Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Dec 2006 : Column 302WH—continued

3.2 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate and on enabling us to have a wide-ranging discussion about a problem that should be recognised as shameful for both the world and the United Kingdom, particularly in this century. We will soon commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of slave trading in the UK, although slavery has not, of course, disappeared. I shall concentrate on one appalling aspect of present-day slavery: the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. I shall look particularly at what is happening in the UK and discuss what we might do about it.

We should be in no doubt that we are talking about an international trade and business, whose value is estimated to be $7 billion per annum. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not know for certain what the numbers are, but it is estimated that in any one year there are about 4,000 trafficked women here in the UK. Operation Pentameter has referred to a 14-year-old Lithuanian girl being sold for £8,000 because she was a virgin, while the Crown Prosecution Service has commented on the outrageous fact that slave auctions take place in the lounges of our airports. The trade in
13 Dec 2006 : Column 303WH
trafficked women and children is taking place before our eyes in such places, and it is beyond comprehension that no action is taken against it.

I was both pleased and disturbed to meet the group of young women who had been trafficked, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. They were brought together through a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children programme, which was organised by ECPAT. All those young African women had been trafficked, and I was struck not only by their numbers, but by the way in which, almost without emotion, they recounted the dreadful stories of what had happened to them. It was as if they somehow no longer had the capacity to feel anything about what had happened to them and about how their lives had been destroyed, although the NSPCC was trying to help them rebuild their lives through its programme. I was particularly concerned to hear that one of the girls had been taken to a flat in Liverpool.

Many countries are involved in the trade, including countries in Africa, the far east and, increasingly, eastern Europe. In some circumstances, force is used; in others, deception, with women and children believing that they are coming to a better life. At a Pentameter meeting in the House, I heard what typically happens. Young women and children in other countries are sold—sometimes without their knowledge—by impoverished and ignorant families. They believe that they are going to a better life and a better job. They then travel, sometimes passing through several countries, not knowing which country they will arrive in. Their passports are taken from them, and they are taken to unknown premises where they are raped repeatedly. They are then told that they must repay their debts and are forced into prostitution. That takes place in several different places, such as explicit brothels or massage parlours, but also in suburban flats and anonymous houses.

What should be done? We need a combination of actions, as suggested in the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We should step up anti-poverty measures in countries of origin, because much of the trade is encouraged by poverty and by people’s desperate circumstances. There should also be stronger international action against organised crime and trafficking, and more consistent and comprehensive assistance to victims.

The Government have made some efforts to deal with the issue. New offences have been created to prosecute trafficking, some of which were brought into effect only two years ago. There is also support for victims through the Poppy Project, which has now been expanded. Operation Pentameter, too, has done excellent work. I also welcome the setting up in Sheffield of the UK trafficking centre, which is an inter-agency organisation bringing together the police, the immigration service, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service and others. The centre deals with traffickers and victims, as well as looking at enforcement, intelligence gathering and the care of victims, but such measures need to be comprehensive and nationwide.

I join the calls for the implementation of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. I do not accept that it would be a pull factor for prostitution; instead, I think that it would
13 Dec 2006 : Column 304WH
address the real and cruel situation in which so many young people find themselves.

Recently, on the international day for the abolition of slavery, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated:

and I would add exploitation by criminal gangs to that list. He also observed:

We should all recognise that we now need a new, concerted effort to end a scandal that disgraces both the world and our country.

3.8 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this important debate and on his chairmanship of the all-party group, on which I serve as treasurer. I know that he is determined that we should get things done rather than just talk. I welcome the Minister, who I know is very concerned about the issue. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who set out the problem so clearly. It is amazing that a young woman is probably being sold for between £4,000 and £4,500 at Heathrow today.

We are talking principally about slavery, not prostitution. The fact is that women are held against their will and given no choice but to have sex with men. Such things have happened so many times that people are now beginning to realise that they are happening. If one talks to any hard-nosed police officer, he will say that there are sex slaves in every town in this country.

Let me give hon. Members one example, of a woman whom I will call Sarah. She was one of the young women who came to the House and she was saved by the NSPCC. She was 16, I believe; she was from Africa and she was attractive. She came to this country when she was 14, arriving through immigration with a middle-aged white man, with a passport that was not hers and did not even have a picture of her on it, yet she was allowed into this country. She was locked up in a flat and forced to have sex with men continually. Thankfully, she escaped after a few days, came to London and heard someone speaking the language of her home country; that person took her to the authorities and she was then protected. She was an extremely lucky young lady, but there are thousands of others who are not.

You might say, Sir Nicholas, that the problem is a big city problem, which happens in Liverpool, Manchester or London. But the truth is that it is everywhere. I was at my surgery one day in Northamptonshire and a letter dropped through the letter box. It was an anonymous letter from a local prostitute, who said that she was approaching me not because she was losing trade, but because she wanted to tell me about Albanian gangs in Northampton who were ruthlessly exploiting women whom they had trafficked into this country. I went to see the police, and they told me, “Yes, that is happening, and we have taken action.” They had raided a brothel in Northamptonshire and
13 Dec 2006 : Column 305WH
released several young women whom they suspected had been trafficked. However, none of the women was prepared to say so, because they were so scared about what would happen. They thought that they would be returned home and that their families would be persecuted. Very cleverly, Northamptonshire police prosecuted the Albanians on the basis that they were here illegally, and got rid of them in that way. The point is that the problem affects every part of the country.

It might also be thought that the problem is nothing to do with the House of Commons—that it is nowhere nearby. Well, I walked across the bridge to St. Thomas’s hospital and, unannounced, I went to the sexual health clinic. That little room was packed with young women, virtually all of whom were foreign. None could speak English. There were young, eastern European men there. They might be thought to be loving, kind partners, concerned about the young women’s welfare, but I do not think so, because when one of the young women made a bolt for the door to escape, a man, swearing, chased after her. I have no idea whether the young woman got away. Right on our doorstep there are trafficked women who are being forced to be slaves.

I know that time is limited, so I want to end with some questions to the Minister. I think that a number of things can be done, some very easily. One is publicity. Perhaps every brothel in the country could have a notice telling young women that if they are trafficked they will not be persecuted by the police, that they will be looked after and that there is a telephone number they can call. That is simple and would work. The notice could also be put up in ports and railway stations. Northamptonshire police took the initiative when they discovered the problem. What happens if at 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening a beat bobby comes across a young woman who says, “I’ve been trafficked.”? Until the recent initiative there was no procedure, but now every police officer in Northamptonshire knows what to do, where to take the young woman, and how to treat her. It does not cost any money and is a simple procedure.

We talked briefly about immigration control and I think that that is one of the keys. Again, such a measure would not cost a lot of money. However, the most important thing is to have safe houses across the country where young victims can be looked after for a year or two—because it can take that long for a case to come to court. It is no good looking after them for a couple of months and sending them home, because there will then be no chance of continuing the prosecution. The victims will be got at in their home country. I do not quite understand why we are not signing the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but leaving that aside, let us bring in legislation or regulations to provide safe houses. That would help greatly.

3.14 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow him when we are on the same side of the debate. On this occasion his speech is the longer and mine will be the shorter.

13 Dec 2006 : Column 306WH

As hon. Members will know, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, recently completed a lengthy inquiry and published its report. It is widely accepted that trafficking of human beings is not merely a criminal justice or migration issue, but a significant human rights issue too. There is a positive legal obligation on states to investigate, prosecute and punish traffickers, but in accordance with human rights standards, the effective protection of victims must be the starting point.

The hon. Member for Totnes rightly drew a distinction between trafficking and smuggling. Far too many people confuse the two. The essence of trafficking is that people are coerced, conned or kidnapped, and exploited. Smuggling is a voluntary activity, which is always illegal, and does not involve the exploitation at the end of the process.

The scale of the activity is a big issue. People have spoken about 4,000 women in sex slavery, but those are old numbers from 2003 which I believe to be a significant underestimate. Ten years ago, 85 per cent. of women in brothels were born in the UK, whereas now 85 per cent. are born overseas. We have no idea of the number of children who have been trafficked—not just for sex purposes, but also for labour exploitation. We have no idea, either, of the number coming as adults for labour exploitation. Each of those individuals is a real life story.

It is true that trafficking and exploitation are going on everywhere. Even my local newspaper in Edgware reported under the heading “Sex slave gang jailed” the appalling kidnapping and exploitation of a Lithuanian woman. The focus in the debate and in the country has always been on the sex trade, but I should like to mention one or two other aspects as well. Children may be smuggled for domestic service, often through family and community links. It is often a cultural practice, going back to Africa where the tradition is that people are farmed out to relatives for food and education and to be cared for. They come here and are exploited, often as a result of debt bondage of the family in the source country. We even heard evidence in our Committee of children from Vietnam being brought here to farm cannabis, looking after the plants in the greenhouses.

Domestic workers are also exploited and subjected to violence and abuse. Under the new visa rules, which we want changed, they cannot change their employer, so they are trapped. A third of domestic workers are not allowed out. Some, we heard, sleep in corridors or under the kitchen table. Agriculture is a source of labour exploitation, too. We heard from the TUC of a case in which legal Portuguese workers had to pretend to be illegal Brazilians pretending to be legal Portuguese, so that they would be open to exploitation by the employer. That was bizarre.

Our Committee found that the Government were doing quite well on enforcement, but we were extremely concerned about the lack of a victim-centred approach. We want a rebalancing of the Government’s initiative. There is inconsistency in approaches around the country, primarily because of a lack of training and knowledge. Victims are often seen as criminals themselves or as illegal migrants, rather than as the victims of horrific crime, multiple rape and slavery. They are often taken straight to the removal centre for
13 Dec 2006 : Column 307WH
deportation. The Home Office operates a case-by-case approach, whose discretionary basis gives no guarantee against arbitrary removal. People can often be removed even while they are deciding whether they want to support a prosecution. The fear and trauma that those women have experienced is often underestimated by the authorities. The Poppy Project gave us a very good example, when we went to see it. Not one of its clients had been given asylum on the first decision, although many succeeded on appeal.

Mr. Steen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore: No, I have limited time. The trafficker of the Ukrainian woman we met had been convicted, had served a lengthy prison sentence and been discharged from prison, yet she was still waiting for a decision on her asylum case. That cannot be right.

We identified very poor levels of support for children, which is inevitably organised through local authorities, which do not have the resources, training or knowledge to recognise victims of that serious crime and treat them any differently from other looked-after children.

We need a victim-centred approach. We must research the scale of the problem across the board, and publish the research and the material that gives rise to it. We must have much better training in the identification of victims and potential victims by the police, immigration and local authorities. The point has been well made about warnings at airports, and in particular an eye should be kept out for unaccompanied minors, who are often unaware that they are victims of trafficking.

Mr. Steen: On that point, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Poppy Project refuses to take under-18s?

Mr. Dismore: I am aware of that. It is not allowed to take them because they are minors and must go to the care of local authorities. That is the problem: the law does not allow it to take them.

We must stop treating the victims as criminals, and we must end the risk of arbitrary removal. We must provide the basic support through NGOs such as the Poppy Project, which estimates that we need double the number of beds that it has. More important is security of funding, instead of the year-on-year funding that leaves organisations unsure of their future position. We need better support and advice for victims—especially legal advice, to help them to prosecute effective applications for residency. We would also like cultural mediators with the experience, language and knowledge of the country of origin to help to bridge the gap between the victim and the authorities. We need to help to reintegrate victims back in the source countries, if that is where they want to go, but then we have to deal with the risk of re-trafficking. Twenty per cent. of Poppy Project clients were re-trafficked, and one had been resold by her family within three days of being returned to the source country.

There is great vulnerability in the countries of origin, and we need much better education of potential victims. We heard of Italy’s good practice in that respect. We must put the victim at the centre of the process, and care of them must be a much higher
13 Dec 2006 : Column 308WH
priority than enforcement. The key to that is the reflection period recommended by the Council of Europe convention. The Joint Committee wanted to go further and recommended a three-month reflection period and residency permission, rather than the number of weeks stated in the convention.

I know that time is limited, and I had planned to say more about the convention. Rather than go through the details, I will simply say this: the Government’s argument is the pull factor. They say that if we treat victims humanely, they will be encouraged to come to this country and make fraudulent claims. I believe that the Minister was embarrassed by the brief that he had been given when he advanced that argument in oral evidence to the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee’s report states:

It simply makes no sense whatever for a woman to go through that horrible, traumatic experience to make a fraudulent claim.

I ask the Minister to respond to the Joint Committee’s conclusions that the Government should sign and ratify the convention. Signing is not enough. The UK is one of only a handful of countries that have not signed, but another seven countries are needed to ratify the convention. I would also ask him to respond positively to our recommendations for the better care of victims.

I know that many Members want to speak. I hope that when we have the Government’s response we can, through the good offices of the Liaison Committee, secure a three-hour debate on the issue, as there is much more to be said about it. The Government need to get a grip on looking after victims much more effectively than they have so far.

3.22 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I am absolutely amazed that I agree exactly with the last point that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate on a very important subject. It is related to a problem that I have been working on for some considerable time, as the Minister knows to his cost—he has experienced some ear-bashing. The issue of paedophiles is related, although we have not touched on it.

I am astonished by my hon. Friend’s timing. There was a report in The Times today about a lonely little funeral on 5 December at a London cemetery. It was for a little boy called Adam who was four, or perhaps five or six—we do not really know. He was called Adam, but nobody knows what his real name was. He was found some five years ago—or at least bits of him were—floating in the Thames. The police think that he had been smuggled here from Nigeria for a Muti ritual murder. He was smuggled in for, in effect, dissection—possibly while alive—and murdered. We do not know how much of that is going on.

Next Section Index Home Page