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5.9 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members.

We know that the Government have been active on the legislative front, and I think that they have done a good job. However, I shall point out some of the things that they have not done, and I hope that that will be constructive. However, it is not only the Government who have been active; the Joint Committee on Human Rights has also been very helpful and active. I should also like to note that there have also been three debates on trafficking in the past year.

Back-Bench Members of the House of Commons and of the House of Lords, of all parties, were particularly active in the establishment of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children—of which I am chairman—on 9 July 2006. That group does not just meet the bigwigs; it has also got its hands dirty down at the rock face. It has met African child victims of trafficking, eastern Europeans, Vietnamese trafficked children involved with cannabis factories and, most recently, Roma children on the streets of London. That group has tabled more than 100 oral and written parliamentary questions, which have stimulated further Government action. My thanks go to all the officers involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is the astute treasurer of the group, and it has other distinguished members here and in the other place.

The Government’s major problem is their inability to provide accurate figures on anything to do with human trafficking. The most reliable figures came from Operation Pentameter 1, which are very modest, and we have not had the results from Operation Pentameter 2 yet, so we have no idea of the scale of
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human trafficking. We talk with great emotion about it, but we have no idea of its scale. The Government are appallingly bad at providing information. In answer to a written question from the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) said:

Nobody has any idea what the numbers are.

Human trafficking has not only attracted a huge official infrastructure; it also has a huge vocabulary. The definition of “human trafficking” is not clear. Sex trafficking gets endless newspaper coverage in the tabloids, but confusion still exists between sex trafficking and prostitution. Human trafficking involves not only sexual exploitation but exploitation of labour such as domestic servitude, forced labour, begging and benefit fraud. It does not only involve women; it also involves men, including young men, and young children. Children under 10—which means they have no criminal liability—are being brought over to Britain by their extended family, having been trained in eastern Europe by people like Fagin in “Oliver Twist”. They are forced to work in a range of criminal activities such as shoplifting, theft and automated teller machine—ATM—fraud. A talented under-10-year-old can earn between £50,000 and £100,000 a year for the gangs that they work for.

The inability of this country to handle this problem is well illustrated by my experience on the beat on Oxford street as part of the police service parliamentary scheme. We apprehended a young Romanian girl at Marble Arch underground station. We believe that there were other children there, but they disappeared very quickly when we arrived. She refused to co-operate or to tell us who she was, where she lived or how old she was. The police officers took her to Marylebone police station as a place of safety. She had no money on her, only a return underground ticket. She refused to speak English, although she attended a school here and could speak the language. An interpreter was called for, at public expense. On searching her, she was found to have shoplifted goods on her, but their value was so small—under £20—that the police did not prosecute her. She had to be released from police custody and the social services in Haringey—which is where she said that she lived—said that they could not look after her. She is one of the many children from eastern Europe trafficked by gangs to work on the streets. Oxford street is full of such children. How are we going to deal with this?

Will the Minister reconsider all the cases in the past few years in which children have been prosecuted and criminalised for theft or for cannabis cultivation, in the light of the new Crown Prosecution Service guidance, which states that they should be treated as victims of trafficking, not as criminals? Will he confirm that no such children who have been apprehended and prosecuted in this way are in prison? I believe that such children are being wrongly criminalised.

A further problem with trafficked children is that they often go missing from social services care within 24 hours, and often within three hours. The ECPAT report “Missing Out”, produced in 2007, revealed that in three local authority areas, of the 80 reported cases
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of known or suspected child victims of trafficking, 48 had gone missing from social services care. They go in one door and come out of the other. The Government report—I think that it was a Serious and Organised Crime Agency report—produced in June 2007 revealed that, of the 330 supposed victims of child trafficking, 183 had gone missing without trace.

In answer to my question of 30 October 2007, the Home Secretary confirmed that in West Sussex, which covers the Gatwick airport complex, 50 children from abroad went missing from care between 2004 and 2006. In Hillingdon, which contains Heathrow, 74 children were reported missing in 2006 alone. The reason why children disappear from care is that their traffickers are the only people they know in this country—the children do not speak our language—and the only people they can rely on. They have been brainwashed not to trust anybody in authority, let alone the social services or the police.

How can we start to help such children out of their miserable existence and to make them a priority? The problem is compounded by the diversionary activity of numerous officials who attend conferences and meetings all over the world—with upwards of 600 delegates, including lawyers, experts, officials and diplomats. Those conferences cost millions of pounds of public money, as the delegates travel first class, but those officials talk rather than focus on the real problems. Such money would be far better used to fund refuges, which often barely scrape by, to provide safe havens for trafficked children. Many refuges in the EU do not receive public funding. The POPPY project is the only refuge in the UK to receive a Government grant, while the position of east European countries’ refuges is particularly dire. Why does the EU not help them? While diplomats munch in style, the people at the grass roots and the victims remain penniless.

The Government must start to collect reliable data and statistics on trafficking in the UK. They keep promising, but they cannot deliver. With the police powerless to act against child trafficking of the under-10s and with human trafficking not being a police performance indicator, with social services losing children and with the immigration services having little expertise to identify victims and being unable to stop EU passport holders, the situation is now desperate.

According to the former Minister for Women and Equality, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn):

That is just not true. As we conclude the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, we have a new chapter and a new form of slavery right on our doorstep. History is repeating itself and we have not learned the lessons.

5.17 pm

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I start my speech where the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) finished his by drawing that comparison between the current horrendous slavery that we face today and that of the past. According to the International Labour
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Organisation, the estimated minimum number of persons exploited as a result of trafficking at a given time is approaching 2.5 million—an estimate made in 2005—but many hon. Members believe that the real figure today is much higher.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said earlier, most people are trafficked for sexual exploitation, but he also referred to economic exploitation, and some people are trafficked for other reasons. There is also now the additional horrendous crime of trafficking in humans for organ donation. As other hon. Members have noted, trafficking in human beings is now the third most profitable criminal activity in the world after illegal drugs and arms trafficking.

We are debating today a Council of Europe convention on trafficking. Like other hon. Members, I have served on the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which comprises national delegations from 47 European parliaments. I have recently been elected vice-chair of the Assembly’s sub-committee on trafficking in human beings, whose aim is to campaign to promote the widest possible signature and ratification of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, so that it can come into force not only at the earliest opportunity, but with the widest possible ratification.

We are pleased to note that the convention will enter into force on 1 February, following the 10th ratification by Cyprus. However, entry into force is not an end in itself. To be successful, it must enter into effect in all the member states of greater Europe and in other parts of the world, providing a global response to a global problem. The wider the ratification, the better the protection for victims, as the convention can reach its full potential only when it is ratified by all the countries of Europe and beyond.

To help parliamentarians and people who want to promote the widest ratification of the convention, the sub-committee has drawn up a handbook for parliamentarians, which I commend to Members. In the wider sphere, the Inter-Parliamentary Union is contemplating drawing up a worldwide handbook. I am pleased to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, with his great knowledge and expertise, will represent the British group of the IPU at a conference in Vienna next month on drawing up that handbook.

The convention can make a genuine difference, not only to prevention but to victims of this crime. Some have questioned the need for another convention, saying that there are already laws and international agreements. It is true that we have the United Nations protocol—the Palermo protocol—and the convention against transnational organised crime to prevent and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. We also have the European Union directive of 29 April 2004 on the residence permit issued to third-country national victims of trafficking, or to third-country nationals who have been the subject of an action to facilitate illegal migration and who co-operate with the competent authorities. We have the EU Council framework decision of 19 July 2002 on combating trafficking in human beings, and we have the action plan from the Organisation for Security and
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Co-operation in Europe to combat trafficking in human beings. So why do we need a new convention?

We need a new convention simply because the existing international texts either are not sufficiently binding or take account of just one aspect of the problem. The geographical setting of the Council of Europe enables countries of origin, transit and destination to agree on a common binding policy against trafficking. The main reason we need this convention, however, is that none of the aforementioned legal instruments focus on victims of trafficking. The Council of Europe convention is the first international instrument to focus on the victims, and that is its added value. One of the primary concerns of the Council of Europe is to safeguard and protect human rights, and trafficking in human beings directly undermines the values on which the Council is based.

Other Members have referred to the Government’s slowness to sign the convention. I think that the arguments about the dangers to our immigration policy—the “pull factor”—were spurious, and that the Joint Committee on Human Rights was correct to say

I am pleased to observe the progress that has been made. It is true that the pressure to persuade the Government to sign was exerted on a cross-party basis, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Totnes for not just his knowledge of the situation but his determination. I also pay tribute to members of the Council of Europe delegation across the parties: to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), and to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who is no longer present, and the Baroness Knight of Collingtree. There has been a cross-party consensus on the issue, and I think that some of our debates on it have shown Parliament at its best. Parliamentarians have worked together to achieve a common goal.

The features of the convention that are important and illustrate why we should ratify it include compulsory assistance measures and a “recovery and reflection” period for victims of trafficking; the possibility of delivering residence permits to victims not only on the basis of co-operation with law enforcement authorities, but on humanitarian and human rights grounds; a non-punishment clause for victims of trafficking; a strengthened international co-operation scheme; and the independent monitoring system, GRETA, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred.

My hon. Friend also expressed one of my own concerns. The Ministers who are contracting parties to the convention will determine its procedures, the appointment procedures for the members of GRETA and the way in which they will work. If we have not yet ratified the convention by the time those discussions take place, what input will we have, and what consultation will we have with non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders to ensure GRETA’s independence?

Finally, let me raise two issues that others have mentioned. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the hon. Member for Totnes have referred
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to the disappeared children on other occasions. In an earlier debate, the hon. Member for Totnes spoke of the international activity over one child who had tragically disappeared, and the media speculation and coverage of that one child, and contrasted that with the amount that we read in the national press about children who have gone missing from care. There is also the issue of unaccompanied minors who disappear. Do we know where they are, and do we know how many may have disappeared into the sex trade in Italy? We are becoming not only a country of destination, but a country of transit. That is why we need ratification, and we need it early. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister wishes to see that done with minimum delay.

I welcome the guidance that the Government have produced and the statement that the Home Secretary has made this week. I think that there is a determination in the House and on the part of the Government. I hope that the motion will not need to be subject to a vote this evening.

5.24 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): This has been an informative and educative debate. In the few minutes that I have, I want to concentrate on the most vulnerable in society, about whom we have heard so much this afternoon—the children.

According to the US State Department, 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Approximately 50 per cent. of them are minors. In a world that is opening up so fast, the challenge is how to control and monitor who is travelling where, when and why, and often whom they are travelling with. That is why I believe firmly that a co-ordinated border policy, starting with our airlines and airports, as well as gold-plated ratification of the Council of Europe’s convention on action against trafficking in human beings, offers our best hope to end the trafficking of children into the United Kingdom.

Children are trafficked into the UK using many different forms of transport, but I want to focus on the airlines. As the Minister will know, no data are available regarding the percentage of children trafficked into the UK via airlines because there is no central data collection on children trafficked into the UK. However, it is known that children are trafficked into the UK and are arriving at airports across the country, including at smaller regional airports frequented by budget airlines.

There are no global standards or regulations related to the age at which a child can travel alone by air transport. Airlines vary enormously in their standards. For example, Virgin, which sets a good standard, insists that children between the ages of five and 15 must be registered in advance of travel for the unaccompanied minor service, or be accompanied by someone aged 16 or over. Children above 16 can travel alone. Children can travel alone with easyJet from the age of 14, with British Airways from the age of 12 and, amazingly, from the age of just four with Air France.

To protect children and to prevent trafficking, there must be checks and balances at every point in the journey—from pre-check-in until immigration services on arrival. The airlines themselves have an important part to play, yet it is my understanding that they have
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not been involved in policy development to any degree. I would be interested to hear from the Minister if that is the case and if so how he intends to rectify what is clearly a serious oversight.

Mr. Steen: Is my hon. Friend aware that children from Vietnam and China check in, show their passports and then, during the journey to Britain, flush their passports down the loo or even eat them, so that when they get to Heathrow or Gatwick, they have no papers at all? People have to photostat their passports in China or Vietnam and send them by wire to Britain, so that when the children arrive we know who they are.

Mr. Swire: When my hon. Friend made that point about 10 minutes ago, I was amazed. I remain amazed. It is a good point and no doubt the Minister will wish to reflect on it, although there are issues about taking records at the point of departure.

A useful point to return to is the findings from Operation Paladin, run by the Metropolitan police in 2004. It involved the immigration service, Hillingdon social services and secondees from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The operation risk assessed children arriving at Heathrow airport over three months without their parents or legal guardians, and social services followed up those considered at risk. In total, 1,738 unaccompanied minors passed through immigration services in that period. Not all of them were trafficked, but it shows the number of children who travel unaccompanied. That did not include EU nationals or British children. The Paladin team risk-assessed 551 children, or 30 per cent., based on a list of indicators considered by police to indicate that something was not quite right. The largest risk group were African teenage girls.

UNICEF showed that, in an 18-month period, 330 children were believed to have been trafficked into the UK. Of that total—we have heard a lot about this—183 went missing from the care of social services. Most appallingly, there is evidence that many children may still be under the control of traffickers while they are in local authority care, let alone those who went missing from it.

There is currently no safe accommodation providing 24-hour care for trafficked children, and as a result many of them end up in foster care, hostels or even bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I hope that the Minister will extend funding to the POPPY project to look after such vulnerable children and provide professional support and, critically, counselling where appropriate.

Many young victims of trafficking are awaiting asylum determinations whose age is disputed by local authority social services and the Home Office Border and Immigration Agency. If their age is assessed as 18 or over, they are placed in the adult system, which does not provide for safe accommodation and support services for age-disputed victims, unless, of course, they get access to the POPPY project. ECPAT UK found child-trafficked victim identification

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