HL Deb 09 February 1998 vol 585 cc859-63

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Ludford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will provide public funding for the National Missing Persons Helpline.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government acknowledge the excellent work carried out by the Missing Persons Helpline, particularly in supporting the families of people who go missing. Tracing missing persons, particularly those considered to be vulnerable or those who may have been victims of crime, is, however, primarily a police task. Individual forces have in place operational procedures for tracing missing persons. There is also a central information gathering and exchange facility in respect of vulnerable persons who have been missing for more than 28 days, those whose going missing merits particular attention, and unidentified corpses. This is the Police National Missing Persons Bureau and it is funded by the Home Office. Future arrangements for missing persons are being reviewed, but there are no plans at present to extend funding to the helpline.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he keep the question of public funding under review in the light of a number of factors? The first is that the free help the National Missing Persons Helpline gives to the statutory services such as the police and coroners is increasing all the time and is overstretching its already limited voluntary resources. That help is complementary to the police National Missing Persons Bureau. Secondly, police chiefs have made numerous tributes saying that work would not exist but for the helpline; and, thirdly, the work is now entering a European scale, and, as I said, is overstretching the resources. Will he keep the door open?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in respect of the European dimension, we are taking forward within the EU discussions about the setting up of or improving of national co-ordinating points dealing with missing persons and unidentified corpses. The organisation to which the Question refers received a grant of £105,091 from the lotteries board fairly recently. I agree that this is a co-operative effort. The work of the organisation is of course done in co-operation with the police to a certain extent. The future of missing persons provision is under review. Obviously we shall take into account EU proposals on the role of the helpline.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, as the House will understand, the Government may not wish to put extra funds into this deserving charity. Is there not an opportunity for the Government to take an initiative through some of their agencies, such as local government, the health service and social security, to give extra practical help to this worthwhile charity?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that point is well made: one can assist in ways other than outright financial donation. I am happy to tell your Lordships that the helpline is holding a seminar in April/May of this year. It has the support of the police. Representatives from other EU states have been invited. Obviously the type of questions that the noble Lord has identified will be discussed at that seminar.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I reinforce what my noble friend said when pleading with the Minister to keep under review the question of further help for the helpline. I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Is he aware that I can remember the time when the helpline was just two dedicated, unpaid women. They have remarkable achievement behind them, and they deserve every possible support.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is indeed a remarkable achievement. Mary Asprey and Janet Newman began the organisation in 1992, really, as the noble Lord said, on their own initiative. The helpline now has over 80,000 calls a year, and obviously helps an enormous number of people. We believe—I hope that your Lordships endorse this—that there is a place for voluntary, charitable organisations in this country. It is a noble tradition of long standing. There is equally a place for public funding of the type which I have described. Home Office funding to the police bureau is £85,000 a year. It is co-operation which is the key, and not necessarily the donation of further public funds, which are rather tight at the moment.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that approximately 100,000 families are likely to contact the helpline during the next 12 months and without the money that is needed to continue the work it will be severely undermined? Could not further consideration be given to this worthwhile cause?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the figure of 100,000 is in accord with the figure of 80,000 contacts made during the past year. We recognise that the issue is extremely important. I have not closed the door to further funding, but I have said that such funding as there is goes to the police bureau. There is a place for voluntary organisations as well as state-funded organisations. In the past, this important work was undertaken by some Sunday newspapers and other organisations working in the field. I am not unsympathetic to the cause, but, as I tell your Lordships regularly on such occasions, I have no open chequebook.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, would the Minister be in favour of funding only the telephone bill? Eighty-thousand telephone calls are a lot, and perhaps further consideration can be given to that small measure of assistance.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I heard a whisper from my noble friend Lord Mason sitting behind me. It was, "Ask British Telecom". Obedient creature that I am, I offer that advice.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, my noble friend in his Answer mentioned the police having responsibility for missing vulnerable people. Can he give the House an explanation of how the police define "vulnerable" people?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, under the operational independent control of the chief constable, each police force approaches the matter slightly differently. It is easy to think of people who may have mental disabilities, children, the disabled and the lonely. Each chief constable will give operational internal directions to his relevant officers about how to deal with the scale of priorities in this area.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, will the Minister accept that many of us have sympathy with his point that there is a place for public sector contributions and for charitable voluntary contributions? However, will he also accept that some voluntary contributions become of a scale where public sector involvement is not only appropriate but essential? The term "partnership" is much used to describe the relationship between the various sectors. Will the Minister further accept that unless both sectors show that they are prepared to be active and useful partners the whole operation may fall away?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course I accept the principle for which the noble Baroness contends; it underpinned my earlier answers. There is partnership between the police, the Home Office and the helpline. I mention the April/May seminar. In May or June, the police staff college at Bramshill is holding a two-day seminar on trafficking in human beings and the sexual exploitation of children in Europe. That is an aspect of tackling this serious problem. The helpline has been asked to contribute. That is an example of partnership in action as opposed to public fund donation. The two have a part to play.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, there are many funding priorities. Is the Minister aware that I am able to communicate to him places where funding can be avoided in far greater sums than are involved in the necessary service to which the Question refers?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, when I die I shall think of the noble Lord and when they cut my heart open Europe will be there!

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, irrespective of whether Europe will be there, does the Minister recall that in the NHS there is a great deal of contracting between medical charities and health authorities? Is there not an opportunity for the strategic services to contract with the helpline for the kind of service it can provide?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sure that that is the kind of issue which the review will take into account.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, may I congratulate the Home Office, through the Minister, on its work in co-ordination with the helpline? Will the Minister bring the Foreign and Commonwealth Office into play, too, because, with regard to paedophilia and child prostitution in Eastern Europe, perhaps the know-how fund and such sources of expertise will be valuable in assisting the helpline to train workers in Romania and other countries where such dreadful incidents occur?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, should it be required, I am more than happy to engage the willing co-operation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Happily, my noble friend Lady Symons is sitting next to me and has heard the question and the answer. One must sometimes draw a limit; one cannot go on endlessly. One thinks of particular categories of missing persons; apparently, the last two young Conservatives were recently seen catching the ferry from Dover!

Lord Calverley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the work of the Salvation Army also plays a big part in respect of missing persons? Can he assure the House that the records held by the police, the National Missing Persons Helpline and the Salvation Army are combined in order that all three agencies can use them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am more than happy to pay tribute to the work of that exemplary organisation, the Salvation Army. I take my text from its experience. It draws its funds often in the most unlikely circumstances—public houses and so forth—by selling War Cry and soliciting donations. That is an example of what I referred to earlier. I accept the noble Lord's comments about the operation of databases. It is a practical utility which can be achieved without too much expenditure of public money.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, the Minister feels able to keep open his door to public funding. Does he agree that that would be appropriate during the UK Presidency of the European Union when a people's Europe is the theme and fighting crime, including crime against people, is the goal of the Government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes.