Rehman Chisti: A staggering 180,000 people go missing each year, and the recovery must help them

25 May

Rehman Chishti MP is the Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham and Chair of the APPG on Missing Children and Adults, as well as a former Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee (2017-2019).

As we look to build back better following Covid-19, our focus must shift and widen to cover issues that have until now not been properly addressed.

Before the pandemic, a staggering 180,000 people went missing from their families and friends every year – many of them repeatedly.

With the pandemic increasing the number of people dealing with issues around mental health, facing serious financial challenges, or suffering from domestic abuse, the scale of the issue is likely to increase still further in the coming months and years.

I was personally absolutely astounded by this figure when I was preparing to ask the Secretary of State for Health a Question on the Government’s missing people and mental health strategy following the case of one of my constituents going missing in August 2020.

The national definition of a missing person is “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or risk of harm to themselves or another”. As the Chair of the APPG on Missing People I welcomed the Government’s announcements in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward measures on mental health, the commitment to ensure children have the best possible start in life, and the promise to do more to address sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls.

However, I believe these measures must only be the first step on the road to a joined-up strategy to tackle the issue of missing people, which affects all 650 constituencies from around the United Kingdom.

Challenge 1: Many people go missing more than once

For too many people, going missing is not a one-time occurrence: the 180,000 people who are reported missing every year actually make up more than 350,000 separate missing incidents. This means that thousands of children and adults are going missing more than once, some many more times.

People going missing repeatedly means that we are not effectively safeguarding them. Going missing is a warning sign that something is wrong in a person’s life. They may be being exploited, escaping harm, experiencing mental health crisis, or facing other significant risks. Some will be seriously harmed while away.

Every time someone goes missing there is an opportunity for intervention. We should be providing help to address underlying issues and opportunities for escalated support when necessary.

Challenge 2: Looked after children are more at risk

One group is at risk of going missing more than almost any other. One in ten children looked after in the care system will go missing, compared to one in 200 generally. In 2019-20 over 12,000 looked after children were reported missing. They are also more likely to go missing repeatedly, on average each child will go missing more than six times.

Evidence suggests that looked after children can be at increased risk of many of the harms known to be linked with going missing.

We must do better for these young people. Providing safe and supportive homes, with appropriate care in place to meet the needs of their individual circumstances. All agencies involved – carers, residential homes, social workers, police officers, schools and many others – should be focussed on building positive relationships and preventing harm.

Challenge 3: Adults with mental health issues are disproportionately likely to go missing

Amongst adults, too, there are certain factors that make it far more likely that someone will go missing: up to 80 per cent of missing adults will be experiencing severe mental health issues when they go missing. Yet the issue is often overlooked in national and local policies and action plans regarding mental health.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having a further severe negative impact on the nation’s mental health, with increased isolation and decreased access to support, this is likely to become a still more urgent problem in the coming months and years.

Challenge 4: Missing children are at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation

Children going missing can be a serious warning sign that they are being groomed, or exploited, including by criminal groups. With thousands of children across the UK being victimised in this way, this is a problem that needs to be recognised and faced urgently.

We now know that a shocking number of children are being exploited criminally by criminal groups to deliver drugs across the country in ‘County Lines’. With many children less visible to services dedicated to identifying and helping them during the Covid-19 pandemic, these problems have not diminished.

Instead, exploitation has often only temporarily shifted from travel (county lines) to taking place locally or over the internet.

Challenge 5: Long-term missing people

The last challenge comes from perhaps the most heart-rending fact of all: not all missing people come back. The data shows that over 5,000 people are currently considered to be ‘long-term missing’ in the UK, meaning they have been missing for over a year. Over 5,000 families are left in limbo, waiting to hear what may have happened to their missing loved one.

This is an unimaginable situation that no one would wish to be left in. Every missing episode should be a priority for all of us, from day one and for as long as it takes until they are found.

What can be done to tackle these challenges? There are three distinct opportunities for change that the Government, I believe, should look into at the earliest possible opportunity.

Recommendation 1: New Missing Children and Adults Strategy

First and foremost, what is needed is an overarching plan across Government, spanning across departments, to address the issue of missing children and adults.

The reasons why people go missing are complex, the harm that they may experience while away is varied and the support that people will need is unique to their individual circumstances. Missing people truly is an intersecting issue and requires a multi-agency response.

There are excellent examples of multi-agency working across the country, but the Government must take a strong national lead. In 2011 the Home Office published the ‘Missing Children and Adults Strategy’. Ten years later this needs to be reviewed, updated and strengthened with Cross-Government commitments to prioritising the response to missing within all the relevant agencies.

Recommendation 2: Out of area placements/care review

The second issue that must be looked at is children’s care, particularly with regards to out of area placements. With the Independent Review on Children’s Social Care having just been launched, we must not let this opportunity pass to seriously address the issue of provision and sufficiency of placements where children need them, as well as to review how decisions are made about children being placed out of area.

With 12,000 looked after children currently going missing every year, tackling this issue would go a long way towards reducing the number of children going missing and all the harm that follows from that.

Recommendation 3: The issue of missing people being built into mental health priorities

The renewed focus on mental health announced in the Queen’s Speech is very welcome, especially as I have previously strongly campaigned on this issue, including by introducing two private members’ bills to Parliament in the past. I believe that this focus must include detailed consideration of the issue of missing people.

Currently there is almost no guidance or legislation that outlines the support that should be in place for people who go missing in mental health crisis, or for those who go missing directly from mental health care settings.

By building consideration of missing people into mental health policies and practice we would be supporting early intervention in cases where going missing is an early sign of worsening mental health; right through to preventing deaths, amongst those missing people who have gone missing with the intention of taking their own life.

The issue of children and adults going missing deeply affects hundreds of thousands of people a year, across every constituency, every local authority, every city and town in the country: it devastates families, confounds communities, and causes serious harm to those who go missing themselves. The Government must do everything it can to stem this tragic phenomenon.

Rehman Chisti: Levelling up isn’t just about geography. It must be focused on education, skills and opportunity for all.

30 Apr

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street promising to “level up across Britain”. In short, his mission was to boost economic performance across the UK, with a particular focus on “left behind” areas, often outside of London and the South East.

As an MP in the South East, it is often assumed that I represent an affluent area that requires no extra help from government. However, this simply isn’t the case. Medway, the unitary authority for my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham, is in the top 22 per cent of the most deprived areas for education in England and in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas with regards to crime.

Within Gillingham and Rainham itself there are stark differences. In Rainham Central, 6.1 per cent of children were recorded as living in poverty in 2018-19. Just a couple of miles away in Gillingham North, this figure is 39.3 per cent.

If the Government truly wants to level up the entire United Kingdom, it must not just focus on the areas traditionally seen as “left behind”. Good quality education for all must be the core component of our levelling up agenda, within an aspirational Conservative approach.

The phrase levelling up means different things to different people. To me, it represents opportunity. I came to this country at the age of six without being able to speak a word of English. I attended a failing secondary high school and a grammar school, and as I came from a modest background, I had to balance my A-Level studies with a part-time job, like many students do across the country.

I was the first in my family to go to university, where I read Law and subsequently qualified as a barrister at age 24, prior to being elected as a Conservative MP at 31.

In our great country, you should be able to be whatever you want through hard work, perseverance, and determination. We in politics must ensure the UK is a land of opportunity for all, where children have access to the finest possible education and can have the best opportunities in life.

As a product of grammar schools, I know the transformational impact these can have on students. From the age of 16 to 18, I attended Rainham Mark Grammar School and the Chatham Grammar School for Girls mixed sixth form. To those from modest backgrounds, a grammar school offers another opportunity to realise their full academic potential. This is true for children who already have good grades, but also for those who have not distinguished themselves academically.

In fact, Department for Education data shows that grammar schools improve educational results among all pupils, especially those who previously struggled and had low attainment. An astounding 93 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieve a good “pass” in English and Maths at GCSE, more than double the average for state secondaries.

Not surprisingly, grammar schools are extremely popular, with two-thirds of schools at or over capacity as of 2019 – more than four times the average of state funded secondaries.

Levelling up starts with education, and I believe that a key part of this agenda must be to allow the creation of new grammar schools and expansion of existing ones across the country.

Making university accessible and fair for everyone will also play a vital role in levelling up the country. As the first in my family to go to university, I know just how important it is that everyone has the opportunity to do so. The previous Labour government’s target of 50 per cent of the population to go to university was misguided.

However, we must ensure that everyone who wants to go to university is able to do so regardless of financial means. At the same time, the abilities of all young people must be realised, whether that’s through university, or vocational qualifications and high-level apprenticeships in fields like hydrogen energy, as offered in my constituency. The increase in tuition fees last decade has not deterred people from applying to university. However, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds.

While the average debt of those who graduated in 2019 was £40,000, most students are not expected to pay back their full student loan. Therefore, any reforms to higher education funding must be targeted and help those most in need. Simply lowering tuition fees or reducing interest rates across the board would in fact help the highest earning graduates the most.

Instead, the Government should look to reintroduce maintenance grants of up to £5,000 per year for those from low income backgrounds, with the amount awarded based on the family income of the student, so the lower the family income of the student, the more they would receive.

Having spoken with local university leaders, including Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich (which has a campus in Medway), the reintroduction of maintenance grants would provide vital financial security to low income students. It would allow them to focus further on their studies, rather than the part-time jobs that they currently must take to support themselves financially. This is especially important now considering the disruption to their learning that students have faced during Covid-19.

If we look at the Turing Scheme, for example, disadvantaged students can receive up to £490 per month in grants to support their costs when they study abroad. Over twelve months, this would amount to £5,880 in grants. If disadvantaged students can receive grants to help with costs studying abroad, it is only right that they are able to receive them when they study here in the UK.

If we use £5,000 as an average figure of the grant, this reform would reduce debt on those students after a three-year degree by around £15,000. Rewarding hard work is exactly what we as Conservatives should stand for.

Improving and widening access to foreign languages will help the UK level up, while at the same time promoting the Global Britain agenda. I believe that everyone in this country should learn at least one foreign language as a child. This principle was recognised by the Government in 2011 with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a mandatory component of which is a foreign language.

At the moment, we are unfortunately still far from reaching that ambition: only 32 per cent of young people in the UK say they can read and write in more than one language, compared with 91 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent across the EU.

And, the situation is not improving; the number of pupils taking a language diminishes year-on-year. As a 2015 report from Cambridge University makes clear, this is no small issue: a lack of language skills not only threatens UK companies’ competitiveness abroad, but limits the UK’s soft power on the international stage.

With the introduction of T-Levels, now would be a brilliant time to integrate language learning into vocational and technical qualifications, ensuring more of our young people, regardless of their academic pathway and achievement, learn at least one other language.

In an increasingly digital economy, levelling up education also means giving all our young people technical skills that will allow them to participate and thrive in a digital world. Over the last year, we saw just how reliant we are on technology, which enabled many people to work from home during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is critical that students are equipped with appropriate IT and coding skills, with a focus on new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The Government has already taken major steps towards this, with the introduction of computing as a subject at all levels of schooling up to Key Stage 3, teaching children essential skills in computer science and coding.

However, much remains to be done as the number of pupils taking computing or ICT at GCSE level has been declining over the past five years, while a worrying gender gap has opened up, with only 21.4 per cent of GCSE computing entries are from women and girls. The problem is an urgent one: research by McKinsey & Company shows that by 2030, two thirds of the UK workforce (21 million people) could be lacking in basic digital skills, severely damaging UK business competitiveness.

We must look to expand the number of pupils that learn essential IT skills and coding, taking inspiration from successful international examples, from Estonia to Arkansas. As Asa Hutchinson, the Governor of Arkansas, put it: “Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers… If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”

Alongside improving IT skills, equipping students with stronger critical thinking skills is key to allowing them to adapt to the challenging world we live in. Having seen the dangers that disinformation and misinformation can pose when intentionally spread by individuals, organisations or hostile states, as happened with the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 or with misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccination, it is vital that young people are equipped to spot false information online.

Finland, for example, has integrated information literacy and critical thinking across its national curriculum. The result has been that Finland is ranked first out of 35 European countries in its ability to resist fake news (the UK is currently ranked 10th).

At the moment, our schools already teach British values to help prevent radicalisation and extremism. However, countering the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation is one of the next big challenges that we as a country face to protect against social disorder which could also undermine our democratic institutions. It is vital that we teach these skills early in schools so that young people can help stop the spread of false information.

If we are to truly level up across the country, education must be at the centre of the Government’s strategy and areas like the South East and Medway must be taken into account. Prior to 2010, all three Medway constituencies were represented by Labour MPs. Since then, we have secured sizeable majorities. If the Conservatives are to continue representing areas such as this, the Government cannot forget them. We must not level down the South East in pursuit of levelling up other areas of the country.

With the Queen’s Speech next month and as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, now is the time for a bold agenda from Government which levels up the entire country and equips young people with the necessary tools to face the modern challenges in the world. Improving education is a vital part of this, whether through reforming student finance, expanding grammar schools, improving foreign language teaching, or a greater emphasis on critical thinking and IT skills in schools to help counter disinformation and misinformation.