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There has been close co-operation in this Parliament between the Conservatives and the Government on dealing with paedophiles. The Government had the good sense to set up a small taskforce—in fact, the Minister and I should be at a meeting at this very time, but we cannot attend because of the importance of this debate. The taskforce has introduced many organisations, police representatives and some MPs who are particularly interested in the subject to each other. They have broken down the issues and split into groups to work on them. The taskforce could easily include people trafficking, as it is closely related. The Minister might like to think about that.

My particular interest in this debate is on the side of children. There is growing evidence that paedophiles may be using trafficking as an opportunity. Children are smuggled into this country for sex—very little children, in many cases. Some paedophiles are looking for children who are still in nappies. It is extremely easy to smuggle them through immigration as children, nephews and so on. They are brought in for domestic slavery, for benefit fraud, for Muti ritual killing and for adoption. But are we sure that it is adoption? Are they being brought in nominally for adoption but actually for other purposes?

I do not often support the Government, but they—or at least the law enforcement agencies in this country—are making some progress. There has been close co-operation, surprising as that might be to some of the speakers in this debate, between the police in this country and police forces in some rather unusual countries. A criminal gang working on adoption in Czechoslovakia were caught by a combined effort of the Metropolitan Police and the Czech Republic police. I hope and expect that that sort of thing will continue.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency has been set up and has a special duty to look into such activities. That is a good move, and the Metropolitan Police, virtually off their own bat, are working closely on Operation Paladin Child at Heathrow. There is much co-operation between Customs, the immigration service and the Metropolitan Police, but they are looking at only one airport, and there are many others.

I have already run through my four minutes. Will the Minister think carefully about more research? I take the points that other hon. Members have made, but we really do not know what we are tackling. The little taskforce that he and I should be working on this afternoon has had vast success. Perhaps its interests could be slightly extended, as its work has already been fragmented into specific topics, and I believe that trafficking is a related issue.

We must move forward. There will be co-operation across the House, and the Minister will find, as his predecessor did, that any legislative changes that have been thought through will go through simply, easily and with careful thought to the benefit of this country.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman has set a fine example to other hon. Members. I call Lorely Burt and say to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is also rising, that as long as his colleague is fairly brief, he will get in as well.

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3.26 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I shall be brief.

I would like to add my commendation to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing this important debate. He spoke specifically about children. The only thing that I have to add is a chilling statistic that I read the other day: each week, approximately 100 unaccompanied children arrive at the immigration centre in Croydon, and 80 of them disappear without trace. The strong belief is that the vast majority are being taken for trafficking. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), I want to talk about the women’s perspective.

There are few issues that are more suited to international co-operation than dealing with human trafficking. As several hon. Members have said, the UK Government have been called on to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which calls for joint, co-operative action on trafficking. It includes the 90-day reflection period that several Members have mentioned. The Government have said that they are reflecting on the matter and have been gathering evidence of best practice in respect of the convention from other EU member states. However, 33 out of 45 Council of Europe member states have already signed the convention, so I would be interested to know from the Minister what further evidence of best practice the Government need before this country signs up as well.

It seems that the main barrier to the Government’s signing of the treaty is the 90-day reflection period. They fear that a mandatory period would, in the words of Baroness Scotland,

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) asked the Prime Minister if he was aware that in Italy, where protection is at least as good as that recommended in the convention, if not better, there is no evidence of a pull factor, that 100 times as many women have been saved as in the UK and that there have been 100 times as many prosecutions. He asked the Prime Minister whether he would

The Prime Minister replied: “I will reflect again.” The Government have now had since May 2005 to reflect, and the Prime Minster has had a further five months since he made that statement, considerably longer than the 90 days proposed in the convention. Does the notion of illegal floodgates opening have any substance? How many people could we actually be talking about?

It is impossible to tell how big the number of trafficked people really is. I was heartened to learn about the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which is a Government co-ordinated policing initiative based in Sheffield and involves 55 police forces from all over the UK. As other hon. Members have mentioned, Operation Pentameter has rescued 84 trafficked women, 12 of whom were between the ages of 14 and 17.

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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the one thing that the Government could do immediately to enhance those efforts would be to set up a national helpline? It would not cost much money, could be properly publicised and would give a point of contact for anyone who has information or who needs help.

Lorely Burt: That is an excellent idea. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that.

I cannot underestimate the importance of giving those poor women a little time to recover so that they can get themselves into a reasonable state to give evidence and to make decisions on their future. A report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, among others, concluded:

In that study on violence and injury during trafficking, 95 per cent. of respondents reported physical or sexual violence, 90 per cent. reported being sexually assaulted, 75 per cent. reported being physically hurt, 36 per cent. reported threats to their family and 77 per cent. reported having no freedom of movement. A report by Amnesty International on its three-year study on trafficked women, “Stolen Smiles”, which was published in 2006, also found that severe health consequences were symptomatic of women who had been trafficked. The report urges specialised health care for the victims of trafficking for a minimum of 90 days after they have been removed from the situation: a “reflection period”. In light of all that, in the name of humanity will the Government conclude their reflection and sign and ratify the European convention?

Dr. Evan Harris rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Will the hon. Gentleman please be brief to let the winding-up speakers have their full time?

3.32 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I should be less than four minutes, Sir Nicholas.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights who carried out the inquiry, I want to thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for the service that he has done the House in introducing the debate. I thank hon. Members for speaking so briefly so that we could all get in, particularly the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) who will have had much more to say because of the excellent report by the Committee that he chaired. I will not repeat any of the points he made, because I agree with them all and with the way in which he put them.

I want to make two points. The first is about the convention. We should sign the convention so that we implement its provisions, as they will mean that victims can be treated better in terms of their human rights. Much more importantly, we need those protections
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because that is how we will find more of the victims. The Government’s approach, which is to say that if we find them we will carry out a case-by-case analysis, does not reassure people with the knowledge that they will get a proper period of reflection and the hope of being well treated in the longer term in this country, such as by being retrained, as they are in Italy where that in part produces tens—if not hundreds—of times more referrals. We are not identifying people here.

If the Government are to stick to their view that there is concern about a pull factor—I am interested to hear the Minister’s view—is there any evidence of such a factor from countries that operate the system? In Italy, we could find none and we asked everyone we met on every occasion.

Finally, I want to say a word about men, and it is about time we did. The demand for prostitution feeds the demand for trafficked women. Hundreds of thousands of men in this country use prostitutes; that is the sad fact. We need more data. The Government talk about doing research, and the sooner we can get hold of some decent figures the better. I do not think that we will ever get rid of prostitution, but we need to ensure that men who use trafficked prostitutes are a source of referrals, as they are in Italy. A helpline such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) is used in Italy and there are significant numbers of referrals from men.

We said in our report that

We were led to that conclusion. Clearly, one can understand that those women are not consenting but I do not think—neither do most of the legal authorities that I have spoken to—that it would be possible to convict for rape on that basis. We should use the ability of those men to provide information to rescue the women and at the same time continue the efforts under Operation Pentameter to educate men who use prostitutes that they should not use those women who have been coerced, because it is equivalent to rape and to multiple rape. It is not merely a crime but a moral outrage. I hope the Government will understand—I know that the Minister feels strongly about the matter—and will consider all the representations that they have heard today.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his co-operation. If the two Opposition spokesmen could allow the Minister 10 minutes to wind up this important debate, the House would be grateful.

3.36 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. Human trafficking is an increasingly troubling and despicable trade and it merits such a substantial discussion.

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Of course, by the nature of the practice we have only estimates to work from but we know that several thousand people in the UK have been trafficked into the country and we have reason to believe that that number is increasing year on year. All hon. Members will be aware that human trafficking is not simply a case of illegal entry into the country. The aim of human trafficking is to exploit its victims, almost always the weakest and most vulnerable, more often than not in modern-day slavery. Hardly a week goes by without media reports about the horrifying ordeals so many women and children—and men—are subjected to as a result of human trafficking, mostly associated with the sex industry.

Before I outline my objections to current policy, I want to say a few words about where I see common ground between the Liberal Democrats and the Government. It would be unfair to say that the Government and law enforcement agencies had been totally inactive. A number of positive steps have been taken to crack down on such awful crimes, but we contend that not enough is yet being done. The establishment of the UK Human Trafficking Centre to join up a number of agencies is a welcome move and it would be useful if the Minister could update us this afternoon on how the system is working in its admittedly relatively early stages.

Improved outreach services for trafficked women are also to be welcomed and it is only fair to acknowledge the emphasis the Government placed on the issue during their presidency of the EU in 2005: I refer to the EU action plan on human trafficking. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on the issue and that is in relation to the European convention against trafficking in human beings.

Only a couple of months ago, our party conference passed a resolution unanimously calling on the Government to ratify the convention and to consider further measures aimed at improving transnational co-operation on this vital issue. Further to that, we are calling on the Government to put as much pressure as possible on new members of the EU and future members to put in place rigorous anti-trafficking policies. In our view, that should be a fundamental issue for any country that wishes to join the EU. Although there have been a number of successful police operations that have liberated dozens of women from sex slavery over the past few years, we urge the Government to encourage more intelligence-led operations against traffickers and those who profit from their vile trade.

Human trafficking, whether for prostitution, child slavery or the purposes of the black economy, is a trade of international proportions. It is estimated to be worth about $7 billion a year. As the standard note on the subject explains, the trade is similar in financial terms to drug trafficking. The problem therefore requires a Europe-wide response, and I believe that the convention offers an excellent way forward. Our view is backed by Amnesty International and UNICEF, which both say that the convention would be a vital tool in the fight against that abhorrent practice.

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Human trafficking is a terrible crime; all too often it takes advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable in society, and it involves victims who have been tricked or violently coerced into leaving their homes. The convention recognises that fact in a way that Government policy does not. It is my view and that of my party that we should protect the rights of those who have been exploited as well as increasing our efforts to bring down the criminal organisations who perpetuate such human misery. It is not good enough for the Government to advocate a lottery for the victims of trafficking when deciding whether someone should benefit from a period of reflection once their status has been discovered. Such consideration should be mandatory.

Although much of the convention involves compassion for the victims, it also offers an effective way to crack the criminal networks that organise human trafficking. If all European Union countries were to be bound by the convention, our intelligence on the gangs that instigate human trafficking would be vastly improved. That would put a major dent in their operations. By working with victims instead of criminalising them, we would have a much greater chance of securing prosecutions.

In addition, I believe that the Government could do more to raise the profile of those crimes, and they should encourage members of the public to report suspected cases of trafficking, along the lines suggested earlier, and of people being used as slaves. It would be reassuring to hear how the Government intend working with employers, trade unions and councils, both to support the victims of trafficking and to monitor employment sectors vulnerable to traffickers.

The Government have dithered and deliberated on the convention for long enough, and members on both sides of the House have pressed them on the issue. I hope that we will receive an assurance this afternoon that the UK will be moving towards ratification; it would send a strong signal to people traffickers that the leadership of the EU is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness.

The Prime Minister said that Britain must use the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery to redouble our efforts against human trafficking. It is a shameful business, and it is a disgrace that Britain has not yet signed up to the European convention. I hope that the Minister will say that we are at last moving towards that vital treaty.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his brevity.

3.42 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) deserves more than the conventional congratulations on securing this debate. He deserves our gratitude for the energy and passion with which he pursues the issue through the all-party group.

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