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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 23rd October 2019.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 3:20 pm, 23rd October 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate Ann Coffey on securing this extremely timely and important debate. I thank all the Members who have taken part and the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults for the work that it has led on this important issue. We spend far too little time focusing on the needs of looked-after children, given that they are one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

We have already heard some shocking examples this afternoon of how badly too many looked-after children have been let down. Far too many children are given placements far away from friends, family and the community that they are part of. Far too many are put in accommodation that is unsafe because it is not properly regulated or supervised. A key reason for that is a severe lack of funding, but we must also recognise the failure properly to involve children themselves in the decisions that affect their lives.

More than two out of every five looked-after children are placed outside their home local authority area; that rises to two in every three children in children’s homes. The fact that children lose contact with everything that they are familiar with is one of the contributing factors to so many of them going missing. They simply want to go back home to the family and friends they miss.

It is desperately worrying that children in placements far from home are at greater risk of exploitation, as Angela Crawley explained so clearly. The police recognise that as an important factor in the luring of young people into gangs, or into the hands of adults who want to exploit them sexually or criminally. It is a major factor in the growth of county lines drug dealing operations and the horrific escalation in levels of knife crime that go with that. The existence of unregulated semi-independent housing is a major concern, and a growing national scandal. Social workers I have spoken to tell me that children are placed in those hostels because current levels of funding do not allow for better alternatives. It is shocking to hear that there are now 5,000 young people who have been placed in institutions of that kind.

Lance Scott Walker was just 18 when he was placed in an unregulated teenage hostel miles away from his home, with another vulnerable young person with severe mental ill health. That second young person stabbed Lance in the hostel, chased him out of the building and stabbed him to death in the garden. Lance should never have been left in such dangerous circumstances by the authorities responsible for his care, but when the funding is so inadequate risks are taken, and sometimes they lead to tragic outcomes such as the death of Lance Scott Walker.

The cross-party Local Government Association estimates that an extra £3.1 billion is needed simply to keep the services at their current inadequate levels over coming years. The Children’s Commissioner says that to fund the wider set of children’s services properly, an extra £10 billion is needed. The Government need to ask themselves why they have not made funding care for the most vulnerable children in society the absolute priority that it should be. The lack of funding and support is literally destroying young people’s lives.

Adequate funding is fundamental, but it is not the whole story. I am very impressed by the focus of the report on giving looked-after children a voice. There should be a requirement on children’s services to demonstrate that children and young people have been consulted and involved in the decisions taken about them. Young people will tell you what support they need, what is going wrong in their lives and what they are afraid of. We need to listen, and act on what we hear.

I had the privilege earlier this week of visiting Camden Council’s children’s services department, under the inspirational leadership of Councillor Georgia Gould. Its services are among the best rated and most innovative in the country. Its family group conferencing model puts the child and their immediate family at the centre of decision making and allows them to involve friends, family and community members in decision making rather than leaving it to professionals alone. That ensures that the child’s voice is heard and that their wishes are acted on. Just as importantly, it respects the relationships that matter to those children and it has dramatically improved results, through how it is implemented.

Up north, Leeds City Council, under the equally inspirational leadership of Councillor Judith Blake, has made similarly impressive progress pursuing its child-friendly city agenda for almost a decade now, I believe. Every decision that the council takes is measured against its impact on children—vulnerable children, in particular. It does not just talk about children as a priority; it has acted to make children a priority. It is examples such as those, in Leeds, Camden and many other places across the country, that show us how we should be treating vulnerable children differently—not as problems to be managed, but as young people full of potential with valid views about their own life that deserve to be heard, and relationships that matter to them that need to be respected.

The Government must now take a lead. We need a fully funded national action plan to reduce the number of out-of-area placements and ensure that vulnerable children and safe and that they have a voice. Key to that plan must be the immediate regulation and inspection of semi-independent housing.

No country that loved its children would treat them in the way I have described. There is no group more vulnerable than children who cannot be with their parents, so I ask the Minister now: will she commit to regulating semi-independent housing without delay? Will she take action to reduce the number of out-of-area placements? Will she review funding to bring it up to the level needed to support vulnerable children properly? Will she look at models such as those in Camden and Leeds and bring in a new legal requirement to involve looked-after children properly in the decisions that affect them? Children need change, and they need it now.