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13 Dec 2006 : Column 314WH—continued

Trafficking is partly about the sex trade but not wholly. It is also about providing cheap labour for unscrupulous employers in other fields. That is one reason why Opposition Members believe that control of our borders is vital. Steps to restore confidence in our immigration system and our borders would,
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among other benefits, discourage that evil trade, which as Members on both sides have said has attracted some of the most unpleasant criminal gangs in the world. At its worst, the trade is literally murderous. The cockle pickers at Morecambe bay and the Chinese people who died in the lorry at Folkestone were two tragedies that remind us of the real cost of the trade even without the horrors of the sex trade or of the paedophile trade mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).

Clearly, however, the sex trade is a big focus. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is right: the trade is not restricted to our big cities. He knows of examples of it happening in Northamptonshire, and I have heard of it happening in prosperous towns in Kent.

The facts are difficult to gain, but the estimates are staggering. It is thought that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked around the world every year. Closer to home, one newspaper has estimated that Britain has 4,000 massage parlours raking in something like £770 million a year. To answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) about how many people are involved, the best guess seems to be that more than 250,000 men are spending at least £6.6 million a year on saunas and other sex-related commercial activities. What strikes me, as it has Members on both sides of the chamber, is how difficult it is to get hold of the facts. That was illustrated most starkly by a Home Office report of a few years ago that included the findings of a report by the university of London, which estimated that in 1998 between 142 and 1,420 women may have been trafficked into the UK. With an uncertainty factor of 10, it is clearly difficult to know the full scale of the problem. However, as others have said, we know that it is modern-day slavery.

We also know that after the drugs trade, it is the second biggest criminal industry in the world, with about the same value as arms dealing. However, it is also the fastest growing. It is closely connected with other illegal activities, and the FBI estimates that it generates about $9.5 billion a year. It is a huge and fast-growing business.

The Government have taken steps to try to combat the industry, and the small initiatives that they have taken are clearly to be welcomed. However, the Minister will be aware that, if anything, the problem in the UK is worsening. Under the Government’s initiatives, some women have been rescued. It was found that they had come from every corner of the world. We have seen girls as young as 15 coming here from other parts of Europe, some of them from countries that are now members of the EU, and being forced into prostitution. The problem needs more attention.

The Minister will have heard a wide range of suggestions this afternoon. I particularly endorse that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing); a helpline would be a relatively easy and extremely effective innovation in the fight against that evil trade. However, more still needs to be done. The greater distribution of information and better education are needed, using specific profiling in order to target those most at risk. Schemes could identify the specific ages and home locations, and the
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industries, the work forces and the social backgrounds of the most vulnerable women.

We have seen, in other parts of the world, that such programmes can make a difference. In the longer term, it is important for our international aid and development efforts to encourage academic and economic opportunities in developing countries where human trafficking is an endemic problem. There was a particularly successful programme in Nepal, from where the trafficking of girls to India for prostitution is prevalent; the programme had a measurable effect.

We also need to change policing priorities in the UK. The Minister will know that the Opposition have been calling for some time for a specific border control force that combines the powers of immigration officers, customs officers and police officers. We believe that we would gain from enhancing police expertise in that way. We also need greater co-operation between the Government and overseas police forces. It is an international effort and it needs international solutions.

The Minister will have heard much about the Council of Europe’s convention, and he will have heard the many views that have been expressed about it. I would be particularly interested to hear the Government’s reasons for deciding that it is impossible to sign the convention. It will be no surprise to the Minister that Members on both sides of the House are considering the convention closely.

Finally, I ask the Minister to address the issues raised by several of my hon. Friends. It is not only the convention that is important; even if we signed it, it would not provide the whole solution. A wide range of activities, some of which we can and should be taking now, would mitigate the effects of human trafficking. It is a horrible trade and it needs to be fought as effectively as possible. If the Government take steps to do so, they will have the support of everyone from across the House.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I thank all hon. Members for their contribution to the debate. They have raised their points in a constructive if challenging way that will help us to take this issue forward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his contribution and on securing the debate, which is important in deciding how to make progress. I am also pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and other members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights are here.

It is important that we start by accepting that everybody in this room and every single Member of Parliament wants an end to this trade. There is no division, conflict or controversy between anyone about the fact that every single one of us does not want to see a single child, woman or man brought into this country for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation. We need to start from that point of being united in a common goal.

We need to try and find a way forward and I will outline some of the steps that the Government have taken in working with Members of Parliament, the voluntary sector, non-governmental organisations and
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others. I have a big list of answers to a whole range of questions and, because of the limited time available, it would be helpful for me to write with answers to the various questions of all hon. Members, and, indeed, to others who have not had the opportunity to contribute. I will simply not be able to go through all the points in any meaningful or sensible way that would do justice to the issues that people have raised. If hon. Members are happy with that I will undertake to write to them.

We have had a number of suggestions: a telephone helpline, the need for stricter border controls, raising the profile of the issue, action in source countries, cross-government working, a victim-centred approach, research, and training. All of those points are important in the work we are doing and I will talk about that in a moment. All the suggestions made by hon. Members and my hon. Friends are important and the Government are looking at them to see what sort of help and contribution they can make to tackling the trade at source and when people arrive in this country.

Where are we now? Well, the UK is determined to tackle this terrible crime and in doing so we have been mindful of the needs of victims, but also of the need to have an effective law enforcement strategy to bring the perpetrators of this awful crime to justice. As some hon. Members have mentioned, we have introduced significant and specific legislation dealing with the offence of trafficking. Initial legislation came under section 145 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. That was then replaced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. On 1 May, offences came into force to provide a specific law to deal with trafficking. Those dedicated trafficking offences carry a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment, which is an important contribution to the law enforcement effort. The legislation deals with trafficking into the UK, within the UK and out of the UK.

Alongside that, having outlined the main offence we have introduced for sexual exploitation, we have introduced Acts to deal with non-sexual exploitation. On 1 December 2004 the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Act 2004 came into force and section 4 of that Act introduced a new offence of trafficking people for exploitation. That was the first time that trafficking for non-sexual forms of exploitation, including forced labour and debt bondage, have been made the subject of specific criminal offences. Those offences carry a maximum sentence available to the courts of 14 years imprisonment. The combination of that offence and the offences of trafficking for sexual exploitation means that any trafficking is now a very serious offence and rightly carries serious penalties.

Hon. Members have referred to the success of Operation Pentameter and we wanted to build on that work. Therefore, we decided to establish a UK action plan because we knew that following Pentameter, there was still an awful lot to do. As a result of consultation, the Government are in the process of developing a UK action plan. For the benefit of hon. Members, I will outline the key areas that it will address: first, prevention; secondly, law enforcement and prosecution; thirdly, protection and assistance to adult victims;
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fourthly, protection and assistance to child victims; and fifthly, labour exploitation. We are trying to deal with all of the various issues that hon. Members have raised through the action plan.

We will carefully consider how activity in support of the plan will be delivered through the inter-ministerial group on human trafficking, and some of my hon. Friends from the Department for Education and Skills are involved with that—although not specifically the Minister for Children. We hope to deal with many of the issues raised in this debate through the action plan and believe that it will be introduced early in the new year around February or March.

Mr. Steen: What about tackling immigration at the ports of entry? Something could be done on that immediately.

Mr. Coaker: We have tightened up the visa regulations in respect of children and they are now required to have a passport on their visa. There also has to be an identified adult travelling with them and training is given to immigration officials on that. So we have tried to do an awful lot in respect of children coming into the country. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point about children being interviewed separately, if the child is in distress, immigration officers will interview that child separately from an adult to try and determine whether there is a particular problem.

We have also established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which I was delighted to formally open in October. The centre will support the overarching aim of moving the UK to a leading position in relation to the prevention and investigation of trafficking. As we know, child trafficking is a particular issue and the Government, as hon. Members will be aware, are researching the scale and scope of the problem.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) mentioned the international front and we have done a lot internationally through the establishment of the EU action plan. The Home Secretary spoke recently at the G6 and there was an expert seminar to try and replicate Operation Pentameter across Europe. The UN will be holding a special conference on the issue of trafficking some time in the new year.

On the Council of Europe, the Government are still considering their position. Regarding the point that some hon. Members made, irrespective of our decision whether or not we sign the convention, we believe we have made good progress both on law enforcement and victim support. We know that there is a lot more to do in both those areas and we will continue to work with our partners to make progress on those issues. Law enforcement will be spearheaded by the UK Human Trafficking Centre, by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and by the local police who will do everything they possibly can to bring the perpetrators of this vile trade to justice. I applaud the effort they have made.

However, we also want to carry on working alongside local authorities, voluntary organisations and non-governmental organisations in continuing to extend and develop the support that we give to victims of this vile trade. Together, we will be able to improve what we do, support victims and bring those who perpetrate the trade to justice.

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Sport and Leisure (North Wiltshire)

4 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I feel no awkwardness at all in moving from a matter of great and grave national and international concern—the trafficking of human beings—to a matter that is of great and grave concern to my constituents. People might think, at a glance, that North Wiltshire has sport and leisure coming out of its ears and that we have no worries in that respect, but I want to take the opportunity to raise with the Minister and the wider public a matter that is of grave concern locally.

We have six leisure centres in North Wiltshire, in Chippenham, Corsham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett, Calne and Cricklade, but it was announced last week that three of them—those in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—are to close. In my 10 years as a Member of Parliament, I have had experience of a number of issues that have caused huge public outrage and concern. One thinks of the proposed closure of RAF Lyneham, with the loss of up to 10,000 jobs, the proposed closure of up to seven of the community hospitals in our area, the challenge faced by the Post Office at the moment, and a variety of other issues, but in my 10 years as an MP none has come close to causing the outrage that I have experienced in the last couple of weeks in response to the proposed closure of the leisure centres.

Before I talk about the leisure centres in detail, I should say that of course the Government have no direct responsibility for such matters, but I thought that it might be useful as background to touch on some of the things—very helpful things, they are—that the Government have said in recent years about the importance of sport and leisure in our society today.

First and most obvious is the Government’s response to the problem of obesity, particularly among the young. The appalling figures are that 69 per cent. of men and 59 per cent. of women today in Great Britain are overweight or obese and that 28 per cent. of children aged between two and 10 are overweight or obese. Do we know why? The reasons are fast food, TV and computer games, and sitting at home rather than getting out and about and playing sport. It was particularly worrying to see a report this morning that the national health service is considering stapling children’s stomachs in the hope that they will manage to combat obesity. I was glad to see in the media coverage of the issue that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said that the stomach stapling procedure would be used only in the most extreme cases in which children could not otherwise be persuaded to get their weight down, but NICE also said that obesity in this country is now more damaging to health than smoking, heavy drinking or poverty. That is amazing.

NICE goes on to say that city planners, employers and schools must take steps to help people to exercise regularly. That would include measures such as creating more bike paths, pedestrianised areas, subsidising gym memberships and offering healthier food choices. NICE goes out of its way to reiterate what the Government have said on a number of occasions, most notably in the 2004 health White Paper, which is that exercise of one sort or another is one of the most
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essential prerequisites of a healthy modern society. In the White Paper fetchingly called “Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier”, one key theme was

in relation to sport and achieving

The Home Secretary, who was at that time for a relatively brief period, I seem to remember, Secretary of State for Health, said in the preface to the White Paper:

Well, where could that be more true than in North Wiltshire? One half of my constituency now has three functioning leisure centres, although in a television interview that I did on Sunday with a Liberal Democrat spokesman from the council, it appeared that she was undermining even those three and opened up the possibility that they, too, might be closed. In one half of my constituency, we still have provision of leisure centres, but in the other half, the eastern half towards the town of Swindon—I am pleased to see the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) here this afternoon—all three centres are being closed down. How could there be less equality than that?

The second reason to provide leisure centres and sport is—again, the Government set it out in the White Paper—to increase the choice and availability of opportunities for young people to engage in positive activities in their spare time. If we want to get children off the streets and doing useful things, for heaven’s sake let us get them into sport centres, rather than giving out antisocial behaviour orders.

The White Paper goes on to say that leisure centres are a central part of sustainable communities. We are seeing that throughout the nation at the moment, particularly in rural areas. With the reduction in post offices, village schools and pubs and all the rest of it, we are seeing the reduction overall of communities. The health centres and the leisure centres that we have in North Wiltshire will be some of the last things to go.

I think that everyone present in the Chamber this afternoon and, indeed, everyone throughout the House would broadly agree that sport for youngsters is a vital social good and something that we as a nation, as a society, ought to be ready to provide.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I can confirm his impression of the outrage that has been caused among my constituents in Cricklade, a lovely market town that the hon. Gentleman will inherit as part of his constituency should he be re-elected at the next election. May I say how much I sympathise with the concerns that he is expressing? Does he agree that there are two particular obligations on a local authority in such circumstances? First, it should consult its constituents properly and adequately, which has not happened in this case. Secondly, if a local authority is going to damage the prospects for the physical well-being of people in area and take away opportunities for young people to have something to do and somewhere to go, it should at least produce concrete proposals for alternatives.

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Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Incidentally, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is responsible for Calne, the third centre to be closing, very much regrets that he cannot be at the debate today. He supports both what I have said and what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the worst things about the closures is that there was no consultation of any kind whatever. These events came as an absolute bolt out of the blue to the people of Wootton Bassett and Cricklade—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for looking after Cricklade for me in the meantime. The people of the three towns were outraged by the speed of the decision and the fact that there was no consultation and no alternative plan in place. There was no public relations spin. At one stage, we thought that the centres were going to close by Christmas—we were simply told, “That’s it. Closed by Christmas.” I am glad to say that we have now extended the life of the centres through to 31 March. That three-month extension gives us time to put in place plans for replacements, but the speed of the decision about the closures was unacceptable and, I think, to a degree incompetent.

In that context, I want to declare a slight interest, namely that the people of Wootton Bassett have asked me to chair the pressure group seeking to save the leisure centre. I am pleased to do that, and it was my reason for calling for the debate this afternoon. I warned the Minister’s office in advance that that was the case, so I hope that I have not caught him entirely off-guard. A very powerful campaign is being fought locally to try to save the centres. Before I talk about how we can do that, perhaps I may touch briefly on some of the history.

In its 2006 report on North Wiltshire district council, the National Audit Office stated that

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