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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 23rd October 2019.

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Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:27 pm, 23rd October 2019

I congratulate Ann Coffey on securing this important debate. The Government, the Department and I share her fierce commitment to protect all looked-after children and to work to reduce the number of children who go missing. The hon. Lady raised a number of important issues facing the children’s social care system that can lead to children going missing, and today we have heard some harrowing stories, which I am sure will stay with us. I am absolutely determined to address those issues, because nothing is more important than protecting the most vulnerable children. I am sure we all agree on that.

As a new Minister in the area in question, I am committed to ensuring that the Department is dedicated to providing high quality services to all the children and families who need them. I know that we need to take a multi-agency approach—something that we have been doing. Social workers cannot do it alone; it cannot fall only on their shoulders. The joined-up response has been working and is not just a matter for local government; it is also for national Government, and I am committed to working closely with my colleagues at the Home Office to ensure that local partners are properly equipped to respond quickly and efficiently.

As part of that, the Home Office is working with the National Police Chiefs Council to deliver a national register of missing persons, which will enable us to have a snapshot of current missing incidents across police forces in England and Wales. The register will give officers real-time information when they encounter a missing person—particularly if that missing person is outside their area. Graham Stringer, who has left the Chamber, mentioned difficulties in his area, and I hope that that will alleviate his concerns.

The Home Office is working towards that register being operational by 2020-21. Ofsted plays a vital role in considering how local areas safeguard children, and to support that we are strengthening statutory guidance from the Department for Education. Such guidance must be clear about the role that each safeguarding partner must play, and that is why we are working with the police to respond to the issue raised by Jim Shannon.

The hon. Member for Stockport raised concerns about the fear that children who go missing from the care system could fall prey to criminal and sexual exploitation—something that I and all hon. Members find completely abhorrent. I reassure Members that the Government are prioritising that issue. We are determined to tackle child sexual abuse and close down county lines, putting an end to the abhorrent exploitation of children and young people. We have already revised safeguarding guidance to reflect the emerging menace of threats to children and exploitation from outside the home, as well as the role that children’s social care needs to play in protecting them.

Earlier this year, we launched the £2 million Tackling Child Exploitation support programme to provide bespoke support to local areas. The programme will help local safeguarding partners to develop a tailormade effective multi-agency strategic response to the specific types of harm and exploitation that children are facing in their area.

I am glad that the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s first independent review is looking into whether adolescents in need of protection from criminal exploitation get the help they need. That will better inform us about how to tweak and improve the current system, and I pledge to take a personal interest in that. Ensuring that children who have been taken into local authority care are in a safe and secure placement that meets their needs is one of the most crucial things we can do. That brings me to an issue that I know the hon. Lady and other hon. Members are working hard to highlight: the use of unregulated independent and semi-independent settings for children in care and care leavers. Some of those children and young people are indeed at risk, and I take on board the comments from Mr Reed.

The report from the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults continues to highlight that issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Stockport for her work. She will know that I share her concerns about the current state of affairs, and last week in the Chamber I was clear that it is unacceptable for any child to be placed in a setting that does not meet their needs and keep them safe. I note the comments from Angela Crawley on that issue, and I shall write to her with the specific figures she requested.

Unregulated semi-independent and independent settings are intended for older children as a stepping stone towards independence. There are good examples of such places, including in my constituency, and they are not all letting children down. However, vulnerable young children were never intended to be placed in them: I will not hesitate, where needed, to strengthen guidance to make that clear. Last week I called on local authorities to put their houses in order regarding unregulated and unregistered provision. Unregistered settings are illegal, and I invite all hon. Members to inform me about any providers that they know are operating in that manner.

Hon. Members also raised the placement of children in settings outside their local area. No child should be placed outside their area when that is not in their best interests, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their sustained interest in that issue. Moving a child away from their home is not a decision that any authority takes lightly, and we have strengthened legislative safeguards regarding children who are placed outside their local area.

Directors of children’s services are required to sign off each individual decision, and Ofsted can challenge them if it believes that an incorrect decision has been made. It can sometimes be right to place a child outside their local area if there is the risk of sexual exploitation, trafficking or gang violence, but those are the only circumstances in which local authorities should consider such a move. Similarly, such a decision could be made to access provision for children who have complex needs, if such provision is not available locally. The welfare of the child must lie at the heart of this issue, and I am sure hon. Members agree that the child’s needs and future must always come first. The needs of the child are paramount, and I will continue working to ensure that our decision-making is based on that.

Although local authorities have a duty to meet the needs of children in our care system, I recognise that more should be done to support them in responding to that challenge. Those children are a changing cohort, and we are taking steps to help local authorities manage the system, improve their work with families, and safely reduce the number of children who enter the care system in the first place.