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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank Ann Coffey for securing this important debate and for the excellent inquiry that the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, under her chairmanship, conducted into this issue.
As the hon. Lady knows, my constituency of Bedford has been identified as a hotspot for out-of-area placements for looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds. It featured in the diligent reporting done by “Newsnight” into the crisis in care for the most vulnerable children in society. Many of us in this Chamber have repeatedly called for the regulation of semi-supported care settings. I first met the Minister in March to call for urgent action to protect those children and ensure the most basic of requirements—that all care settings for 16 and 17-year-olds are safe and of a reasonable standard. Seven months and a change of Government personnel later, I am afraid we are no further forward. I know that the hon. Member for Stockport has been asking for that for a lot longer.
It is the state’s responsibility to look after children in care, but it is clearly failing. Bedfordshire police have raised concerns about the number of teenagers reported missing from care homes. They have highlighted that vulnerable children are being placed in accommodation with known perpetrators of sexual and violent crimes, and they are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking, organised crime or serious violent crime, and of being lured into criminal activity.
In Bedfordshire, the number of incidents for the 12-month period ending in September involving looked-after children missing from unregulated homes was 1,333, involving 173 children. I am very worried about the fate of those missing children, who are at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation and other aspects of modem slavery.
Although Bedfordshire police are doing tremendous work in this area and have a sympathetic understanding of those who go missing, policing such settings is a significant strain on an already under-resourced force. The Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth estimates that the average cost of investigating a missing person is £2,400. That is a financial cost to Bedfordshire police of about £1.9 million, caused by unregulated homes. It is the job of the Government, not the police, to ensure the safety of such settings. They must get a handle on the scale of the issue, and I urge them to improve the reporting systems on the number of children of going missing from homes and hostels that are not subject to children’s homes regulations, to prevent more children from becoming unnecessarily and excessively criminalised or becoming victims of crime.
If there is no alternative to local authorities receiving out-of-area looked-after children, it is only right that they should be adequately funded so they can provide suitable, safe and secure accommodation. The Minister has admitted that the current system is “completely untenable”, so I hope that today we get action from the Government on the APPG inquiry’s excellent recommendations, not more excuses and delay.