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24 May 2007 : Column 506WH—continued

We recommended a series of proposals to provide the victim-centred approach that we advocate. The scale of the problem must be researched and the research published, as I have said. There must be better training
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of the police, the immigration service and local authorities in the identification of victims and potential victims. We need better warnings posted in airports. Much more work needs to done to identify unaccompanied minors at risk, because they are often unaware that they are actually being trafficked. A more consistent approach is required. We have to stop treating the victims as criminals or immigration offenders, and end the risk of arbitrary removal that comes from the case-by-case approach.

Non-governmental organisations such as the POPPY project need much more in the way of resources. We think that they should have double the number of bed spaces, rising from 25 to 50. They need long term-security of funding, which is of equal importance. Basic support and advice, especially legal advice, is required by victims to pursue effectively applications for residency.

Mr. Steen: The hon. Gentleman mentioned “more beds”. It is unfortunate that when we talk about the trafficking of women, we talk in terms of beds. We need more places, perhaps. Does he agree that we need more places not only in London, but all over Britain? Does he also agree that the women in such places need some form of identification—not a passport, but papers—to give them legitimacy? I think that the report mentioned that.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I will deal with such additional issues later. He is right that we need support throughout the country; I will make a couple of recommendations in that regard shortly.

Cultural mediators, who have been so successful in Italy, provide a clear role in helping to bridge the gap between the victim, the NGOs and the authorities. We need to see more of that here. We must help victims reintegrate in their source countries to overcome the risk of re-trafficking, if they wish to return. I am sad to note that some 20 per cent. of POPPY project clients have been re-trafficked. We heard of one poor woman who had been re-sold by her family within only three days of her return to the source country. Vietnamese children are at particularly high risk of re-trafficking, and much more work must be done on the education of potential victims, who are extremely vulnerable. We must provide arrangements to enable victims to come to terms with what has happened to them, through counselling and support of that nature.

The main conclusion of our report was that the Government need to focus more on the victims of trafficking. Legislation should treat trafficked labour as victims of crime, not as offenders under immigration law. I welcome the Government’s confirmation that victims of trafficking should not now be charged with immigration offences and that the Crown Prosecution Service can discontinue cases where appropriate. I hope that that translates into practice. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say whether any such cases have been discontinued, and whether since that announcement any people have been charged?

There have been some improvements to the law to help deal with human trafficking, most recently those proposed in the UK Borders Bill, but much more can be done to protect victims more effectively through
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legislation. We recently considered the Bill and proposed amendments that would help the victims of trafficking. They included, where there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person is a victim of trafficking, not removing that person until the process of identifying whether they are a victim is completed. We recommended a recovery and reflection period of three months for victims, during which time no immigration enforcement measures should be taken against them. That repeated the recommendation in our report.

On a point that the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) raised, we recommended that renewable residence permits of up to six months’ duration should be granted to victims of trafficking. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm whether the Government share our view that more needs to be done protect victims? Does he agree that such changes to legislation could make a big difference, and will the Government take on board our proposals for amendments to the UK Borders Bill as it proceeds through Parliament?

The new UK Human Trafficking Centre has the potential to play an important role. It provides a 24-hour contact point for front-line staff to help identify victims. We would welcome more information about how it is operating in practice, particularly on victim protection.

Approximately 25 per cent. of the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s activities are devoted to organised immigration crime, including trafficking. However, we expressed concern about the lack of adequate training for front-line staff in dealing with human trafficking, and there is also an urgent need to improve the rate of prosecutions, as the hon. Member for Totnes indicated in an earlier intervention. Will my hon. Friend the Minister indicate how the Government are dealing with those problems, and in particular how they will turn the large number of arrests last year into prosecutions?

The voluntary sector has a key role to play. The POPPY project, which I have mentioned several times, helps with accommodation, counselling, medical assistance and education for women trafficked for prostitution.

Mr. Steen: I cannot promise that this is my last intervention, but it will be very nearly the last. The hon. Gentleman might be able to help me and the Chamber. Am I right in thinking that the POPPY project, good work though it does, is virtually the only non-government agency that gets public funds for its work on victim protection? I think that ECPAT gets a bit, but am I right in thinking that the Government do not give very much for victim protection, outside what they do themselves?

Mr. Dismore: I believe that some work is being done in Scotland, to which I shall refer later, but perhaps it is not through an NGO. As far as interventions are concerned, the hon. Gentleman has paid a huge amount of attention to the subject and has a huge interest in it, so I am happy for him to intervene whenever he wishes. He has a lot to offer the debate.

The Government’s action plan states that they have provided the POPPY project with an additional £2.4 million so that it can continue its work until 2008.
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That is only next year, so what will happen afterwards? Can it and any similar projects be funded more securely in the future?

We thought that the criteria for accessing the POPPY project were somewhat strict—I shall return to that point later—as a consequence of the way in which it was set up, funding restrictions and other rules to which I shall refer. What help can my hon. Friend the Minister offer to other victims of trafficking, and will the Government seek to broaden the scope of the POPPY project or help to establish a broader range of projects? I ask that particularly in the context of the remainder of the UK. The Scottish Executive now work with Glasgow city council to support a similar project, but I am aware of no plans for implementation in Wales or Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend say what is being done to assist victims there?

The Committee recommended that the Government sign and ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against human trafficking, which will help to ensure that our determination to stop human trafficking is matched by a commitment to meet the highest international standards, especially for the protection of victims. The convention is a comprehensive treaty and recognises trafficking to be a grave violation of human rights. It focuses mainly on the protection of victims and the safeguarding of their rights, and it embodies the relevant international human rights standards and applies to all forms of trafficking.

Article 10 of the convention deals with the problem of identifying victims, with special reference to child victims. Article 10(3) states that if the age of a person is uncertain, the state should proceed as if that individual were a child and they should receive the special protection of the convention on the rights of the child. Article 10(4) refers to the need to appoint a legal guardian in the cases of children to act in their best interests, to ascertain their identity and nationality, and to identify their family in the source country.

Article 12, on assistance to victims, requires the provision of secure accommodation, medical assistance, interpretation, counselling, assistance with judicial proceedings and, for children, education. Article 13 requires a recovery and reflection period of at least 30 days—we think that that is far too short and recommended that it should be longer—to enable the victim to decide whether she wants to co-operate with the prosecution. No deportation should take place during that period. Article 14 provides for renewable residence permits, which should take account of the child’s best interests if the victim is a child.

To meet our obligations under article 10, the Government should adopt a UK-wide system of mandatory procedures for the identification and referral of trafficked persons, in line with the recommendations of the OSCE. To comply with article 12, the Government should ensure that all trafficked persons receive access to appropriate safe and secure accommodation, with 24-hour help available. Support is also needed from staff who are trained to work with victims of violence against women, and from experts in child protection. Such support and services should be given by registered providers, who should be screened through a Home Office accreditation scheme to ensure compliance with minimum standards for the provision of care, and should be subject to monitoring.

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There should be a prohibition on the detention of vulnerable people, including those who are suspected of being, or have been, trafficked. On article 13, we recommend that the UK Government provide trafficking victims with a three-month reflection period. We should also research the medical needs of victims of trafficking and best practice. To meet article 14, the Government should grant renewable six-month residence permits not linked with co-operation with law enforcement efforts against traffickers, in line with best practice such as that in Italy, where trafficking victims are granted such permits.

The CPS should expand current guidance on non-prosecution for all victims of trafficking in relation to any unlawful entry or residence, documentation offences or unlawful activities that are a consequence of someone’s situation as a trafficked person, to comply with article 16 and to ensure that victims are not punished.

I think that my hon. Friend the Minister was rather embarrassed when giving evidence before the Committee about the Home Office’s concerns about the pull-factor, suggesting that if victims were cared for properly it would encourage them to come to the UK illegally. He did not really look me, as the Chairman of the Committee, in the eye when he made those statements. We were not particularly impressed by them, and stated in the report:

I suspect that most people would not dispute that. I am pleased that since then my hon. Friend seems to have overcome his embarrassment, and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has expressed his intention to sign the relevant convention, joining the other 29 Council of Europe member states that have done so. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the UK has now signed on the dotted line and, if so, the date when it did so? That is still not clear.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we signed the Council of Europe convention on 23 March. I hope that that is of help to him.

Mr. Dismore: It is and I am grateful for that intervention, but it brings me to the next question, which is, when are the Government going to ratify it?

Mr. Steen: I say to help the Minister and to assist the record that the convention was signed by the Home Secretary on that day.

Mr. Coaker rose—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. We cannot have an intervention on an intervention.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful for that intervention. I give way to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Coaker: I say to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), through my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), that I know that, because I was there.

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Mr. Dismore: I am pleased that that is all cleared up, but it brings me to the question of when the Government will ratify the convention. Obviously, ratification is rather more important. Only three more ratifications are needed for the convention to come into force throughout Europe, and I hope that before too long this country’s ratification will be one of those three.

Finally, I turn to child trafficking. Much more needs to be done to identify victims of child trafficking who come into the UK. I welcome the Government’s intention to ratify the optional protocol—it deals with the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography—to the UN convention on the rights of the child by summer 2007. It will enhance international co-operation on extradition, for example, and ensure that child victims are given appropriate support during and after criminal proceedings. Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm when the Government expect to ratify the optional protocol?

The UK has entered reservations against the convention in respect of immigration and nationality issues. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has repeatedly called for those reservations to be withdrawn because they have the potential to weaken our focus on the protection of children, including child victims of trafficking. I urge my hon. Friend to reconsider the Government’s position and to discuss the issue with his colleagues.

The Government should withdraw the exemption of immigration services from section 11 of the Children Act 2004 as well, thereby ensuring that both the UK immigration service and the Home Office immigration and nationality directorate are included under that section, which places a statutory responsibility on Government agencies to take responsibility for the safeguarding and welfare of children while discharging their duties. Immigration services are the only significant statutory body to be excluded from the duty to safeguard children.

Operation Paladin Child, which dates back to 2003, has given some scoping information on the problem. It identified the issue of unaccompanied children, to which I have already referred. There is a need for a multi-agency response to child protection. The airlines’ code of practice is a good example of how that can be done. There is a general obligation on local authorities to promote and safeguard the welfare of children under the 2004 Act, but children under 18, for example, are not eligible for the POPPY project under the present rules. There needs to be a more consistent and centred approach.

West Sussex county council operated a safe house for 16 and 17-year-old trafficked girls, but by April 2004—after a few weeks—it had closed due to lack of referrals. Presumably there were not enough trafficked girls in Sussex, but I suspect that there would have been enough throughout the country. It might have been better, for example, if the girls had been able to attend the POPPY project, which is not allowed to take people under 18, as I said. Support for trafficked minors is generally of a poor standard, and young women can disappear without receiving any support.

Trafficking can have a devastating impact on children. They are separated from their families and are in danger of losing all contact with them. They are at risk of losing their identity, as traffickers often destroy their papers and change their names. On arrival, they are likely to experience violence, abuse and dangerous working conditions that are harmful to their health and
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well-being. They are at risk of long-term damage, including from HIV/AIDS. Their immigration status means that they receive little or no protection under the law and may have difficulty accessing basic education, health care and social services to address their specific needs.

There is a general lack of recognition of trafficked children’s special needs, particularly in the immigration and asylum process. There is a need for an urgent review of the issue. Generally, local authorities have not developed the necessary expertise to deal with the problem. The hon. Member for Totnes has taken a particular interest in the matter and may say a little more about it later, so I shall not develop that theme now.

My Committee’s report on human trafficking sets out the work that is now required to tackle this insidious international crime and, in particular, to help victims. Of course the Government must pursue the criminal gangs that organise trafficking, but the need to help and support victims, and to treat them with compassion, must not be overlooked. I am sure that all of us in the House are united in our abhorrence of human trafficking.

In his statement marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called the bicentenary

I commend his recognition of the fact that while we reflect on the past, we must also acknowledge the unspeakable cruelty that persists in human trafficking.

The Government have responded positively to our report, but much more work still needs to be done. My Committee will continue to scrutinise the Government’s policies and action on human trafficking, and we expect to report to the House again in due course on the progress in implementing the action plan. This is a serious issue that requires serious consideration and debate. I compliment my hon. Friend at the end of my contribution, as I did at the beginning, on the positive response that we have received so far from the Government. While I am pressing him for more, as he would expect, I would not like that to detract from the positive contribution that he has made.

3.4 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): It is a pleasure to address the Chamber with you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow, on the Thursday before the Whitsun recess. I know that this is a subject in which you have taken particular interest. I do not know what the rules of Westminster Hall are, but if we have a bit of time when we run out of speakers, I would be happy to take the Chair for a short while so that you could make an address from the Floor. That would give you an opportunity to say the things that you would like to say but cannot say from the Chair.

This is not a party political issue. Hon. Members in this Chamber today work very well together—they work as a team. I particularly wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who has worked tirelessly on the issue. If I am interested in it; he is very much an expert on it. We all pay him considerable tribute for his continued efforts in this field.

I would also like to thank the Minister for being such an agreeable Minister. It is always a pleasure to deal with him. I do not make much progress, but it is always a pleasure.

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