Each part of the United Kingdom has a slightly different definition of looked-after children and follows its own legislation, policy and guidance. In general, however, looked-after children are living with foster parents, in a residential children’s home, or in residential settings such as schools and secure units. The Minister was at the earlier debate—I am trying to remember the constituency of the hon. Member who secured an Adjournment debate on this issue. He described what was happening in his constituency in the east of England; again, the hon. Lady has reinforced that with her personal input into this debate.
I was talking to the Scottish National party spokesperson before the debate. Scotland often leads the way on many things—I mean that very sincerely. Scotland’s definition of looked-after children also includes children under a supervision requirement order. This means that many looked-after children in Scotland are still living at home, but with regular contact from social services.
There are a variety of reasons why children and young people enter care. The child’s parents might have agreed to it—for example, if they are too unwell to look after their child, or if their child has a disability and needs respite care. Sometimes the pressures of life on families lead them to do something that they did not want to do but that they have to do because they were unable to cope. The child could be an unaccompanied asylum seeker, with no responsible adult to care for them. Children’s services might have intervened because they felt the child was at significant risk of harm. If this is the case, the child is usually the subject of a court-made legal order.
A child stops being looked after when they are adopted, return home or turn 18. However, the law is clear that local authorities in all the nations of the UK—all four of us together—are required to support children leaving care at 18 until they are at least 21; there is a responsibility beyond the age of 18. This may involve their continuing to live with their foster family.
Most children in care say that their experiences are good and that it was the right choice for them. It is good to hear those stories, because sometimes we focus on all the bad things. That is the nature of our job—people do not always come to tell us how good things are, but they certainly come to tell us when things are not right. That is the nature of what we do: we respond to complaints and concerns, and try to do our best to help.
I believe more needs to be done to ensure that all looked-after children are healthy and safe, have the same opportunities as their peers, and can move successfully into adulthood. What a responsibility we have for that child—to mould them and help them to be a better person as they move towards adulthood. It is so important that we do that as a society, and also through our duties as elected representatives of our constituents. We should also look to the Government for a positive response.
When the system works well, it allows young people to build stable lives and go on to become fully integrated and constructive members of society. When it fails, it can have a devastating impact from which people can never recover. That is the reality. The scale of the problems of criminal and sexual exploitation of looked-after children is frightening. A recent survey by Barnardo’s, which is a wonderful charity, showed that one third of the children who are sexually exploited in England are looked after. The finding, taken from a survey of 498 children helped in one day by the charity’s 20 specialist sexual exploitation services, also revealed marked geographical variations—I think the hon. Lady referred to that in her introduction.
More than three quarters, or 76%, of victims in the north-west were looked-after children. Given that figure, it is not hard to see why the hon. Lady was so determined to use Westminster Hall to highlight the sheer scale of the problem. Some 42% were in care in London, eastern and south-east England, whereas the figure was 39% in the south-west. Those figures are horrendous. Overall, Barnardo’s found that 29% were looked after. Shockingly, 16% had a disability and 5% had a statement of special educational needs.
Working towards the goals of protecting vulnerable young people from all kinds of exploitation is serious and important work. Sadly, our recent history is littered with examples of local authority and statutory agency failure, and it is our responsibility as legislators to ensure that our country has the most robust child protection frameworks. The Minister can confirm that there is a legal duty for children’s homes and foster carers to report a missing looked-after child to the police. I want to see how that can be done better, to ensure that we can deliver on it. Perhaps the Minister can confirm what financial support is available for that. I understand that some of the figures indicate that some councils and areas that have responsibility are feeling the pinch. I know the Government have committed some moneys to it, but I want to check that it is going forward.
Sarah Champion is not present, but I pay tribute to her in her absence. As we all know, she has been an absolute stalwart in standing up in spite of great personal provocation and threat to herself. She has been an absolute champion—Sarah Champion is aptly named—of her constituency. I pay tribute to her—I thought she might have been here, but obviously other things have taken place and she cannot be here—for all she has done to highlight exploitation and for taking a marvellous, courageous stand. Well done to her! The Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal consisted of organised sexual abuse between the late 1980s and 2010 on an unimaginable scale. Some of those stories made me cringe and feel unwell emotionally and physically. The abject and total failure of the local authorities to act on reports of abuse throughout that period led to it being described as the biggest child protection scandal in UK history.
Many factors combined to produce the scandal: indifference towards the victims, a culture of ignoring complaints and a fear of being viewed as politically incorrect, as the papers highlighted on more than one occasion. Whatever the motivations, the results were devastating. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that there are no more Rotherhams or Rochdales—no more of any of it.
Criminal exploitation continues to be a massive issue for each and every one of us. The hon. Member for Stockport referred to it in her introduction, and I want to speak about it. Criminal exploitation in the UK involves children and vulnerable adults who have been coerced into crime, such as ATM theft, pickpocketing, bag snatching, counterfeit DVD selling, cannabis cultivation, metal theft, benefit fraud, sham marriages and forced begging. The most common types of criminal exploitation are cannabis cultivation and petty street crime.
The criminal exploitation is serious: 71% of the police forces that submitted evidence to the inquiry believed that placing children and young people out of area increases their vulnerability to becoming sexually and criminally exploited. Looked-after children and young people are at significant risk of being groomed for exploitation, due both to the experiences and situations that led to their becoming looked after in the first place, and to factors associated with being in care. It is clear from the evidence that when placement moves take place, new protective factors are often not built around the young people in their new areas. The hon. Lady referred to that in her introduction and gave three or four examples, including of a person who walked 10 miles to meet their mum, and of others who had been exploited in their own areas.
I was deeply moved by the information about sexual exploitation, because it shows how unscrupulous people are. There are many unscrupulous people in the world who see individuals not as people—they do not have compassion for them—but as commodities. The hon. Lady referred to a couple of examples of young girls who found themselves in that situation. Child sexual exploitation means to
“manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status”.
All those things are pure, unadulterated exploitation.
The involvement of children in the movement and sale of drugs in the context of county lines has been receiving more professional and media attention recently. Of the 90% of looked-after children who go missing from care, 60% are suspected victims of trafficking. As a Northern Ireland MP and the Member for Strangford, I am very pleased that it was Stormont—when we had a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly—that led the way in tackling human trafficking and exploitation with groundbreaking legislation in 2015 that specifically targets those who would exploit other human beings for sexual purposes, enforced servitude or criminal activities.
When it comes to the protection of children, especially those who are looked after, we need a redoubling of efforts and a multifaceted approach. The first step is education. We must educate our children to know what to look for in order to prevent them from falling victim. Sometimes a teacher looking at a young child in the front row will see things that no one else sees. Schools, youth groups and carers all have a valuable role to play, but they must have resources—I look to the Minister when I say this—that are child-appropriate, help to address the issue and are easy to understand. The statistics show that there is a major problem with looked-after children; the hon. Lady said that very clearly.
Secondly, the police, local authorities and statutory agencies need to be fearless in the pursuit of those who would engage in such criminal activity and behaviour. There can be no hiding place for those committing criminal activities and engaging in criminal behaviour. We all have a responsibility to play our part in ensuring that this wicked activity—this evil activity—is stamped out.