More than 300,000 people are reported as missing from home (MFH) each year in the UK.
Many of these people return home safely, of their own volition and after only a short period of time. Nevertheless the amount of police work that goes into reporting these cases and in making the most basic of enquiries is immense.
Greater Manchester Police have recently been highlighting that they spend in the region of £30m year on MFH inquiries. Much of this cost is spent on tracing children who are repeatedly running away from their care home. As the government applies more pressure on the police to ensure that they focus on crime issues, it is unsurprising that forces are looking to see if other agencies can deal with this type of work.
This is not a new problem nor is it the first time that the police have tried to persuade social services to deal more effectively with the issue.
However, the reality of the situation is that MFHs in many cases are both a police and a social services problem; they always have been and always will be. The bottom line is that when kids go missing, someone needs to try and find them, establish what they have been doing and attempt to keep them safe; often from themselves.
Children in care who regularly go missing from home are especially vulnerable and indeed any MFH inquiry has the potential to develop quickly into a major investigation.
There is an important role for social services in many MFH inquiries, but it would be far more effective for them to work in partnership with the police as part of flexible dedicated teams, rather than in separation.
The regular assertion of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, that policing is only about dealing with crime, is entirely wrong.
MFH inquiries are a good example of important and extensive police work that rarely results in a crime report or any prosecution in the majority of cases.
The police service should be funded appropriately, as should social services, to ensure that they have the capability to jointly address the operational issues caused by MFHs, as one of their primary demands.
The current drive by the police to direct more of their workload towards social services, mental health and other publicly funded services is necessary but they need to be careful that vulnerable children are not placed at greater risk.