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In that regard, to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), I hope that the debate on trafficking, which is a tough enough topic to deal with in itself, does not become absorbed into the wider debate about how to deal with prostitution. Not all prostitution involves trafficking, and not all trafficking involves prostitution. The debate about how to combat prostitution is important. I know that the Minister has been visiting Sweden to see how its policy is working. He will have heard views on both sides of the argument about the effects of criminalising all men who use prostitutes. Over the coming months, however, the debate, not least within Government,
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about the way forward on prostitution must not be allowed to delay further action on trafficking. Let us not delay action against one evil because Ministers cannot yet agree on how to tackle a related but different one.

Sadly, it would be easy to fill this speech, and indeed the whole debate, with terrible, haunting stories of women and children who have been brutalised by people traffickers, duped, sold into slavery and repeatedly raped or violently exploited in other ways. As we all know, it is a disgusting scar on the modern world and it is getting bigger. Human trafficking is the fastest growing international crime. In terms of the money that it generates, it is up there with drugs and guns as the biggest international criminal activity. It is a global problem. According to the US State Department, up to 800,000 people are trafficked every year and trafficking generates about $9.5 billion in annual revenue, according to the FBI’s calculations.

The United Kingdom is sadly classified by the United Nations as a high-level destination. We are a desirable destination for people traffickers. A 2003 Home Office estimate is that the economic and social costs of trafficking in this country alone are about £1 billion, of which about £275 million constitutes the market for sexual exploitation—as it puts it. Inevitably, all such figures are fairly rough and ready.

Many Members have rightly been exercised about the increasing number of women and girls being trafficked into this country, not only from eastern Europe, but from Africa and the far east. Again, the latest official figures are from 2003, when the Home Office thought that there were 4,000 victims of trafficking who had been brought to this country for prostitution. The most stark and horrifying statistic in this regard is that 10 years ago 15 per cent. of women working as prostitutes in this country were foreign, but that proportion has now completely reversed: it is 85 per cent. and only 15 per cent. are domestic. The Minister might have slightly more up-to-date figures, but those are the latest ones I have seen published. That is a terrible statistic.

This issue is not only about prostitution; it is also about forced labour. We know that 60 per cent. of the victims of trafficking who have arrived here illegally are used in forced labour. A distinction is often made between people-smuggling and people-trafficking. Terrifyingly, it is a fact that many people who think they are in the former category end up in the latter category: they think they are being brought here because they want to get here illegally, but actually they are going to be exploited. Many of them pay £20,000 and more to agents to bring them here, and when they are here they are forced into debt bondage: they simply cannot earn enough money ever to pay off their debts, so they are free to be exploited by criminal gangs. That trade is every bit as terrible as the trade for prostitution.

As well as acknowledging the good work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, it is worth paying tribute to the various organisations that are involved in trying both directly to prevent the trade and to encourage our Government and Governments around the world to take effective action on it, notably the Stop the Traffik coalition, from which I imagine many
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Members of all parties who are attending this debate have received information. It is doing an extremely good job, and it has made the point that next month there will be a United Nations forum on this subject in Vienna and that that is an important international conference where the global action that is clearly required to crack down on this global problem will be brought together.

Instead of going through some of the dreadful horror stories, it will be constructive if I set out what we want the Government to do in the coming months and ask the Minister to explain why some of it has not been done already. I shall start with the ratification itself. I asked a question on 5 December about what changes to legislation were needed. The Minister replied that

As he has the House’s attention today, perhaps he will tell us whether there is any need for primary legislative changes, or are simply secondary legislative changes required? If primary legislation is needed, why has the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill been allowed to go through? It became a Christmas tree set of measures in itself, with important additions at the last moment. Why was it not used as a vehicle for bringing in the changes that are needed? That would certainly have been welcomed in all parts of the House.

I am genuinely bemused that these discussions are still going on inside Government. The Government signed the convention last March; we are now in January. When they signed it, they must have known what steps they needed to take to ratify it. It is extraordinary that these discussions are still going on inside Government some 10 months later. Clearly and rightly the Government have no objections to it in principle. They might have been reluctant to sign it if they thought it would in any way weaken our immigration controls. I imagine that, like me, the Minister has come to the conclusion that signing it would not weaken our very important immigration controls, so I hope to receive some explanation.

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has made the point that it is necessary to have the measures in place in order to ratify. He criticised the Government for not having ratified when 12 other states have done so. Is he confident that those states have the necessary mechanisms on their statute books to be able to implement the convention?

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman and I can sensibly assume only that those countries’ Governments know what they are doing and that they have done as he suggests. As he knows, once we hit the figure of 10, the convention came into force, and I hope that he shares my regret that the UK was not one of the 10 countries that allowed that to happen; it would have been better if we had been. I hope to hear from the Minister about why we are where we are on ratification.

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Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Am I right in thinking that if we are not among the first 15 countries to ratify, we will have little or no influence on how the ratification takes place and on the steps whereby the member states that have ratified decide what to do? In such circumstances, we would have no influence on what will happen in the ratification process.

Damian Green: I should, of course, add my hon. Friend to the list of those to whom I pay tribute, because the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, which he chairs, has done important work on this matter. I hope that the Government take his warning well.

As well as ratification, the Conservatives want to see action on policing, prosecutions and the protection of victims. One year on, the Government have set up what they call a border service, but it is not a border police force. Various specific police operations, such as Pentameter 1 and Pentameter 2, have taken place, but there has been underlying confusion about the overlapping role of the various police departments that deal with trafficking. Amid the plethora of Government targets for which the police must have regard, there has been an absence of one on this matter.

On Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) asked

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing replied:

This depends on how one defines core police business, because police forces are in no way rewarded for any work they do in this field. We know that because the chief superintendent of Peterborough police, Mr. Phillipson, has said:

He continued:

I am inclined to believe the policeman on the front line more perhaps than the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing—

Mr. Steen: I asked the question in the House about whether tackling human trafficking is core police business, and the Government answered that it is, but is my hon. Friend aware that there was no statement in the House saying that it was core business? The action plan said that it would become core business, but gave no indication of when that would happen, and nobody knew anything about it until the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said the day before yesterday that it was now core police business. The significance is that if tackling human trafficking is core business, the police get money for doing that, but if it is not core business, they do not get that money. There is quite a lot of confusion in police forces as to whether or not it is core business, and whether they are getting any money for it.

Damian Green: My hon. Friend is right, and that is why the situation causes a problem.

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The Conservatives believe that we should have a proper integrated border police force, which integrates the immigration and customs services with the police, and that such a force should have the necessary powers to stop, search, investigate and prosecute. Instead of having a succession of ad-hoc operations, this type of operation should be a permanent priority. There should also be specific measures on border controls that would address trafficking, including separate interviews at all airports of women and children travelling alone with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband. That is a practice implemented successfully by the US, and it will help to identify potential victims.

We believe that better police measures could be taken, and we also believe that they would lead to more robust law enforcement and more prosecutions. The Government say that law enforcement in this area is a priority, but in the last year prosecutions have fallen by 40 per cent., so the facts before us suggest that that is not the reality. We need more focus on prosecutions to tackle both supply and demand.

As a country, we could do better on protection. I imagine that everyone who participates in this debate knows about the good work of the POPPY project, but while that should be seen as an acceptable pilot, it is not the whole answer, not least because it is based entirely in London. We need to increase the number of places in safe houses and we need to do better for under-18s who are trafficked. For current legal reasons, anyone under 18 who has been trafficked has to remain in the care of the local authority social services and cannot be moved to the POPPY project or any similar service. The problem is that far too high a percentage of those in local authority care have simply disappeared, and it is believed that many have been repossessed by the traffickers.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another aspect that we must pursue is passing on some of the expertise that people working in the POPPY project and others have developed in helping women and children who have been trafficked to deal with the trauma? In that way, when they returned to their home countries they would get the help and support that they needed. Many of those countries are the poorest in the world and may have less expertise in the matter, and it is therefore our responsibility to share it.

Damian Green: I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. Expertise has been developed in this country, and the more we spread that expertise and best practice the better.

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): As a non-London MP, I just wanted to mention that there are now service-level agreements between the POPPY project and organisations such as Women’s Aid, which supply the same services outside London as POPPY supplies in London.

Damian Green: That is indeed welcome, but I am sure that the Solicitor-General would agree that we need that to happen more, because the problem is now
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a national problem. Even the idea that it is a big-city problem is now out of date, because it occurs in small towns and even villages.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Damian Green: I am sorry, but I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. I can feel that waves of hostility will come from both behind and in front of me if I take up too much time, so I do not want to do so.

One of the other specifics that I wish to recommend to Ministers is setting up a helpline for victims of trafficking. I am sure that the Minister will have considered that. The Stop the Traffik coalition has suggested the use of a common helpline number across Europe. People who are trafficked inevitably travel through many countries and may not even know which country they are in. If there were one emergency number—obviously it could be effective only if it routed to an in-country national service—across Europe, it could be most effective.

Apart from the signing of the convention, we need better co-operation between Europol and Eurojust on this issue. The Government should also encourage British companies to do what they can. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale mentioned some of the problems of African countries, and the Minister will be aware of one particular problem with the confectionery industry. Côte d’Ivoire produces 40 per cent. of the world’s cocoa crop and there is a lot of evidence of children as young as 12 being trafficked from even poorer African countries, such as Mali, into Côte d’Ivoire. The effective way to stop that is for the big international confectionery companies, many of which are based in this country or have significant operations here, to insist on proper standards throughout their supply chain. That would be the best approach, and while it is not direct Government action, I hope that Ministers will encourage it.

The Opposition are pleased that the Home Secretary made her announcement on Monday. We will monitor the Government’s progress on ratification. I have sought to set out a number of practical suggestions for action that the Government can take immediately that would help to reduce trafficking into this country and in other parts of the world. Obviously, there is complete unanimity that human trafficking is a disgusting crime and a growing problem. For once, I can stand at the Dispatch Box and say sincerely to Ministers working on the problem that I hope that they are effective and successful. My simple message to them is: please get on with it.

4.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

I compliment the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) on the vast majority of what he said and, apart from the first couple of sentences, the constructive way in which he engaged with the subject—I thank him for that. I also thank all hon. Members who are present for the debate, particularly the significant number of parliamentarians who have had a huge input in taking the agenda forward. I thank not only my ministerial colleagues, and some members of my party who are in the Chamber—my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and many others—but, in particular, I thank the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who has taken a particular interest in labour exploitation, and the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who has done a fantastic job with the all-party group on trafficking of women and children and through all his other work to take the agenda forward. Of course, I also thank hon. Members from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

There will be differences between the parties about some of the things that I shall say and about some of the Government’s policy decisions. However, we can and should be proud of the way in which we have tried to lead the debate as a Government and as a country. Regardless of the party politics, some hon. Members present today have been at conferences where representatives of other European countries have come to talk to us about how we are tackling the problem and to try to learn from us as we try to learn from them.

As well as thanking Members of the House, I want to thank the stakeholders across the county: Amnesty International, ECPAT—or End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography And the Trafficking of children for sexual purposes—Stop the Traffik and all the other non-governmental and voluntary organisations. They, too, deserve a huge degree of credit for the way in which the debate has been taken forward.

Trafficking is one of the vilest forms of crime and one of the vilest harms that threaten our society. It is unbelievable that 200 years after the abolition of slavery by the House of Commons, we are yet again debating slavery in 2008. Members from all parties have said that our Government should take the matter forward. That is what the people out there would not only expect of us but demand from us.

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