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Westminster Hall

Thursday 24 May 2007

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Human Trafficking

[Relevant documents: 26th Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2005-06 HC 1127 and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6996.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Given the number of Members here, I think that this afternoon may have something of a Friday feel about it; it is the last before the Whitsun recess. However, that should in no way detract from the importance of the subject that we are to debate.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I shall not make intervening like this a regular occurrence. However, is it not right that the Government had planned a main debate for 3 May on the Floor of the House on the slightly different subject of the trafficking of women and children? Then they changed the date; now they have changed the title. Does the hon. Gentleman read anything into that? Is it that the Government do not really want to discuss the issue, so they push it into Westminster Hall so that nobody will notice?

Mr. Dismore: Absolutely not. The debate was moved to ensure that Members had the opportunity to debate human trafficking. Owing to the impact of the local elections on the rest of the country, the debate on 3 May was changed to one about London, where there were no local elections. That is why the change took place. As far as the title is concerned, the debate was in the gift of the Liaison Committee because it is about a Select Committee report. I see nothing untoward in those changes, although they have not generated a greater number of Members than would have participated anyway—but there we are.

I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on human trafficking, which we published last autumn. It is particularly apt that we should do so this week, when Parliament has opened its exhibition on the abolition of the slave trade. Although the trade in people is illegal—it has been for 200 years—it continues. The problem has become more serious in recent years, and we need to do much more to stamp it out.

Before I get to the detail, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who has engaged constructively with us on the issues; we still have a long way to go, but I do not necessarily hold him to account for that. Behind the scenes, he is working hard and along the lines that we would all like to see.

In our report, we drew attention to the scale and urgency of the problem of human trafficking, explained how it is a gross violation of human rights and made recommendations on how it can and must be stopped. Even more importantly, we made recommendations
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about the recognition of victims and their subsequent care. For us, the care of the victim was an even higher priority than enforcement.

I want to be clear from the outset about the nature and scale of human trafficking today. Trafficking brings to this country victims who are conned, coerced or kidnapped so that their labour or services can be exploited—often, but not exclusively, in the sex trade. Some trafficking victims travel voluntarily and are exploited on arrival. Some 40 per cent. of victims have come perfectly legally to the UK, often on the promise of a job in the service industries, for example. They find themselves in a very different form of service when they get here.

Human trafficking is far more serious than people smuggling. Although the latter is always illegal, it is voluntary on the part of the smuggled person and does not involve exploitation after arrival.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman said that 40 per cent. of victims were here legally. Where does he get that figure from? I thought that part of the problem was that we did not know the scale, and so we did not know the proportion within it. I suppose that such figures are best guesses.

Mr. Dismore: I shall come to the question of research and information later, but that figure was among the more reliable ones that we were given as part of the evidence. I should have to work back through to find the particular reference for the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that we can sort that out after the debate if he wants.

Human trafficking is run by organised gangs and is a serious global problem; it is the second most serious international crime after the drugs trade. Its consequences can occur in virtually any community in the country and are often unknown to most of the population. My local newspaper ran a report about a

who had been

The report is somewhat salacious, so I shall not read any more. The trafficker was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Mr. Steen: This strikes me as a suitable time to make one other comment; I should be glad of the hon. Gentleman’s advice. Is he aware that, according to a parliamentary answer given by the Home Secretary, only 30 traffickers have been convicted in the past four years? What does the hon. Gentleman say about that? Is something wrong with the police, the law or the priorities? If thousands upon thousands of women have been trafficked here and there are a large number of criminal gangs, yet only 30 traffickers have been convicted, is the hon. Gentleman not slightly concerned?

Mr. Dismore: I shall come to the issue of enforcement later. The Committee’s overall conclusion was that enforcement is improving significantly. Certainly, there have been more prosecutions, but I would not like to say how many are still in train.

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Although the media and, unfortunately, politicians sometimes focus on the prurient side of the sex trade when talking about trafficking, we should not overlook the other victims of trafficking. Children are frequently trafficked for domestic service through a family or community link. In some African countries, it is a cultural practice for families to place their children with better-off relations who provide food and education in return for domestic chores. Children are now sent to the UK on a similar basis, but they are woefully and brutally exploited. Some are used for benefit fraud, while others are enslaved in the catering business. Some children are sent as a result of the debt bondage of their families in the source country. Children are trafficked from Vietnam to till the plants in cannabis-growing houses. Perhaps worse, some arrive underage for forced marriage or other forms of sexual exploitation.

Trafficking for labour can be for domestic servitude or agriculture, for example. The evidence from Kalayaan, an organisation that works for migrant domestic workers, paints a graphic picture of violence and abuse. It told the Committee that “well over half” the migrants that it had seen

Kalayaan said that the migrants are subject to psychological abuse


They are often detained in a house for years. Kalayaan’s evidence went on to state:

and sometimes

That is a pretty horrific picture, but the new visa rules will make things even worse, because they will prevent migrant workers from changing employer. That will tie them to abusive employers and leave them with no realistic hope of escape. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to talk to the Minister for Immigration and Asylum to see whether that pernicious, so-called reform can be urgently reviewed to deal with the problem.

Bizarre stories emerge from the agricultural sector. The TUC told one story about Portuguese workers who are legally in the UK pretending to be illegal Brazilians, who were themselves pretending to be legal Portuguese so that the Portuguese workers could be exploited by an agriculture employer by working for rather less than the minimum wage. That was a rather bizarre series of events, but it is not necessarily unusual.

The UK is principally a destination for the victims of human trafficking, but trafficking does occur within the country too. The point is that the true scale of the problem is unknown. In 2003, it was thought that there were some 4,000 victims of trafficking for prostitution in the UK. That number is generally now accepted to be far too low an assessment. Ten years ago, one estimate showed that 85 per cent. of women working in
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brothels were born in the UK; it is now suggested that 85 per cent. are from overseas. There are no reliable numbers at all as to the extent of children trafficking or trafficking for labour exploitation. Victims might come from eastern Europe or, especially as regards children, Africa and south-east Asia.

Save the Children and ECPAT—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—uncovered what they described as the tip of the iceberg: 80 cases involving children in only five of the 400 local authorities. Of those 80, no less than 48 had disappeared from local authority care, where I hope that they had been rather better looked after. Whatever the numbers, each victim is a real life and represents a vulnerable person who has been subjected to a serious and repeated crime of the most brutal and inhumane kind.

The United Kingdom has obligations under the European convention on human rights and international treaties to prohibit and prevent trafficking and related acts, to investigate, prosecute and punish traffickers, and to protect the victims of trafficking. On enforcement, the Committee was impressed by the growing effectiveness in tackling organised crime and the establishment of the UK Human Trafficking Centre last year. That built on the success of Operation Pentameter and was a major step forward. Between February and June last year, Operation Pentameter resulted in 232 arrests and the rescue of 84 victims. The work of the Metropolitan police’s clubs and vice unit, through Operation Maxim, is also to be commended. Operation Paladin Child, which was involved in identifying and rescuing unaccompanied minors at Heathrow, was also successful. It is clear that the Serious Organised Crime Agency also has a key role to play in tackling organised crime.

Since we published our report, the Government have published their human trafficking action plan—an initiative that I welcome. The publication is a positive development, although, as one would expect, I want to press my hon. Friend the Minister on a number of points that arise from it. The action plan recognises that all forms of human trafficking will be part of core police business. The Government recognise that they need to do much more, both on research and in the provision of services to forced labour victims. The plan includes a pilot project.

A commitment has been made to introduce a national identification and referral mechanism, in line with Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe guidelines. Trafficking for sexual exploitation is recognised as a form of gender-based violence. Services for trafficking victims will be expanded; they will be provided by existing service providers experienced in supporting vulnerable women.

There is a “but”, however. The action plan, like the draft plan, lacks a degree of detail, particularly with regard to the vital issue of reflection periods and residence permits, to which I shall refer later. It also lacks definitive commitments on funding for support and accommodation, beyond the current limited provision for victims through schemes such as the POPPY project. The action plan continues to focus on immigration control measures as a means of preventing trafficking. That concern was also raised by the Joint Committee with regard to the draft action plan. We said:

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The timetable for the implementation and ratification of the convention—I shall refer to it later, too—has not been made public through the action plan. To ensure that the victims of trafficking are guaranteed their convention rights, those rights must be made legally binding, so that authorities can be held directly accountable for their operation.

Research is important. We urged the Government to conduct in-depth research on the nature and extent of trafficking in the UK. The extent of trafficking for labour is particularly hard to gauge, so I welcome the Government’s acceptance that more research is needed. Several agencies are likely to be in a position to gather information on human trafficking, including the Human Trafficking Centre, SOCA, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and the Executives of the devolved Governments. There might well be others.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell us who will co-ordinate the required work. When does he think that we will have a reliable estimate of the scale of the problem? Most importantly, will the research be published, as we recommend?

The Committee also argued that the Government should work closely with the countries from which victims of human trafficking are drawn. We need to reach out to those who are at risk of being trafficked, as well as to members of civil society in those countries, who could effectively prevent trafficking in the first place. The work that the Italian Government are doing in that respect is very much worthy of study, as it appears to be successful in the prevention of the trafficking of victims from Albania and Romania, for example.

The Government action plan states that the UK supports a number of projects aimed at tackling trafficking at source. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will explain how that work is co-ordinated in government and how its effectiveness is assessed. A piecemeal approach is unlikely to be successful. The Committee also recommended an increase in development projects to tackle the root causes of trafficking; the Government agreed. Will my hon. Friend outline how that work will be taken forward, and what steps the Government propose to take to work with our international partners, such as the International Labour Organisation?

We stressed the importance of reducing the demand for trafficked people in the UK. The Government have acknowledged that, and have asked the Human Trafficking Centre to conduct more in-depth research and work to raise awareness of the demand for trafficked people in the sex industry as well as other industries. Legislation to punish those who hire migrants illegally—particularly the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006—has recently been implemented. Does my hon. Friend think that enough is being done to reduce demand for trafficked labour? Will the Government report regularly to Parliament on the success of those measures? They might report the number of employers
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who are penalised for hiring illegal labour, for example. Will they pay particular attention to the fate of those domestic workers who are hidden from view and any enforcement action that is taken?

We called for employers of trafficking victims to be named and shamed. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the Government have reached a view on that? What are his ideas on dealing with demand reduction, particularly regarding trafficking for sex and the trafficking of children?

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Did the hon. Gentleman’s Committee conclude that most of the illegal employers of those who had been trafficked were British citizens about whom the police and other authorities had good information, such as addresses? Alternatively, were a number, if not the majority, of those illegal—or immoral—employers themselves in breach of this country’s immigration and working rules?

Mr. Dismore: The short answer is that we simply do not know. We did not form a particular view on that point, primarily because we know so little about the extent of trafficking for labour in the first place. One can form a view from anecdotes that one reads in the newspapers, but all Members of the House accept that newspapers are rarely accurate on issues related to immigration, migration and so on. One has to take what they say with a pinch of salt, and one certainly cannot draw any statistical conclusions from them. That is why we recommended urgent research to establish the scale of the problem. That research could examine issues such as those that the hon. and learned Gentleman raised, and consider who the perpetrators, as well as the victims, of such crimes are, and the scale of the problem.

The thrust of our report was concerned with the victims and the need for a victim-centred approach to rebalance the way in which we deal with the issue. We saw inconsistencies around the country, and a lack of training and knowledge among enforcement agencies. Victims are all too often seen as criminals themselves or illegal migrants, not victims of horrific crimes such as multiple rape and slavery, which they are. Far too many were taken straight to removal centres for deportation. The discretionary, case-by-case approach operated by the Home Office gives no guarantee against arbitrary removal. Indeed, removal could take place while the victim was deciding whether they were able to, or wanted to, support the prosecution of their trafficker. The fear and trauma suffered by victims is underestimated.

During the course of our inquiry we visited the POPPY project, not one of whose clients had been given asylum on the immigration authorities’ first decision, although many appeals succeeded. At the project, I met a Ukrainian woman whose trafficker had been convicted, served a lengthy jail sentence and been released, yet the victim was still awaiting a decision on her asylum claim. That cannot be right. We identified a poor standard of support for children and a lack of training and knowledge among local authorities, which we felt was in urgent need of review.

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