Previous Section Index Home Page

16 Jan 2008 : Column 1019

How will the Government ensure that both the Home Office Border and Immigration Agency and social services comply with the 2005 Council of Europe convention against trafficking in human beings on the provision of accommodation and support to age-disputed young victims of trafficking?

Like all Members, I welcomed the decision to ratify the convention, but the Government need not wait until the end of the year to instigate these recommendations, and I hope that they do not prevaricate any further. In order to combat the sexual exploitation of children, there must be a comprehensive, co-ordinated partnership between many groups—not only the police and the Home Office, but prosecutors, lawyers, embassies, non-governmental organisations, the travel industry and the media. Trafficking in children is an escalating problem, although how big it is is debatable, so I hope that the Minister will commission authoritative research to provide hard facts and evidence to inform the debate. As yet, there is no system of best practice in the travel industry, no consistent multi-agency approach at borders, no systematic tracking or spot checks and a weak support structure. I await the Minister’s recommendations with hope that he will grasp this nettle.

In 21st century Britain, it is frankly an outrage that child trafficking can exist. The Government must now act with greater speed and clarity, and provide the requisite resources to stamp out this unacceptable practice.

5.32 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), and to have been listening to such an important debate with so many excellent contributions, such as those from the Minister and the hon. Members for Ashford (Damian Green) and for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). I was going to say that we cannot put a cigarette paper between the Front-Bench positions, but we are not allowed to talk about cigarettes any longer, of course.

All Members understand the seriousness of the issue under discussion. As we have heard, the phrase “human trafficking” covers a wide variety of behaviour, ranging from the experiences of the illegal immigrants from China who worked as cockle pickers at Morecambe bay to the abused women, many from within the European Union, who are tricked into working in the sex industry in the United Kingdom. Although recent operations in our country have focused on the sex trade, as the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) pointed out in his eloquent speech, there are other issues such as bonded labour in areas such as domestic service and the restaurant trade that involve even more people, so the effects might be even wider than the experts present today believe.

The hon. Member for East Devon quoted State Department figures. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 1 million people are trafficked across borders each year, and the trade generates $32 billion a year worldwide, making it the third biggest earner for organised crime gangs after
16 Jan 2008 : Column 1020
illegal drugs and arms trafficking. Although estimates vary, it is agreed that thousands of people are trafficked into our country every year. I take on board the point made by Members that it is important that we have up-to-date figures from the Government on how many people are involved. Victims of trafficking are sold from gang to gang and are moved across the UK and between the UK and other EU member states by the people who seek to exploit them, which makes the detection of these people very difficult indeed.

I, like other hon. Members, warmly welcome the Government’s decision, announced by the Home Secretary yesterday and reinforced by the Minister today, to ratify the European convention on human trafficking. Obviously, we all hope that that happens as quickly as possible, although the timetable given suggests that it should happen by the end of the year.

I also welcome the effects of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which this Government introduced. Some £109,328 has been seized by my local Leicestershire police force as a result of the operation of that legislation. I congratulate the Home Office on other significant measures, such as the creation of the UK Human Trafficking Centre in 2006 to ensure that the response of our various police forces is co-ordinated.

Yesterday, I met Kate Allen from Amnesty International. Although she praised what the Government have done, she raised a number of issues concerning the identification of trafficking victims and touched on many of the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the immigration implications for those who are left in this country.

The Home Affairs Committee has considered a number of those aspects. It has examined aspects of immigration, asylum law and human trafficking. I am pleased to tell the House that we decided at our previous meeting to initiate a full inquiry into human trafficking, whereby the Committee will try to establish the scale and type of human trafficking and the way in which investigations can identify the victims, and make recommendations and suggestions to the Government.

The inquiry will almost certainly examine the issue of international co-operation with other EU member states and with the new transit countries, such as Ukraine, Moldova and Croatia. We hope, of course, to take evidence from the Minister. I am pleased to say that we agreed to ask the hon. Member for Totnes to give evidence to help us examine how we can obtain good information. As other hon. Members have done today, I bend my knee to his vast experience on this issue.

The inquiry will hear from the Border and Immigration Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. We will almost certainly visit a number of EU and other countries. I am not sure that we will follow the Minister around Europe, but I know that Ukraine and Moldova, and possibly Lithuania or Poland, have been mentioned as places to visit. We are, of course, the Home Affairs Committee, so we do not intend to spend too much time abroad, but it is important to examine the source countries to ensure that we are able to track what is happening.

I am certain that the inquiry will be thorough and will go a long way in helping the Government to take the right steps forward, in eradicating this terrible
16 Jan 2008 : Column 1021
problem and in trying to deal with the far-reaching problem of organised crime in this area. These women and children often come to Britain in the hope of a better life, and it is this House’s duty, as reflected in the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, to ensure that that is exactly what they get. They must not be exploited in the way that they have been in the past.

5.38 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I welcome this timely debate. It is right that we collectively, as parliamentarians, demonstrate our shared commitment today to tackling this evil activity, at a time when other countries are trying to demonstrate that they are doing their bit. For example, last Friday the United States held a national day of human trafficking awareness. It had been initiated by the US Congress to try to raise the American public’s consciousness of this issue.

Many hon. Members have referred to similar sets of data on the scale of the problem, which have come from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Labour Organisation and the US State Department. There is common agreement on the size and scope of the international problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) was right to identify just how thin the data are on victims of human trafficking in the UK. That will be a real barrier to effective Government action to tackle the problem. Unless there is more serious research and a much better understanding of the nature of the problem within our own borders, we will come up against that barrier, which will be difficult to overcome in terms of securing effective action.

I spent the earlier part of today looking through the national action plan that the Home Office produced last year. It attempts to set out some specific objectives for tackling the problem. However, that was a year ago and there was a push to produce the document to coincide with the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery. A year later, more information has come to light and progress has been made on the ratification of the convention, so it is time for a revamped and updated national action plan. It is right that we should review the situation each year and assess how well we are meeting the objectives. We should also question whether the objectives are the right ones and will be effective in tackling the problem.

Most of the debate this afternoon has focused on the problem of trafficking within our borders. Actually, most of the victims of trafficking globally are outside Britain, in the developing world. This afternoon and this evening, thousands of women from eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc will be working on the streets and in thousands of brothels in communities up and down this country, but we should not forget the faces of the other victims of trafficking internationally. Young Burmese boys continue to be plucked from street corners and bus stations in Burma and forcibly conscripted into the army. The gangster regime in Burma has created the army with the largest proportion of child soldiers in the world, and most of them have been forcibly conscripted and many
16 Jan 2008 : Column 1022
trafficked. I also think of some of the children whom I met near Hyderabad in India last year. They were from the Dalit community—the untouchable caste—and victims of trafficking, working in a bonded labour scenario. Trafficking has multiple facets and many faces, and we should not forget that most of its victims are outside this country.

It is vital that we have a new, integrated border security force and I strongly the support the commitment by my party to instigate such a force, especially if resources can be found to restore some of the border security at Welsh ports. I represent a seat in west Wales that has two ferry ports with connections to Ireland, and there is a growing concern in Wales that the four ports that link to Ireland are being used as a back-door alternative trafficking route from the continent, through Ireland and into the UK. That issue has been raised with me by police officers confidentially back home in Pembrokeshire. It was also identified in a report last year by the Welsh Assembly Government. I therefore urge the Minister to take that into consideration as he and his colleagues assess the issue of border security and what can be done to choke off the supply of trafficked people through UK borders. In recent years, there have been many cuts to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so we no longer have any permanent customs cover at the two ferry ports of Pembroke Dock and Fishguard in my constituency.

On the issue of convictions for trafficking offences, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes hit the nail on the head when he highlighted the disparity between the number of prosecutions and the number of convictions. What work has been done to identify the barriers to achieving successful convictions of those who are charged with trafficking offences? If we understood what those barriers are, it could lead to more effective police training and, I hope, to more convictions.

Mr. Steen: Is not the problem with prosecutions and convictions that the women are not prepared to give evidence against their traffickers? The women have no security, other than their families back home, and they do not have identity cards that would enable them to stay on in Britain. Those are the two reasons why we do not obtain more convictions.

Mr. Crabb: Again, my hon. Friend brings his experience, knowledge and good judgment to the debate. I hope that that has been noted by the Ministers.

Let me move from the subject of supply to that of demand. We have a real problem in this country with a booming sex industry that lumps together a whole set of legal and illegal activities. They range from legal and illegal pornography through legal and illegal lap-dancing clubs to prostitution, which takes many different forms and is conducted in many different places. I sense an element of schizophrenia in how we think about the problem. There is gross moral outrage when we talk about human trafficking and people who are forced into sexual slavery in this country, yet when we talk about prostitution we almost stand back, afraid of climbing down from our position of liberal neutrality. We cannot tackle a large part of the trafficking problem in this country unless we start to tackle the growth of the sex industry. The growing demand from British men for easily available paid-for sex is largely driving the supply of trafficked women into this country.

16 Jan 2008 : Column 1023

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) mentioned the change that has taken place over the past 10 years. We have gone from a situation where 85 per cent. of those working in prostitution were from the UK to one where an estimated 85 per cent. are foreign. Such a massive change will have come about in one of two ways: either through a huge fall in the number of domestic girls and young women working in the sex trade, or through a massive increase in the supply of foreign women to meet additional demand. I think that the latter has happened.

Demand is booming for easily available paid-for sex and it is being met by women who have, effectively, been imported. That is backed up by some research that I read earlier today, which suggested that the proportion of men who admit to paying for sex has more than doubled in the past 10 years from about 2 per cent. to 4 or 4.5 per cent. That backs up my assertion about the growing demand in this country for paid-for sex. I pay tribute to the work on that point done by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and to the tone that she has struck.

In my last 20 seconds of allotted time, I shall make a final point about victims. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) talked about transferring knowledge from this country to countries from which people are being trafficked. There is also a need to learn from some of the excellent initiatives on the ground in those countries when we work with the victims of trafficking in this country.

5.47 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In the spirit of bipartisanship, I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) as well as many other colleagues. In January 2006, I had the pleasure of publishing an article in The Daily Telegraph to urge the signature and ratification of the convention on action against trafficking. A year later, the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), came on board. The campaign was already well under way thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and his all-party group. They all raised the issue repeatedly in oral questions, Home Office questions and directly with the Prime Minister.

A year ago, I received a letter from the then Prime Minister. He said that signing the Council of Europe convention would

Two years after we began the campaign, the fact that we have signed and ratified the convention is cause for modest parliamentary celebration. It shows that working in Europe and accepting some derogation of our sovereignty in agreeing to change our laws at the behest of a European agency is something that all parties can support.

I should like to take this opportunity to join others in thanking Ministers—especially my hon. Friend the
16 Jan 2008 : Column 1024
Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), and my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, as well as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing—for showing leadership and courage in facing down objections from Whitehall officials on this measure. No one should underestimate how far we have come in two years, or the extent to which political leadership and parliamentary pressure have changed the story.

I want to focus on the problem of the young women, many of them under 18 years of age, who are trafficked to work as prostitutes in Britain. I and other hon. Members have raised this matter in the House, usually to the scorn and sniggers of the sketch-writers and commentators—the lads with the laptops, so to speak. They find that any threat to what they consider to be men’s inalienable right to buy sex from women, even when they are forced, beaten, trafficked or trapped into prostitution, is something that simply has to be dismissed.

I hope that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) will not take it awry when I say that I was dismayed to hear his contribution to last Sunday’s “The World This Weekend” programme. He attacked those of us who want to tackle the demand side of sex-slave prostitution for being engaged on some sort of moral campaign.

Mr. Bone: I was not attacking anyone on a moral basis. The debate about prostitution is very important, but I do not believe that banning or liberalising prostitution can have any effect on human trafficking. Whichever we do, the trafficking will continue.

Mr. Crabb indicated dissent.

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was shaking his head vigorously during that intervention. I expect that we shall return to this discussion. I mean no negative comment on what the hon. Gentleman has said, as his position is shared by many men and by a number of women, but the debate is out in the open and we must get our response right. I happen to think that slowing down the ever-increasing demand in this country for sex slaves, many of whom are still children, is morally a good thing.

Along with Ministers and other hon. Members, I have embarked on a campaign to encourage men to take responsibility for their part in sustaining this modern form of slavery. The ever-growing demand that I have described gives rise to advertisements for brothels in newspapers that state, for example, that fresh girls are imported every week. Without that demand, there would be a smaller supply of sex slaves.

Mr. Crabb: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacShane: I am able to take two interventions, apparently, and then my time will run out. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Crabb: The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but is he aware that a mainstream evening newspaper in south Wales carried a front-page story last October about raids on brothels in Cardiff
16 Jan 2008 : Column 1025
where trafficked women were working as prostitutes? Further into the paper, however, it printed adverts in its advertising section for exactly the same brothels that were being reported on the front page.

Mr. MacShane: Voltaire defined hypocrisy as the compliment that vice pays to virtue, and never was that more accurate than in the case of that south Wales newspaper.

I am delighted to see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has taken her place on the Front Bench, along with my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House. My right hon. and learned Friend has taken a lot of unfair criticism since she very bravely raised this matter on the “Today” programme just before Christmas, but this is a debate whose time has come. It will not be easy, but the discussion has to begin.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacShane: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I really cannot, as an eight-minute limit has been imposed on speeches. I am sure that he will have other chances to make points in the weeks and months ahead.

What are the figures? I confess that no one can supply a fully accurate figure for the number of women trafficked into Britain for sexual slavery purposes. By definition, however, people being trafficked in and out of the UK sex-slave trade are not going to queue up at a border control to announce their arrival.

On 19 October 2005, that fine newspaper the Daily Mirror carried the headline “25,000 Sex Slaves on The Streets of Britain”. I was once a Daily Mirror reporter, so I trust the report that appeared beneath, which stated:

Next Section Index Home Page