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The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) is hugely important and we are considering what we can do about it and
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trying to take that forward. We are asking for the views and advice of stakeholders such as the NSPCC and ECPAT.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) rose—

Mr. Coaker: This is the last question that I shall take.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I congratulate him on how much work he has done to enable the Government to move forward on this issue. However, when they are found as victims, children trafficked for sexual exploitation are treated worse than their adult equivalents. Will he consider the situation in Holland, where secure safe houses are provided?

Mr. Coaker: We will learn from anywhere that can provide appropriate examples of how to deal with the problem. However, an awful lot of work is going on with children; I do not necessarily accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument that in this country such children are treated worse than the adults.

We have worked with the NSPCC to develop an advice and information line for social care and other professionals, to help them identify and support trafficked children. The advice line went live in October last year and in December multi-agency guidance was published to provide comprehensive information for all front-line professionals on the identification of victims and the actions required.

As well as that work on the four main strands of the action plan, we have continued to work with international partners in bilateral and multilateral projects to share expertise and improve information sharing in this area. In particular, we are jointly leading an initiative on human trafficking, under the auspices of the G6, with Poland. We are also committed to strengthening our approach to tackling the demand for prostitution, which can contribute to the demand for human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. As Members know, last week I led a ministerial visit to Sweden to look in more detail at the implementation of the legislation that criminalises the purchase or attempted purchase of sexual services. The information that we gathered will contribute to a six-month review of what more we can do on this issue, which will consider legislative and non-legislative options and look at the range of experiences in other jurisdictions.

I have covered some of the current areas of activity. I believe that we have made significant progress in the battle against human trafficking but, as I have explained, trafficking is multifaceted and needs to be fought on many fronts. The key to a successful response is effective collaboration and partnership working, and we have embraced that approach. Alongside an inter-ministerial group, we, the Government, have sought to involve stakeholders through our ministerial non-governmental organisation group, which next meets on 28 February, and through participatory meetings such as the international seminar on the Council of Europe convention that we hosted in December.

In its report of 13 October 2006, the Joint Committee on Human Rights commented that it was encouraged by its belief that

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There is still much more to do, but I assure the House that the Government’s commitment and determination to combat this horrendous crime is absolute, and we will continue to fight against this form of modern-day slavery. There cannot be many more important priorities for a Government. It is simply unacceptable that 200 years after the House of Commons abolished slavery it once again falls to us to tackle those who would use other human beings as property to be profited from. We must not allow it, nor will we. I commend the amendment to the House.

4.51 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Liberal Democrats greatly welcome the debate and are pleased that the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and his colleagues have secured it. I also pay tribute to the evident passion and conviction with which the Under-Secretary addressed the subject. There is clearly a substantial measure of agreement across the House on this issue.

Human trafficking is a shocking and scandalous crime that is now estimated to be the third most lucrative activity for organised crime globally. It mainly involves the sex industry, but also agricultural work and, horrifyingly, trafficking of people who are used in the removal of organs. The trade begins in desperation in the developing world—Vietnam, China, Romania, central Asia—where the victims are often offered the vision of a better life and are then committed to pay back the cost of their travel. In effect, as the Under-Secretary pointed out, they are introduced into debt bondage. They are given only the most meagre amount of work to pay back the sums that they owe. They are isolated, lonely, afraid, unable to communicate because of their language, and unable even to assess their own predicament.

Inevitably, there is enormous difficulty in terms of measurement—it is rather like the black economy—and we do not know how extensive the problem is. However, experts certainly believe that it is growing. The US Secretary of State’s adviser, Dr. Laura Lederer, says that we are now on a par with the numbers enslaved in the 16th and 17th centuries. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the figure slightly higher than the US estimates cited by the hon. Member for Ashford—it says that 1 million people a year are involved, and possibly $32 billion in revenue. This is very big business.

We therefore very much welcome the Government’s commitment to ratify the convention. According to the Council of Europe’s website, 10 countries have ratified so far, so the convention will enter into force on 1 February this year. So far, however, I regret to say that the signatories are mainly poor countries. Although we will be the seventh European Union country to sign up and ratify, we will be only the third developed country to do so after Austria and Denmark. I very much hope that the Government will maintain the pressure on other EU member states to stop displacement; the
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Under-Secretary has already talked about the G6 group, including Poland. I also note that the European Union can, as a whole, ratify the convention. Given the Government’s decision to do so and their interest in preventing activity in this country from being displaced elsewhere, and assuming and hoping that our measures will be effective, will Ministers commit to pressing the EU, as a bloc, to ratify the convention?

The Government were clearly right, too, to criminalise trafficking in prostitution in 2003, but limited resources have been given to Operation Parameter, and perhaps there should be a clearer focus, internationally, on the big guys. Will the Minister tell us whether the Serious Organised Crime Agency has been effective, and what its role has been in pursuing this matter? There have been successful prosecutions, which is good news, but there are still big gaps. The gangmaster of the Morecambe bay cockle pickers was not prosecuted for trafficking, although he was quite rightly prosecuted for manslaughter. No successful prosecution has yet been brought for trafficking in forced labour.

Mr. Steen: I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there is a distinction to be drawn between prosecution and conviction. According to an answer to a recent parliamentary question, only 30 traffickers of human beings for sexual purposes had actually been convicted. Everyone constantly talks about prosecution; I suggest that the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister about convictions.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; the distinction between prosecution and conviction is crucial. The point that I was attempting to make was that there had been no successful convictions at all for trafficking in forced labour, and we must attempt to address that.

I am also concerned about joined-up government. The police quite rightly treat trafficked sex workers as victims of crime, and as potential witnesses, while the immigration service is more likely to treat them as illegal entrants and potential deportees. How do Ministers intend to resolve the inherent conflicts in agencies’ approach to this problem? There is another example of potential conflict. The 1998 rule giving visas to migrant domestic workers and allowing them the right to change employer was key. The employer had to moderate their behaviour to stop the potential loss of their employee—to prevent them from fleeing to another job. There was at least some incentive to moderate what would otherwise be autocratic and unacceptable behaviour. Indeed, the Minister’s colleague Baroness Scotland noted on 26 March last year that the Government were

It seems to me that the changes limiting the ability of such visa applicants to work with only one employer are retrogressive.

We particularly need a framework for dealing with children. Article 10 of the convention states:

signatory to the convention—

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That is very much the point raised by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). The reality is that the current care system is creaking when dealing with such problems; it simply is not adequate. Child exploitation is on the rise. The figures that came out of the study that was commissioned in part by the Home Office show that children in 183 of the 330 identified cases went missing from the establishments where they were in care. The majority were over 16, but clearly some may have been abducted by the people who trafficked them, as someone said earlier, and others may have been afraid and simply fled. We need to do much more work on that front if we are to be sure of providing adequate care for those children who have been so brutalised and traumatised by their experience.

Perhaps we should examine the Dutch system, which is holistic. I take on board the Under-Secretary’s comments about potential problems with, for example, houses, but we need to be sure that we are providing security. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) also made that point. Security, whether in care homes or provided in another way, is essential.

We must take care when placing responsibilities on local authorities—a favourite game of central Government, not least the Home Office—that resources are made available to ensure that responsibilities can be exercised properly. I hope that the pattern for other Home Office schemes, such as extending police community support officers and the subsequent reduction in funding, will not be followed.

It is welcome that the Government intend to ratify the convention. I am sure that Ministers realise that it is a beginning, not an end to trying to tackle the problem seriously. Since the Under-Secretary has clearly done the work on the necessary changes in primary legislation, as he informed the House earlier, I hope that he can make a commitment to introducing those changes through amendments in the Lords to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. It was regrettable that they could not be tabled in the Commons, where some of my hon. Friends made that very point, but it is not too late to make the changes, assuming that the legal work has been done.

The hard graft of finding practical ways to alleviate the suffering and protect the victims of trafficking is only beginning. We are considering an abhorrent crime, which is a scar on any civilised society. We must—I trust from the tenor of today’s debate that we will—do all we can to end it as soon as is practically possible.

5.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, has taken a keen interest in the subject. That is shown by the number of our reports that are tagged for today’s debate. We have achieved a great deal of consensus not only in the Committee but across parties on the vital subject. We greatly value our informal and regular contact with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and I freely acknowledge his personal commitment to pushing for progress in his
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Department and across Government. His efforts have borne considerable fruit, although, as always, much remains to be done.

Since our first report in October 2006, considerable progress has been made through the UK Human Trafficking Centre, the Government’s action plan and their signing the convention last March, the start of Pentameter 2 last autumn and, of course, the additional support for victims, especially of sex trafficking—an appalling crime, whereby women are conned, coerced or kidnapped to face repeated rape and extreme violence.

However, evidence for the scale of the problem remains woefully inadequate. In our first report, we recommended that research should be undertaken and published. We reiterated that in our report last autumn. The most up-to-date figures for sex trafficking date back to 2003, and they were considered inaccurate then. They are now way out of date. A scoping study was supposed to be published last June, but we were told that an inter-departmental ministerial group was “monitoring progress” and that Pentameter 2 would “improve our understanding”. However, so far we have little in the way of hard facts and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will say what can be done to improve the position when she replies to the debate.

We have no official statistics for child victims, whether they are in domestic servitude or imported for benefit fraud, to work in cannabis factories or in the catering trade, or for sex or forced marriage, which was mentioned earlier. We have no statistics on labour trafficking. Without details about scale, we cannot properly judge the efficacy of any response.

Much has been made of the Council of Europe convention. We first recommended that it be signed and ratified in October 2006. We have repeatedly pressed for a timetable for ratification. We therefore greatly welcome the timetable that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced earlier this week, and the fact that we will ratify by the end of the calendar year.

However, the convention comes into force on 1 February, with the ratification of Cyprus. Given that we have not ratified, we cannot participate in the Committee of Parties, which is drawn from ratifying states and will make recommendations on the convention’s implementation and appoint GRETA—the group of experts on action against trafficking, who are chosen from nationals of ratifying states. There will, therefore, be no UK membership of that group.

The Government have been honest and correctly said that we should not ratify the convention until we can comply with it. However, that prompts the question: what remains to be done to come within the convention’s terms? The real issue is not ratification per se, but ensuring that we do what the convention requires of us to combat this vile crime. The heart of the convention focuses on victims. The Committee’s recommendation was that the protection of victims must be incorporated in our legislative framework, especially in immigration law. The Government say that they will consult widely on the issue and investigate all the options, but we do not think that any of that is necessary.

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It is clear what is needed in that respect. We suspect that the problem is to do with immigration and the unwillingness in certain circles to accept that the so-called pull factor argument is a myth. In that respect, I exonerate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who was distinctly uncomfortable when he was put up to advocate it when giving evidence to us. Indeed, he looked extremely sheepish indeed. It beggars belief that a woman would volunteer to be transported across continents, enslaved in a brothel and subjected to repeated rape and deprivation of liberty, with the threat and actuality of extreme violence, on the off-chance that she will beat our tight immigration system.

The immigration issue is, I suspect, the sticking point. The convention requires a recovery and reflection period of 30 days—we on the Committee consider that inadequate and recommend three months—but it is not clear whether co-operation with the prosecuting authorities is a precondition for that. I suspect that the real issue is the renewable residency permit requirement. The key to that is the proper identification of victims. At the Council of Europe session on that last year, the Government set out a new process for the identification of victims, with the prime responsibility lying with the police and the ultimate decision resting with the Border and Immigration Agency, with the right for review at the request of a non-governmental organisation. However, that process is heavily dependent on effective training, so perhaps the Minister could say what progress has been made on that.

We welcome the support that has been given to victims, but we are concerned about the future security of the system because we understand that the funding as it stands will last only until 2008. In particular, what support is being given to the devolved Administrations? The fact remains that there is no support for victims of labour trafficking, and there are significant concerns about the support for child victims. It is also interesting that the criminal injuries compensation scheme has at long last recognised trafficking as a crime and has started to award compensation.

We welcome the decision to reconsider the UK’s reservation to the UN convention on the rights of the child over immigration matters. The Government say that children are fully protected by existing law, so we cannot see what objection there could be to lifting the reservation, although the Under-Secretary indicated when he wrote to me about the matter that there would be no preconditions on that review.

Labour trafficking remains a serious issue, particularly in relation to domestic servitude. As has been mentioned, the visa regime prevents a change of employer, meaning that people are hostages and become open to abuse. We were told last summer that the Government would consult publicly on the safeguards in the business visa arrangements. I should like to know what progress has been made on that and whether the Government will consider naming and shaming employers of trafficked labour, particularly in the agricultural and catering sectors, where there seems to have been very little progress indeed and certainly a lack of support for the victims.

We in the Committee also recommended that the Government should publish an annual report to
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Parliament. The Government say that there will be an annual updating of the action plan and an annual report from the UK Human Trafficking Centre at the end of the financial year. That is all welcome but, given the cross-party interest that has been shown in the issue, it is important that the Government should pull those different strands together and provide the House with an annual report on the progress being made. That is the best way that we can monitor what is happening.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights will continue to maintain a keen interest in the subject. We will continue to press the Government on the need for progress. I know that we are pushing against an open door with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, although I am not quite so sure that that is the case elsewhere. However, I assure him and the House that the issue is close to our hearts and that we will continue to pursue it until we see justice for the victims of trafficking.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I remind the House that there is an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, although I think that that has now become obvious to everyone. I call Mr. Anthony Steen.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

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