HC Deb 15 October 2003 vol 411 cc231-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7.26 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important subject of the child rescue alert scheme that was operating in Sussex. The Minister knows of my very close involvement with child rescue alert since the summer of 2002. I initiated two early-day motions in this House on the subject and I have submitted a number of written questions. I have corresponded with the Minister's colleague, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), and had conversations with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins). That followed an undertaking by the Minister's former Home Office colleague, the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn)—he is now at the Department for International Development—who, in response to my question at Home Office questions of 2 December, wished the scheme well and undertook to monitor carefully its success. He said: I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and officers from the Sussex force when the pilot period is over so that we can consider how to spread that good idea elsewhere."—[Official Report, 2 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 605.] I have been trying for the past five months to get that meeting with Home Office Ministers and to take a delegation, because of problems that have since occurred with the scheme. Numerous calls from my office have met with no result. Despite promises from three Home Office Ministers—the two Members whom I have already mentioned and Baroness Scotland—the undertaking given by the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central has not been met. Nothing happened until, mysteriously, this afternoon, when a call from the office of the hon. Member for Salford offered a meeting, some six months late. I am delighted about that offer, but it has of course been prompted by this evening's Adjournment debate.

This debate really should not be necessary. Importantly, a scheme that started with great promise last year, and which was aimed at offering effective solutions to dealing with the problem of child abductions, has been largely sidelined. It has been a victim of Home Office internal politics. The company that developed the major part of that scheme has been peremptorily sacked, its reputation damaged by highly misleading statements from senior Sussex police officers with no retraction or apology forthcoming.

It could all have been so different. By now we could have had a nationwide child rescue alert scheme with millions of members of the public signed up to media broadcasts, text messaging and traffic signs, for example, alerting them to missing children, particularly in the crucial early hours after a child has been abducted.

Let me provide some of the background. It starts with the tragic case of Sarah Payne who, as hon. Member will know, was abducted and murdered some years agc in West Sussex. Many people then struggled to come with a solution that could provide an effective counter to child abductions in the future. It is estimated that in Sussex alone, there were 32 child abductions last year—fortunately, not all ending in the tragic circumstances of Sarah Payne.

Experience in the United States was examined. A scheme called Amber Alert operates in 13 different states and has successfully saved the lives of many abducted children by breaking into media broadcasts to give details of suspected abducted children and by flashing up messages on highway signs alerting drivers to keep an eye out. Largely helped by Councillor Mike Mendosa from Adur, who is a radio presenter, that scheme gained considerable publicity in national and local newspapers last summer. Partly as a result, officers in the child protection unit of Sussex police looked into setting up a pilot scheme across Sussex based on Amber Alert in the US.

Using highway signs as a means of raising alerts is not practical in a county such as Sussex because it requires freeway dot matrix boards, of which there is only one in the whole county. However, all the local media, led by companies such as Meridian Television and Southern FM, were quickly signed up to the scheme so that when an alert was triggered, broadcasts could be broken into in short order to give listeners details of a suspected abduction.

The criteria used to trigger such an alert were, first, that the child should be under 16 and missing; and, secondly, that a police officer of at least the rank of superintendent felt that the child might suffer serious harm or death. Thirdly, the child must have been kidnapped or be suspected of having been so; and, fourthly, the case must have sufficient descriptive details of the victim or offender to justify launching an alert.

Phase one of the scheme—the media phase—was successfully launched in Brighton on 14 November 2002. It was realised quite quickly, however, that it had its limitations and early in the summer a Sussex company called Community Alerts approached Sussex police after spending more than a year developing a system that could dramatically expand the messaging service to include many hundreds of thousands more people in Sussex—and, potentially, nationwide—by the use of text messaging and other innovations. A leaflet and poster campaign was launched.

When an alert was triggered, subscribers to the scheme would receive a text message with information on their mobile phones. The scheme envisaged signing up members of the public, teachers, pubs, employees of West and East Sussex and Brighton and Hove councils, post offices, neighbourhood watch co-ordinators, taxi drivers, British Telecom and other utility company engineers. It envisaged a potential audience in Sussex alone of some 300,000 people—a powerful tool for dispensing information to deal with child abductions at a crucial stage.

Further developments were envisaged, including sending out photographs of children to people on the network by mobile phones, receiving such information via e-mail and in-car and in-cab computers, as well as passing on relevant information to delivery lorries and so forth. The scheme also envisaged setting up a hotline with thousands of telephone lines for the public to ring in with information. All messages were to be provided free of charge by Vodafone and the expertise of the company Multimap was also included. It could have satisfied virtually any requirement or concern and had applications for fighting crime well beyond just child abductions. It was also useful for providing information about potential flood warnings, so the Environment Agency was interested. It was crucial that a company independent of the police keep the register of subscribers in order to allay any fears about civil liberty implications, which could deter people from registering in the first place.

The second phase of child rescue alert was hailed by chief inspector Martin Underhill, then responsible for the scheme, as possibly one of the most innovative threads of the scheme and "absolutely fantastic". Community Alerts was asked to drop its own schemes of development and work exclusively with Sussex police on developing the child rescue alert scheme. Community Alerts agreed to give Sussex police all the credit for setting up the service because it was deemed to be in the public interest. To this day, the company has neither received nor sought a penny from Sussex police or the Home Office, despite spending tens of thousands of pounds developing the project and bringing in big players such as Vodaphone and Multimap.

Everything went smoothly. The technology was put in place quickly and could rapidly have been extended to all police forces nationwide, though chief constables inquiring about the scheme were told by the Association of Chief Police Officers that the police technology unit was working on its own service, so they were discouraged from signing up.

The launch of phase two took place on 6 March this year with great gusto and 300,000 leaflets and posters were ready to be distributed to registered members of the scheme. Everyone agreed that it was a brilliant, world-beating idea. All the technology to achieve it was in place, and worked. But it soon became clear that, for some reason, Sussex police were cooling towards the scheme. Literature was not properly distributed. Public service workers, including the police, were not being properly signed up. It later became clear, as confirmed in written answers to me, that the budget for such a big scheme was less than £20,000 and only one full-time person was employed by the police to work on it. Subsequently, only some 6,000 people were initially registered. Most people did not know much about it.

In April, Community Alerts was suddenly told that its services were no longer required after its contract expired at the beginning of June—not that the company had been paid anything for that contract. Coincidentally, a few weeks after the contract expired, on 7 July, a six-year-old from Brighton, Summer Haipule, went missing. It was the first time that the criteria were met to trigger the child rescue alert scheme, and it was duly triggered. Media broadcasts were interrupted, but no text messaging service was available because the company had been sacked. Happily, 14 and a half hours later, Summer was found safe and well asleep under a baby's cot in a neighbours' house. The neighbours were oblivious to the missing child, having not heard the television and radio broadcasts, although they did have mobile phones.

Newspapers reporting on the case said that the text messaging system did not work properly, and that view was expressed by chief superintendent Paul Curtis. Of course it did not work properly: it had been terminated. However, Sussex police desperately called Community Alerts in the middle of the night when the suspected abduction took place, to try to get the system reactivated—unsuccessfully. Sussex police have not apologised or sought to put the record straight.

Community Alerts is a small company that developed a service, in good faith, with Sussex police. It provided the service free of charge, allowed the police to take the credit for the service, and then saw its reputation tarnished by the people whom it had tried to work with. Community Alerts has lost contracts in other areas of messaging because of the erroneous bad publicity, and Vodafone, which was crucial to the project, has also distanced itself. Sussex police, the Police Information Technology Organisation—PITO—and the Home Office have not returned Community Alerts' calls to explain why the company was dropped. Most importantly, the whole child rescue alert scheme has been left in a state of limbo when it should be expanding nationwide.

In a parliamentary written answer from the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety on 16 September, I was told that the findings of the pilot scheme in Sussex would not be published, but that they have informed the setting up of a national text messaging service by PITO that can be used to alert the public quickly in the event of child abductions. Can the Minister tell me why the results of that pilot scheme will not be published? I fear that the scheme has been nobbled by the Home Office and parts of the police, even though they are miles away from coming up with a viable alternative, leaving a yawning gap in child protection measures. If the scheme is to be taken over by the police exclusively, it will not work because it needs to be at arm's length from police records. A previous PITO-led scheme, called "Bullseye" flopped for just such reasons. I gather that the current proposed schemes are based on the priority alert scheme that has been run by the Met for some years, and that is aimed at counter-terrorism measures. That scheme charges subscribers to a pager system £15 a month and has just 2,000 subscribers.

While all this happened, confusion reigned. ACPO has written to chief constables to warn them off entering into any contracts with companies offering messaging alert services, according to a written answer of 16 September. Deputy assistant commissioner Richard Bryan, the ACPO lead on missing persons, has made contact with Community Alerts this week, spurred on—it would seem—by the prospect of this debate. In a letter from the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety dated 26 June, she said: Sussex Police and PITO are committed to starting registration for a new scheme as quickly as possible. When? How much longer will the gap continue? Over recent weeks, Community Alerts has spoken to people supposedly involved in formulating a new version of the child rescue alert scheme on a national basis. Most had been blissfully unaware of the solid and pioneering work that Community Alerts had already done with Sussex police, and were very interested to hear about what had been achieved. Will the Minister deal with the obviously unjust treatment of Community Alerts—a company funded by Paul Kent for the specific purpose of providing a not-for-profit messaging service in the event of a child being abducted?

More importantly, I urge the Minister and her Department to get everyone together to implement a system as soon as possible to plug the gap that currently exists nationwide—before more children go missing, with tragic consequences, in the absence of a scheme that could save them. I encourage her to ensure that a new system is developed, based on the expertise and success achieved by the Sussex police pilot, but which keeps the data registration at arm's length from the police. The system must be free to the public, to maximise the potential number of subscribers.

Despite the horrible experience that I have described, Community Alerts remains committed to the cause. It owns the intellectual property rights to the service, and it has the knowledge to set it up nationally. It could announce a national system in a few weeks time, on 14 November, the anniversary of the pilot, and that is what the organisation has offered to do. The police and the Home Office could utilise Community Alerts as they would any other media. They could send a message, and let the organisation broadcast it. In that way, the Home Office could work with the biggest companies in Europe to give every police force a child rescue alert service, and start a national campaign to get the public to register their telephones. Surely we all want to achieve that.

I urge the Minister to cut through the internal politics that appears to have put the kybosh on a very successful scheme. She should get the scheme up and running nationwide as soon as possible, as everyone involved in the pilot envisaged. She should use the expertise that has already been put in place and proven by the Sussex-based organisation Community Alerts. She should publish the results of the pilot, so that we can all see where it went wrong, if that is what happened. The strengths of the scheme could then be taken up and used to everyone's advantage. Surely that would be to the good of all, and especially of the children who every day are abducted. What I have set out is a practical solution that could help to prevent those abductions.

7.41 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)

I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for raising this very important issue. As he pointed out, he has been an assiduous advocate of the work of Community Alerts, and of the work on the child rescue alert scheme done by Sussex police.

The hon. Gentleman gave an account of the response to the scheme of my colleagues that was to some degree partial, but I can understand that. I have much sympathy for the frustration that he felt at the difficulty in obtaining a meeting that he pointed out had been promised earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn). However, he did not remind the House that my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety asked him in June whether he wanted a meeting. I am glad that that meeting has now been organised, as it is important that the Government should be accountable to hon. Members who pursue a matter with such assiduity. We must provide them with opportunities to raise such matters, and I am glad that such an opportunity has been arranged for the hon. Gentleman.

We all agree that protecting children is a top priority. It is a very serious challenge for the police and their partner agencies, and they must respond sensitively and effectively. There has been a worrying increase in the number of child abductions of all types, with the 2001–02 figure of 584 rising to 846 in 2002–03. That rise concerns the Government greatly.

I have put in hand some detailed analysis to determine which types of abductions have increased, and why. That information is important when it comes to providing an appropriate response to such cases. For example, we need to identify the proportion of abductions carried out by parents, known family members or friends outside the immediate family circle, and that carried out by strangers. We need to know how many incidents are reported and subsequently resolved when the missing child is located soon after. The hon. Gentleman referred to the case in his area involving a child who was quite safe in a neighbour's house, even though no one knew that was the case. We need to know the real frequency of abductions that lead to more serious and sometimes fatal consequences. I expect to have some initial findings next month. That sort of information will feed into how the Government respond.

Against that background, the Government were pleased to see the initiative taken by Sussex police earlier this year with the child rescue scheme pilot, which the hon. Gentleman described in detail. It is a good example of innovative policing, even if the experiences of those involved have sometimes been frustrating. He communicated that frustration to the House well.

The scheme makes creative use of available technology and local partnerships. It has the potential to he a powerful tool in combating child abductions. However, every care has to be taken in judging whether to use it for a particular abduction and at what stage. One of the key aspects in handling child abductions is to act so as to avoid unintended effects. When deciding to trigger an alert, the police must have every confidence in both the underlying technology and the operational procedures that follow from its use.

That is why the Association of Chief Police Officers has tasked its working group on missing persons to draw ogether best practice on police handling of child abductions. It is doing so not because it is trying to delay matters, but because the example that the hon. Gentleman cited from Sussex is one of a series of pieces of work that need to be drawn together—how to respond, how to marshal resources, how to co-operate with partner agencies and how to communicate, as well as how to use technology such as the child alert system ihat he described.

There is a great wealth of experience, for example, in he police national missing persons bureau, based in New Scotland Yard. Sussex has much to offer from its experience of setting up and running the pilot. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, ACPO's missing persons working group is meeting Sussex police next week. I do not believe that that meeting is a consequence of this debate. It is part of the work that ACPO is pulling together and in which it is playing the lead, with the Home Office actively assisting, in planning a national scheme to decide the best way forward, with Sussex being a key contributor.

I undertake to try to ensure that the points of view of the company that has been involved in the scheme, as well as that of Sussex police—if there is a possibility of a gap between the two, as he suggests—are also fed into the work of the ACPO committee. It is important that, in its work to develop a code of best practice, which it has undertaken should be available by April 2004, the best evidence and experience is brought to bear. The aim is to phase in the implementation of the code of best practice, to give all forces the benefit of those with the most experience in this area and those that have learned from new approaches and innovations, such as what happened in Sussex.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern that the pilot report has not been published, but to maintain the greatest frankness about how the system works, Sussex police did not say that they would publish it in the first place. The lessons that can be learned from such a pilot are best learned if the report is used to inform police practice. To do so, it needs to be very frank. I am not sure that his constituents' best interests are protected by publishing the pilot; they will be protected by ensuring that the experience feeds properly into the work that ACPO is taking forward.

I undertake to ensure that all the points of view of those involved in the pilot—not only the report that might be in the ownership of the Sussex police, but also the company that contributed to it—

Tim Loughton

I have not disagreed with anything that the Minister has said. I do not think that there is a problem with the code of conduct. It worked quite clearly. The question mark is about whether we should involve a company that has been a good partner to Sussex police and has technology that no one else has. Does she think that it is a good way to treat a company that has worked in partnership with Sussex police to say, "Thanks very much and goodbye"? Does she also agree with me and with that company that the best way forward is an arm's-length approach to gathering subscribers to the scheme? As previous experience has shown, if everything is controlled by the police, the scheme will not work.

Fiona Mactaggart

I agree that the question about the arm's-length approach must be addressed, although I do not know the answer. The hon. Gentleman's case has merit but we need a clear examination of the pros and cons of the process, which is why I undertook to ensure that the views and perspective of Community Alerts can be fed into the work of the ACPO missing persons working group, which is taking the process forward. The group will act as a gatekeeper until the code of practice is published and has promised to resource 24/7 contact to any police force that has to respond to a child abduction. All forces will have immediate recourse to best practice to suit the particular situation that they face.

The child alert initiative requires robust and secure technology, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. The police need to be able to extend alerts and searches across the area covered by one force to another. The process must be able to deal with such issues so that individuals, businesses and so on can participate as effectively as possible.

One possible way forward, and the one that is being most closely examined, is to use some of the infrastructure provided by the police message board system, which has been developed by the Police Information Technology Organisation, and is a secure part of the police website. The results of an end-to-end stress test of the new message board will be received shortly.

The Sussex pilot has shown that engagement with local media and key agencies is enhanced through a child alert facility. After we have learned the lessons from that, further consideration should be given to how best to engage individual members of the public. That may be through the text messaging service on mobile phones. Intensive publicity campaigns might not always recruit the largest number of public subscribers.

How best to use available technology in response to child abduction will be taken forward in tandem with best practice procedures. Technology and best practice will work together. The ACPO missing persons group will again lead and co-ordinate. Its chair, Richard Brian, is meeting Sussex police early next week and I have undertaken to inform the hon. Gentleman of the views of the pilot process formed by the company involved.

The Government are concerned to see that every avenue is explored to help make our country a safer place for children. We are pleased to recognise and encourage local enterprise in public services, such as that shown by the Sussex police with their child alert pilot. We also believe that local successes should be available to every police force and child protection agency as soon as practicable. Where technology can be leveraged to achieve that, it is all to the good. To achieve the best with any new system, it must be properly planned to deliver real benefits and the Sussex pilot has shown what can be achieved. The ACPO missing persons group will drive the whole process forward to ensure that best practice is married to appropriate technology and that the experience of forces, through pilots such as the one in Sussex, means that we achieve a safer environment for our most vulnerable citizens.

I am glad that my colleague has agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and his police colleagues. I have undertaken to ensure that the point of view of the company involved in the pilot will properly be communicated to ACPO, which is rightly providing the national lead. I hope that those two actions will deliver the end that he seeks.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eight o'clock.