HL Deb 21 October 1998 vol 593 cc1436-8

2.51 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking any steps to encourage the provision of more refuges for children under 16 under the provisions of Section 51 of the Children Act 1989.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we fully recognise the importance of refuges, which are designed to give a breathing space for young people who run away. Sir William Utting's Children's Safeguards Review drew attention to the importance of refuges and, as part of our consideration of the report, we are looking at the current provision. We shall publish our response to the Utting Report very soon.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that every year approximately 43,000 children under 16 run away from home but that there are at present only three refuges under the provisions of Section 51 of the Children Act 1989? Does she agree that there is an imbalance here which needs addressing?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I recognise that this is a serious problem and that the young people and children to whom the noble Lord refers are extremely vulnerable. We need better services for children who run away, and in that context we should look at the adequacy of refuge provision. I note that the Children's Society is planning to develop more refuges and hoping to secure funding of £1 million from the Millennium Children's Promise for that purpose. However, it is important that we do not focus only on services after children have run away; we must look at the causes of why children—particularly children in care—run away and try to stop it occurring.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many organisations concerned with the welfare of children, including the organisation with which I have been associated, Save the Children, have for some time been concerned about the position of refugee children who have come to this country from societies which have been torn apart by war? What arrangements are made in relation to such children, particularly at the point of entry?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, yes, I am aware of the concerns, particularly with regard to unaccompanied child refugees. This is a matter for which the Government have made funds available to local authorities, but, at a time when there is an increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, we need to look at what we can do and to recognise the problems that some local authorities face in providing care, and funding that care, for those children, particularly in the light of the recent influx of young people from Kosovo. We need to discuss with colleagues in the Home Office and the DETR ways in which we can ensure that local authorities are able to support these vulnerable children.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that Section 51 of this Act is extremely widely drawn. It simply says, "at risk of harm". Does she agree that that includes children who are at risk of falling into prostitution or suffering other forms of sexual abuse? Is her department co-operating and co-ordinating fully with the Home Office on this point?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we recognise that there are wide-ranging responsibilities for the needs of children who may be vulnerable and at risk from a variety of factors and that in meeting those responsibilities we cannot take a simple departmental approach. That is why the ministerial task force on children's safeguards was a wide-ranging and interdepartmental one, enabling these issues to be looked at across the board, not only with colleagues in social services departments and local authorities but also with colleagues in the Home Office and the police, who have a major role to play in this area.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, will the Government require local authorities to set out in their children's service plans how they will ensure that a service is available to children who are being abused through falling into prostitution and take preventive action to target children who may be vulnerable to abuse in this way?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, when considering children's services in 1996, local authorities were asked to identify within those plans various groups of children, including children who had run away and who might be vulnerable to falling into prostitution or being sexually abused. We hope that extra momentum to that requirement will result from the work done in responding to the Utting Report.

Lord Montague of Oxford

My Lords, my noble friend kindly made reference to the £1 million being made available from the Children's Promise campaign. I am most grateful to the very many who are supporting that campaign. As we shall raise £1 million to be disbursed for the benefit of children, may we have the support of the National Health Service in making this known to all who work in that very fine service and understand the work that we are doing?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I believe we all know, my noble friend has done a great deal to make the Children's Promise known to Members of your Lordships' House. I shall certainly consider how we can make it known to people who work within the NHS.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that bricks and mortar will not be enough in the provision of homes and that the quality and training of staff and their ability to communicate not only with teenagers but with teenagers' parents will be extremely important? In this context, is she aware of the pioneering work of the Caldecott college, to the foundation of which the late Lady Faithfull contributed so much, in the context of working with children in a residential field?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out that we tend to use the word "refuges" as a shorthand and think of them only in terms of buildings. We know from the experience of people who work in this field and the research that has been done that availability of buildings alone is not the problem. Many of these children ran away from buildings that were provided for them because the people and the services within those buildings were not adequate and sensitive to their needs. I go back to my response to the noble Earl, Lord Russell: we need to look at all the factors that cause children to run away, as well as at the appropriate provision for them when and if that occurs.