HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1137-42 2.31 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I appreciate having the opportunity to raise a problem of growing concern throughout the Western world—runaway children. There is no comprehensive policy or practice covering runaway children, but an encouraging project has been set up by the Children's Society to meet this worrying need.

There is evidence that this is a growing problem throughout the Western world. It has been estimated that more than 4,000 young people ran away to London alone last year. In America, the number has reached epidemic proportions, with the federal Government spending $20 million a year dealing with the needs of runaway children and their families. These children are especially vulnerable to crime, either as victims or as perpetrators. They can easily become involved in drugs, vice and prostitution—street crime—and be in great moral danger.

Before I became a Member, I was for many years on the executive of the Children's Society and resigned only when my husband became chairman.

I am pleased that similar rules do not apply in this place to the joint activities of husbands and wives. During the 1970s, there was great concern about the plight of the homeless and the serious lack of housing for young people. The film "Johnny Come Home", which was based on a genuine case, aroused great public anxiety. A number of agencies, such as Alone in London, Centrepoint, and the Soho project, joined to see what they could do. Coinciding with its centenary in 1981, the Children's Society inevitably began to think about its roots and background. It thought that it would be appropriate to devote its energies to the problem of homeless young people.

The Children's Society was founded in 1881 by a young civil servant named Edward Rudolf, who taught at the Sunday school at St. Anne's, Vauxhall, where I used to teach. Mr. Rudolf noticed that two boys who had been regularly attending the Sunday school suddenly went missing. He searched for them and found them begging outside the local gasworks. It transpired that the boys' father had died, leaving the mother with no income and a family to support. She was not prepared to allow the whole family to go into the workhouse, so she decided that the two young boys, aged 10 or 11, should be able to survive for themselves.

When looking for a home for the boys, Edward Rudolf discovered that, unlike the free churches, the established church had no answer to the problem of homeless children or runaways. As a result, a society known as the Waifs and Strays was formed, responding to the needs of thousands of children on the streets of Britain's great cities. In its first annual report, the Children's Society stated that there were an estimated 20,000 homeless children in London alone.

In its attempt to respond to the present day needs of children on the streets following discussions with other interested agencies, and with the assistance of Camden and Westminster social services departments, with the advice and co-operation of the Metropolitan police and with significant resources from the Minister's Department, the Children's Society was able to start the central London teenage project. The project is based in a large terraced house in north London. It has a kitchen, bedrooms for 12, meeting rooms and rooms for private interviews and looks like any other house in the street. Efforts have been made not to publicise the address, so that the young people who come to the house can feel safe from casual visits or intrusions. Young people under the age of 17–19 if in the care of a local authority—who are found homeless on the streets of London are referred to the project by the police, voluntary agencies or the social services departments.

It is not surprising that many of these young people arrive at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. When a new person comes to the house, the staff try to establish trust as the basic requirement for working with the young person. The staff then make contact with the individual's home, but that is only attempted with the young person in attendance, so that he or she knows what is being said.

The staff are clearly in a sensitive position, knowing that they have a duty towards the young person, but, at the same time, if they lose that young person's confidence the young person may well resort to running away again. The young people are given at least 48 hours before their future is decided. During that time, there are negotiations between the project staff, parents, local authorities and other agencies. Parents who wish to contact their children are given free telephone access.

Crucially it is important that help is provided to stop that young person from running away once more. Some young people change their residential setting and others are received into local authority care. In other cases, collaboration, co-operation and essential understanding are attempted between the parents and the child.

Each young person and each family is treated individually so that their solutions are tailored to meet their cases. Above all, the project is followed up with a telephone call to the young person one month later.

On the basis of the 200 young people who have stayed at the centre since it was founded, various findings have emerged. I applaud the way in which the Children's Society has researched the findings of its project. It is only too easy spontaneously to set up an agency to meet a perceived need and then make no rigorous investigation to discover whether it is in fact effectively meeting that need.

The majority of the young people at the centre were between 13 and 16 years of age, although the full age range was between 11 and 21. Of those children, 63 per cent. had run away from home. When exploring the reasons for their running away, breakdown of communications and a lack of understanding between parents and the child were the reasons most frequently given. There appeared to be an inability to discuss problems in the family. Physical and sexual violence were also all too frequently present. It is understandable that child sexual abuse, which has been so powerfully highlighted this week by the NSPCC, is a topic that is particularly difficult for families to deal with, and running away from home can seem to be the solution for the young person involved. Problems of bullying at school and of perceived failure were also mentioned.

Equally worrying, one third of the children had run away from local authority care, which raises questions about the quality of that provision. They mentioned unhappiness, the desire for independence and dislike of the children's home or of the area from which they had come. Bullying by peers was again mentioned. For those children, the solution seemed to be to abandon the home.

Forty per cent. of the children came from London and the south-east, the others from all over the country. When asked what help or advantage had been provided, they said that the project had helped them to think and to sort themselves out, perhaps fulfilling the function that grandparents or distant relations can play in less fragmented families. The project highlighted for young people the dangers of trying to survive in London and the staff were seen as trustworthy and available, demonstrating that the project meets an important need at this stage.

A few key issues need to be addressed. The co-operation of the police has clearly been vital in the development of the project. They need to relax their enforcement of the law which obliges them to return children and young people to their parents or guardians. In the review of child care law, some voluntary agencies have argued for special treatment in dealing with the delicate borderland between the child as an independent person and the child as the responsibility of the parents. If the agency enforces return to an unpopular home, the problem may simply recur, but on the second occasion the young person is unlikely to seek help from an agency. That is not to misunderstand the deep unhappiness of parents whose children have gone missing and who desperately want some source of reassurance or certainty as to what has happened to their children.

A further issue focused by the project is the need for centralised reporting of runaways. The Metropolitan police missing persons bureau does valiant work, but many people in the House and elsewhere feel that there should be more rigorous provision for the reporting of missing persons, especially young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has urged the Government to establish a special unit in the Home Office to pay particular attention to young people who run away.

With regard to the care provided by local authorities, once again the message is that it is essential that young people should be considered and consulted in plans for their future. Too often children feel that the only way to gain any control of their own destiny is to flee. There are messages there for social work training and child care practice generally in making young people feel that they are being consulted, their views heard, and attention paid to their needs.

The contribution and assistance of the Department of Health and Social Security are clearly very important to the project and to similar facilities run by other groups. The recent announcement of the £25,000 grant has made a significant difference. However, I also believe that the proposals in the Budget substantially to improve the tax relief given on charitable donations should dramatically benefit the Children's Society in common with many other charities. Not only are single gifts by companies, up to an amount equal to 3 per cent. of the dividends paid by the company to its shareholders, to be exempt from tax, but payroll giving by individuals is to be encouraged. Employees will be able to give to charities through deductions from wages or salaries.

I hope that, with a greater awareness of the need, individuals and groups throughout the country will take the opportunity to devote resources to a service which, in my view, is fundamentally one that is best met by the voluntary agencies. Ministers are frequently urged in the House to make more local authority provision to meet various needs. I feel that the voluntary agencies have a legitimate and powerful role in pioneering social care and in meeting as yet unrecognised needs. Especially in the case of young people who have frequently been subject to perhaps less than favourable local authority experiences in the past, that seems to me to be an eminently proper and appropriate use of resources.

Finally, apart from leading to more charitable giving and support, I hope that greater awareness of projects such as this will lead to greater sensitivity in the children's home areas. It is important that the signs of unhappiness in children should be recognised, whether at school or at home or through the clergy and all the others in the community who need increasingly to recognise that the solution to the local problems is only rarely to flee. We know only too well from too many cases over the years of the dangers to the young people and the damage that can result—quite apart from the misery suffered by their caretakers—if they choose that way out.

I appreciate having had this opportunity to talk about the central London teenage project, which was developed by the Children's Society at a time when my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) was chairman of the society and which has, I feel, made a particularly important contribution.

2.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I am happy to respond to this debate. Yet again, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) has raised a most important subject. I believe that the matter has never yet been considered in the House. As she said, my hon. Friend has been closely involved for some time with that very important voluntary organisation, the Church of England Children's Society, before the little local difficulty that she encountered because my hon. Friend and her husband the Under-Secretary of State for Transport became chairman. Day by day I learn more about my hon. Friend's deep knowledge and experience in those areas. The revelation that—on top of everything else that she has to offer—she even taught in the same Sunday school as Edward Rudolf adds yet more distinction to her record.

This phenomenon of runaway children in London is a serious one. It is not new. In effect, it has been with us for centuries. We have some figures, although by the nature of the subject they are not reliable. I am advised that in 1985, 2,982 children, of whom 869 were younger than 14 and 2,113 were aged between 14 and 17, were reported to the Metropolitan police to be missing within the Metropolitan police area. At the end of last year, only 146 remained missing. However, every day that a child is lost causes some relative, parent or carer to suffer acute concern. We should not be led wholly astray by some of the more lurid descriptions of what might happen. The dangers of prostitution and entering the drugs scene exist, and we must be alert to them. Many children in those statistics return home in a matter of days. Nevertheless, it is important that appropriate help should be available in London and all our major cities for children who run away or are reported missing.

There is no problem about those who are ready to be found. The police and social services departments of the London boroughs are only too anxious to restore them to their homes. The police respond immediately to those who are truly missing, and actively use all their resources to find the child. Tragically, some children who disappear are abducted, perhaps seriously assaulted and sometimes killed. Such cases of horror and distress cause us all anxiety.

The police respond in such cases with the greatest commitment. Many children return home late and are unaware of the consequences of that. If a child disappears, it is vital to contact the police as early as possible. They will ensure that everything possible is done with the utmost speed to trace the child. An essential part of that is the need for immediate publicity in those crucial early stages of disappearance. Although the television and radio bring us all problems, they also bring us the benefit of reaching a wide audience. Certainly, they have been used to great advantage, and, obviously, we shall continue to ensure that that is the case.

Voluntary organisations and local authorities, especially in the London area, naturally have an important part to play. Like my hon. Friend I wish to emphasise the great significance of the Church of England Children's Society project—the central London teenage project. As my hon. Friend said, it grew from the concern of voluntary and statutory agencies in the west end about the growing number of under-age young runaways in the west end. It provided a breathing space for a few days for them to talk things over with an understanding and sympathetic worker so that an acceptable resolution of their problem could be found.

Young people relied mainly on the voluntary agencies in the west end for support and help which at that time had neither the legal authority nor the resources to meet the needs of this vulnerable group. That frequently led to young people being sent straight back home and back to precisely the problems from which they had sought to escape, resulting all too often in youngsters running away again and failing to be contacted by the voluntary agencies. That meant that a number of young, vulnerable people were surviving alone in central London, prey to the dangers of street existence, exploitation, crime, prostitution and drugs.

The project aims to assess the needs of young people referred to it by other agencies. Its operation seems to be admirable. I understand that the project provides a safe house and residential provision for young people under the age of 17, or in care up to the age of 19, and that that is an effective contribution to the problem.

As my hon. Friend said, recently we were happily able to provide a capital sum of £50,000 towards the purchase price of the accommodation, and we have given £25,000 towards the running costs in the coming financial year. Certainly, we believe that this is an example of the way in which we can co-operate with the statutory sector on the one hand and the voluntary sector on the other.

I endorse the point my hon. Friend made about the importance of the measures announced by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor in his Budget. Those offer opportunities not only to companies but to individuals for payroll giving. Those measures will take effect from April 1987. I take this opportunity and shall take many others to urge all the charities in the personal social services sector not to hang back but to seize this exciting opportunity that has been provided by the Chancellor. The charities should make sure that the opportunity is used to good effect.

We are looking for a combination of action by central Government—whether through the DHSS or other Government Departments—by local authorities sand by voluntary organisations. In many areas, whether in the area of runaway children in London or in any of the other personal social service areas with which my hon. Friend is familiar, it is a combination of action that can provide the best answer. Quite clearly, the state cannot provide all the resources, nor can it provide all the expertise or the insight and the care that are needed. As I have often said in the House, much help can be generated in society and we can mobilise society to help solve these problems. The Church of England teenage project in London that my hon. Friend spoke about is a splendid example of that genre and I commend it as an excellent means of dealing with a special problem.

Mrs. Bottomley

Does my hon. Friend agree that projects of this sort have the added advantage of being organised and funded primarily by voluntary agencies? Many young people who use the project feel somewhat disenchanted with statutory agencies.

Mr. Whitney

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is an important point and of course my hon. Friend is speaking from experience. It contrasts rather interestingly with the last debate during which the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) seemed to think that only the statutory agencies can do good.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

He did not say that.

Mr. Whitney

He seems to believe that. The hon. Gentleman should read his speech. The most effective way is a partnership and the partnership to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention is a splendid example.