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5.59 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): This debate pays tribute to a remarkable man. William Wilberforce’s achievements were immense and have been recognised all over the country. However, they are overshadowed by what Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, describes as the new form of slavery: human trafficking. I knew little about trafficking a year ago—I thought that it was something to do with Parliament square and the one-way system. I did not know anything about it until I read two sensational articles that appeared in The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, which brought to light the sex trade in Britain. The media have done an important job in exposing the problem. Now we need to focus less on sensationalism and more on what the issue is all about, how it works and how we can do something about it.

The new forms of slavery are different from the forms that were prevalent in the world 250 years ago.
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They could involve trafficking for sexual purposes, domestic servitude, forced labour or forced marriage, or, as has more recently been discovered, the use of Vietnamese boys in the suburbs—not the inner-city areas—to look after cannabis farms and to water plants. There is confusion about what is trafficking and what is smuggling. Trafficking is about being duped or deceived. Often victims of trafficking are offered what seems to be an appealing opportunity to go abroad. Thousands of girls and boys are driven away by violence, rape and murder in Africa.

I came back from Romania this morning, where I went underground to look at this whole subject and to see what drives women in some of the poorest areas in Romania away from those places. They live in the most squalid, appalling conditions—worse than I ever saw when I was a community worker in east London 40 years ago. I am talking about the kind of squalor that people in this country would not leave their animals in. There are mud floors, concrete walls that have split, rat-infested rooms, no electric lights, no fridges, no water and a lot of drink and drunkenness, which is driving young girls out of their homes into the arms of their lover boys, as they are called. They are then brought to Spain, Italy and the UK. It is an appalling picture. One of our EU countries—I have a lot of affection for Romania and Bulgaria—is a centre for such girls, who see no way out of their lives other than to be trafficked and to come to this country to be used for sex.

Those involved in trafficking are essentially business men, aiming to make profits by offering a product for sale where there is demand for it. People trafficking has grown and the demand is still growing. There seems to be an endless supply. As long as there is poverty and appalling abuse at the other end, girls and boys—Members should not think that it is just girls; it is boys too—will be trafficked through to the western areas.

To deal with this new scourge, a huge range of advisers, consultants, officials, fledgling international organisations and non-governmental organisations have grown up. I went to Vienna last year to a conference. I was the only MP there. There were 450 officials, and I do not think that any of them had ever actually seen a victim. They were most concerned with getting money for research. They were concerned about the legal aspects of whether countries could prosecute, and they loved attending conventions. It was like there was a huge circus-load of people who apparently went round the world attending conventions and making comments. There were always papers being given. Trafficking seems to have produced an awful lot of experts and, although some of them do a lot of good work, few of them are victim-oriented. They are just involved in the organisation and conventions.

The best way to halt the vile trade in people is to make life nasty for the traffickers. I welcome the fact that the action plan is coming out so soon—mind you, it was promised last summer, but it is good that it is coming out later this week. It has to make life nasty for traffickers. If traffickers do not have life made nasty for them, they will go on doing trafficking, because the demand is so great. If we make life nasty for them in this country, we have to persuade our European partners to make life equally nasty for them in their countries, otherwise those involved will just the switch
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the location of their trafficking. If we can make it nasty enough, they will switch from human trafficking to other forms of crime, but at least we will have got human trafficking off the agenda.

We have to realise that Wilberforce’s achievements have a shadow cast over them, because of these new forces of evil and slavery. I believe the best people to help to stop this new form of slavery are, first, the immigration services, then the police and the victim-based non-governmental organisations and shelters. Although there is plenty of law to shop traffickers, according to a parliamentary question that I asked on 23 October last year, as well as one that I asked on 9 January this year, only 30 traffickers were sentenced last year. I am not making any criticism of the Government at all, but it is an indictment that, in the context of the massive numbers of women involved, the thousands of traffickers, the hundreds of non-governmental agencies and this debate today, only 30 traffickers were sentenced. That requires some comment, or some thinking about. How are we going to improve that situation? There are thousands of traffickers living and working in Britain.

I hope that the Minister for Women and Equality will forgive me if I quote her. On 22 February, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), she said:

I am not quite sure who recognises us as a leader in Europe. How are people going to be recognised at ports? Is this a sort of beauty parade? Will officials say, “There’s another trafficker?” What do they do when they see the traffickers? If traffickers are recognised, what are we going to do with them? They may have served a prison sentence or have a criminal record, but we cannot just send them back if they are from EU countries. I am concerned, because how will immigration officers be able to do anything just because traffickers are recognised? Perhaps the Minister did not fully think through that remark.

How well are immigration officers doing? They are our front-line staff at ports of entry. What information do they receive and from whom, and when they get their information what can they do with it? Can they put somebody who has been convicted of trafficking back on the next plane? Have they got the power to do that? What about the human rights of the person who was guilty of trafficking some way back? Bad track records will not prevent other EU citizens from coming into Britain.

On my recent visit to Europol, in The Hague, it was stressed that there was indifferent communication and that there were different priorities between the 27 EU countries. The information provided by Britain was criticised. I am sure that the Minister will be concerned, as I was, that Europol was not entirely complimentary about the British approach to Europol
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and to providing information to it. There are 500 or so Europol staff and they are only as good as the questions they ask or the information that they are given. Until there is a minimum common standard in relation to the accuracy of fingerprinting, DNA, and photographic as well as gun profiles, the measures taken will be useless. There are 27 countries with 27 lots of criminals. Unless we get accurate information, people with appalling criminal records are going to come in and out of Britain.

I was particularly concerned about how, as a result of the action plan, criminals from those countries would be apprehended at Heathrow, and about whether they would be sent back, or followed. Are there teams of people in all ports of entry waiting to see who is coming through and do intelligence officers then follow that up?

The answer is that that does not happen. The fact that the convictions of only 30 traffickers have been managed should worry the whole House. If there has been a failure to apprehend the criminal gangs at ports of entry and there is no hope of apprehending victims of trafficking or slave children, what chance do the police have of finding either the victims or the gangs?

Although I have expressed concern about immigration officials, I make no criticism of them at all—they are powerless. The idea that we will stop trafficking through any of the ports of entry is pure moonshine. The gangs and victims are going through passport control and the immigration service, so the police have to chase everything up—when the horse has bolted, bring in the police.

Until the introduction of Operation Pentameter, which has received considerable and well deserved publicity, there was little focus in this country on the new forms of slavery. I pay tribute to Operation Pentameter. Every one of the 55 police forces was involved in the three-month operation during which 84 victims of trafficking were discovered, 12 of whom were minors. However, who are they? Where are they now? Why do we not have a permanent Operation Pentameter? Why is not every policeman trained so that he is aware of, and able to look out for, human trafficking? Should not every police force have a designated unit that focuses on trafficking? Should there not be a national focus under one commander? When the action plan is published, I am hoping to hear that something along those lines will be introduced, but the measure must be permanent. There is no point in having operations that last for three months and are then closed down because they are too expensive or difficult. Once the trafficked people are found, the problem is what to do with them.

One of the ways of getting a better sense of perspective about the scale of the trafficking problem would be to establish an independent national rapporteur or investigation bureau on human trafficking, as is the case in the Netherlands. I had the good fortune to visit that body recently and I was impressed by its independence. It conducts research on human trafficking in the Netherlands, produces statistics and figures and works with the police and Government agencies. The important aspect of the system is that the rapporteur is responsible for reporting on national statistics and emerging issues and the matter is debated annually in Parliament. There are thus actual figures to show what is going on in that
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country, yet this country’s Government are unable to answer my questions by giving me information because they do not have it. The establishment of such a body would be one way of producing statistics. I am thus sad that the Government have rejected such a proposal.

Where are the results of the Government’s “good practice”, to use the Minister’s words? According to a written answer, the total number of people charged by the Crown Prosecution Service for the offence of human trafficking under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 was 132. However, let me cite further the reply, because it contained some rather interesting figures. I apologise for asking so many questions, but they show up the lack of available information. The reply said that the establishment of the United Kingdom human trafficking centre led to a multi-agency operation

However, of those 234 people, only 132 were charged, and we do not know how many were found guilty. After a massive operation and massive cost to the taxpayer, we got no results —[ Interruption. ] If the Minister thinks that I have got that wrong, I ask her to intervene.

The Minister for Women and Equality (Meg Munn): I was merely making the point that when someone is charged, there is a process to go through. Obviously it takes time before court cases come through and there are convictions. If we are not at the end of that process, we are not able to give results.

Mr. Steen: I quite understand that, but the point is that the numbers are trivial. Only 132 people have been charged with trafficking, yet we believe that tens of thousands of people have been trafficked. The can of worms has barely been opened. I find it difficult to be complacent about the situation and to suggest that the Government have a good track record. I am delighted that they have started to address the problem, but they have only just started. I am worried about the figures. While 132 people were charged, only 30 have been convicted, so we are talking about tiny numbers.

The fact that more people are charged with the trafficking of people under immigration legislation than the Sexual Offences Act is a good illustration that the Government see human trafficking as a problem relating to immigration rather than human rights. In answer to a question that I tabled in June 2006 on child trafficking, the Government said that at least 12 defendants were charged in three separate cases involving female victims of trafficking between the ages of 15 and 18. Ten of them were convicted and received lengthy sentences.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he share my slight puzzlement at the Government’s hesitancy in signing and ratifying the convention? It seems that they are more worried about immigration issues than human rights abuses—the balance is slightly wrong.

Mr. Steen: The right hon. Gentleman puts that point very well. I do not mind about the signing too much, but I mind about the ratification because, as the Minister will know, 10 countries need to ratify the European convention before it can become effective. Only three countries have ratified to date—

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Malcolm Bruce: Five.

Mr. Steen: The number is five now—I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. There are thus another five to go, and we are signing the convention only this weekend. However, I am glad that we are signing it because it is a good step in the right direction.

I do not know whether the House knows that no prosecutions under the trafficking legislation have taken place for cases involving African women or girls.

I pay tribute to the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, which I have the honour of chairing. It has a distinguished group of officers and members, including the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). It is served by the well-known organisation ECPAT UK—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—which has done a great service to this country.

The most important point arising from the intervention of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) is that we must not only sign the convention, but practise and ratify it. I thought that it might be useful to the House if I were to say something about victim support. If the police are able to dig out the traffickers and get enough evidence—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will the hon. Gentleman relate his remarks a little more directly to the subject under discussion? I hope that he is not going to stray too far on to victim support.

Mr. Steen: I will obviously follow your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, I hope that you will not think it disrespectful of me to say that I am straying no further than either of the Front-Bench speakers. In fact, at least 50 per cent. of hon. Members’ speeches have concentrated on human trafficking and the new forms of slavery. I hope that I will not do anything other than they did. However, I am grateful for your guidance.

I want to talk for a moment about what would happen if the police were able to dig out the traffickers—this is about trafficking and slavery. It is worth mentioning that the real problem is getting enough evidence to pin a conviction on a trafficker. If traffickers were convicted, would they serve their sentence in their country of origin or at a cost to the British taxpayer—would we be expected to foot the bill?

What about the victims of traffickers? Every time that I ask a question about the new forms of human slavery, the anticipated answer is that the POPPY project is dealing with the matter. Let us consider the reality of the POPPY project. It is rightly given tremendous and continuous publicity. Every time a Minister answers a question about this issue from the Dispatch Box, POPPY pops up. I do not want to trivialise POPPY’s achievements, but the project must be viewed in perspective. POPPY has only 25 beds, which are in London alone, and a further 10 emergency beds, if required. I am told that when Operation Pentameter was in force, POPPY’s places were nearly full. However, once Pentameter ceased, the number of referrals fell. When I made an inquiry about four months ago, the number of women in the care of POPPY was down to 16 out of a possible 35.

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There are a number of reasons for that. First, one has to be over 18 to go to POPPY; under-18s are turned away. Secondly, under-18s go into local authority care. POPPY deals only with trafficking or slavery for sexual exploitation. Victims of forced labour or domestic servitude or forced marriage are turned away. POPPY provides unconditional support only for a so-called reflection period of four weeks. It works only in London, so there is no equivalent POPPY project for people in Manchester, Birmingham or Sheffield. If I am wrong about that, perhaps the Minister can put me right. It works for a short period of four weeks and if support is to last any longer, the victim has to offer information about their traffickers; otherwise, they are asked to leave. I do not believe that that has been a very successful approach.

Up to 4,000 women a year are trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation. The POPPY project mapping report, “Sex in the City”, shows evidence of off-street prostitution in 22 London boroughs. An estimated 80 per cent. of people working in brothels, saunas and massage parlours are non-British nationals—80 per cent. of prostitutes come from abroad. It is rather like restaurants; people seem to want a choice, whether it be Indian or Chinese. They go for a range of people who have been trafficked into this country.

What happened to the women in the POPPY project? Nobody knows. Have they been sent back home or integrated into this country; and what has happened to the 277 referrals? Nobody knows. I must say that I am increasingly concerned about where all the women have gone to. What about the 3,800 whom POPPY did not deal with? What has happened to them? POPPY says that it is looking after as many people as it possibly can, but the attitude in Britain towards trafficked people is very different from that in Holland or Italy. As Britain is about to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, should we not be planning a slightly more constructive approach?

The Minister boasts that the POPPY project provides protection and assistance to adult victims, safe accommodation and a range of support services, but I wonder whether the House knows that women in the POPPY project who have entered the UK illegally do not have access to medical care. They are not entitled to any medical care whatever if they are illegal entrants. Many face multiple problems, including physical ones, and sexually transmitted diseases, yet they are not entitled to medical facilities. Does the Minister know that; will she deal with it in her winding-up speech?

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