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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 February 2008

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Enforced Criminal Activity (Children)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

9.30 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am delighted that the Speaker has given me the opportunity to raise this matter at an opportune time. Nearly two weeks ago, the national media covered an unusual raid in Slough, and the results have occasioned me to raise this matter.

I am raising a new phenomenon. Something is happening in Britain, and no one has grasped quite what it is. Like a good Agatha Christie—she was a constituent of mine, and her family lived on the River Dart—one does not see the full picture until all the jigsaw pieces are in place. Then the whole picture becomes clear. What is happening is that organised crime networks are trafficking Roma children into Britain and other EU countries, notably Italy and Spain, and using them to milk the benefits system and for criminal activities such as shoplifting, pickpocketing and ATM theft.

Children are sold by their parents to gangs. The gangs then demand money to traffic the children to another country on the promise of a safe return. The family enter into debt slavery with extortionate interest rates, the gang demands another child, the children are smuggled through Europe, or are simply flown into the United Kingdom with two adults, and are unchallenged at Gatwick or Heathrow as they have EU passports. They often fly to Luton, where there are direct flights from Romania. Children are trafficked through every airport in the UK, and they remain unchallenged.

If passports were at least viewed, officials would see when children have different names from those accompanying them. Even better, if they were scanned regularly, they would be detected. Children are placed with a family that is controlled by a criminal gang, and are forced to beg, steal and sell—The Big Issue is one recent example—on false identity cards. They are made to look after babies, and to beg with them. They are made to sleep on the floor, and must give everything they earn or steal to the family, or they are beaten. The benefits go back to the gang, which builds a comfortable and expensive lifestyle back in Romania and Bulgaria.

Examples arising from the Slough raid are sub judice, so I cannot raise them now, but they are blood-curdling in their cruelty. The police believe that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 trafficked Roma children in the UK. The important thing is that none of them goes to school, and they are not on any social service database. They are not cared for by foster parents, and they are completely below the radar.

This is a new phenomenon, and what we are witnessing has only recently dawned on our law enforcement officers. To put things into perspective, the Performance Information Bureau reveals a 786 per cent. increase in Romanian
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nationals accused of crime in the Metropolitan Police Service district, compared with the same period in 2006. The number of Bulgarian nationals accused of criminal activity has increased by 250 per cent. in the same period. This is the work of criminal gangs but, unlike most such gangs, they buy children and school them in the art of street crime. I believe that there are three schools dedicated to teaching criminal activity. I am not allowed to disclose where they are, but we know of at least two in Romania and the third is probably in Bulgaria. The twist is that many of those children are under 10 and have no criminal liability in this country. Although they are viewed as being too young to know that what they are doing is wrong in British law, they are not too young to be trafficked. They have either been sold by their desperately poor families to gangs that then train them, or, more likely, they come here as families, and carry out their activities as a family unit.

The Roma community has faced persecution for hundreds of years, and its members were victims of Nazi Germany. The conditions in which they live are among the poorest that I have ever seen, sometimes in decaying brick and mud huts without electricity, with heating provided solely by wood fires, and water having to be pumped from the fields. The problem is that they cannot find work, and are discriminated against by their host community. I believe that the Minister has been to Romania and seen some of those conditions, as I have. They are unbelievable in the EU.

Three or four years ago, the river in Chernavoda in Romania flooded and many of the brick and straw houses were destroyed. When I went there less than a couple of years ago, many of the houses had not been rebuilt and the families were living in makeshift barns, tents and wooden structures where one would not expect animals to live in Britain.

In Romania, the Government pay the Roma £6 in benefits per child per week. When the Roma families come to Britain, they receive £45 per child per week. That is a dramatic increase—eight times the amount they would receive in Romania. I doubt whether the Minister has any idea of how many Roma families are purportedly claiming benefit in Britain and being paid for by the British taxpayer, because there is no national database that records which families are claiming child benefit. I am told that Roma families move between local authority areas and claim again and again. I do not know whether that is true, but I would like to know whether it is. It may be fraudulent, but I believe that it is happening. If so, would the Minister tell the House what he will do to establish a national database pretty smartly? Until he does so, benefit fraud will milk the system, and the amount of money coming from the British taxpayer will continue to increase.

We are witnessing the infiltration of increasing numbers of Roma Gypsies who settle not just in Slough, where they rent terraced houses, but all over London. They move 23 to 26 people and often more into one house, and sleep in a similar way as back home. Entire families of six or eight people live and sleep cheek by jowl in one room. That is no different from what happens in eastern Europe.

I shall give an example of how Roma families move on. The original view was that perhaps 100 homes in Slough had criminal activity going on. On 13 December last year, Thames Valley police arrested three males and
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two females in a car outside an identified address. They were arrested for burglary offences. The arresting officers were from the traffic division and had little knowledge of Romanian organised crime methods. They spoke to the people at the address that then contained a whole family. When criminal investigation officers returned a few hours later to search the house, they found that it had been vacated. The entire family had moved out. Floorboards had been lifted, bedding sliced open, furniture turned upside down and all possessions and property had been taken. The speed at which the Roma communities move makes it very difficult to pinpoint and convict any of those involved in crime.

I wonder what the Slough health and safety officers think about that. Have they visited those premises? If not, why not? The addresses are known to the police. I suspect that it is because the officers cannot cope. Is the same true of Slough social services? Some 126 Roma children are suspected of being trafficked, of whom 57 per cent. have criminal histories. About 80 children were counted in Slough at the beginning of the year. The cost to the council tax payer is spiralling.

As regards the 10 children who were taken into police protection in Slough as a result of the Slough raid, only one child was returned to the address from which they were taken. The parents of three children flew in from Spain to collect them and the parents of two children flew in from Romania. Other children were reunited with parents from all over the UK. The children were aged between two and eight. The one thing that all the children had in common was that they did not attend nursery or primary schools or participate in any form of UK education. The Roma children whom I know are in their early teens and totally illiterate.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned that the police take children into care. He knows that the police hand over the children to the local authorities, which then care for them appropriately under the Children Act 1989. Local authorities have a duty to care for children, and few groups need more care than children who are trafficked for slavery, benefit abuse or, even worse, sexual abuse. Does he share my concern that the Government are not properly funding the local authorities to carry out that duty of care?

Mr. Steen: My hon. Friend raises a point that I would have raised until I investigated the matter. First, local authority social services do a very good job. The social workers, who are very hard working, have a problem dealing with the British alone. Landing them with foreign children from other EU countries puts a burden on them, with which most of them cannot cope. As a result, when they try to cope, they find that they are totally outmatched by the traffickers. When children are put into care, safe houses are not safe. The children go missing within hours. The director of social work in Manchester said that within minutes of children going into care, they are off. The traffickers are often waiting outside with their car engines running. The children walk out of the front door of a care home and into the car. Social workers cannot care for the children and they do not speak their language.

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Most Romanian children cannot read or write, and cannot speak any other language. We have no care homes that are staffed by Romanian speakers. We have no foster parents who speak Romanian. The problem is out of control. There is no way we can cope with children in care. They are not in care and they are not in safe homes, because they just escape. The situation is devastating, and I am glad that it was raised by my hon. Friend. No matter that the local authorities have a duty to care for those children; our social services cannot cope with this problem.

The Slough example is not the only one. Haringey council spent its annual interpreters’ budget on Romanian interpreters in the first three months of this year. The authorities are failing because they are overwhelmed. The police do not have the resources permanently to disrupt the vast criminal networks. As the going gets easier for the criminal gangs, the trickle of Gypsies will increase to a flood. Free right of access across EU frontiers makes it possible for the first time for the Roma communities to come from across Europe. That form of trafficking is entirely new. Although the children are often with their own family, their family is mortgaged. They are debt-bonded to the criminal gangs, who are of their own kind and come from their own village.

The organised criminal network exploits the most vulnerable groups in their society. The families sell one of their many children for cash, and the child is expected to pay off the debt by crime. Non-payment of the debt by the child results in intimidation and violence to the family. If one goes to many villages in Romania, one can see hovels in one section of the town and beautifully built homes in another part. Those homes are being financed by the gangs’ activities in this country and others.

We have hundreds—and in time, thousands—of those families in Britain. Their sole aim is to milk the benefit system and to steal on the streets. I have personal experience of apprehending a Romanian teenager at Marble Arch underground station as part of my police duties under the police service parliamentary scheme. The girl had stolen goods on her but of insufficient value for the police to prosecute her. She had a return underground ticket, but no money. She was one of a group of teenagers whom we were unable to apprehend because of the speed with which they disappeared as soon as they saw the uniform.

The girl was taken to a place of safety at Marylebone police station, and we spent five hours trying to get information out of her; we could not. We had a Romanian interpreter—heaven knows at what cost—and she could not get any information out of the girl either. The girl was deft at not answering questions and pretending not to understand, when I knew that she could understand. She claimed to live with other members of her family, but refused to give her address. I pay tribute to Superintendent Gravett and his team, as well as to the Romanian police officers who have been seconded from Romania to Britain to help to get a grip on the problem. They are doing a great job, but they have not got all the pieces of the jigsaw together.

In his office, Superintendent Gravett and his team have already collected hundreds of pictures and names of children as they try to put two and two together. However, they are finding that it makes more than 1,000 as they struggle to cope with a never-ending barrage of
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numbers, new names, new figures, and new children who move from one country to another. Such children move much faster than any of our law enforcement agencies.

Haringey social services said that they could not cope with the girl whom we apprehended. They had no social workers or funds available. There were no foster carers who spoke Romanian, and there were no secure hostels. If there were, they would not have been secure enough for that girl. We arrested the girl at 3 o’clock. By 8 o’clock, the police let her go. She knew that that was going to happen. She was not going to give them any details. She said that she lived in a house with her parents. She did not disclose where that house was. I offered to accompany her home on the underground, but she would not have it, and she was able to speak English when she had to.

I believe that London society is now a sitting duck. It is a target for Roma-organised crime, which is spreading throughout the region. Against that background, one must look at the Metropolitan police service area and the increase in pick-pocketing, distraction theft and ATM crime since 1 January 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the EU. Not just the Met district has been hit; other police forces across the UK are reporting increases in criminal behaviour in those categories.

The removal by the police of 407 Romanian nationals back to Romania resulted in a 29 per cent. reduction in pickpocketing and a 24 per cent. reduction in other thefts in Marylebone alone, which represented more than 6,000 crimes. We are witnessing the criminal exploitation of young children, most of them trafficked into this country through organised criminal networks. The British Transport police believe that Bulgarians are responsible for up to 80 per cent. of pickpocketing thefts on the London underground.

All that is trafficking with a difference, the difference being that instead of the trafficked person being sold to a third party, the trafficked child is often the down payment that the traffickers are holding for debt bondage. The child works to redeem their family’s debt, and the family then become engulfed in the criminal way of life.

The Roma organised criminal networks are unique in that their criminal patterns embrace—people will have seen this—the use of women with babies for begging, children for distraction thefts, young girls for shoplifting and young boys to steal cash by distraction. They are responsible for much of the UK fraud loss at ATM machines. In 2006, the fraud loss at ATM machines was £61.9 million.

What, then, is going on in Slough and as a result of Slough? Intelligence suggests that children and adults are being sold between gangs in the UK, as well as being trafficked into the UK for criminal purposes. There are a number of factual accounts on record that provide evidence of sales for £20,000 of one or more persons, including babies and very young children. There is a reason why the figures are so high. I find them hard to believe, and I have questioned the police about the issue on many occasions. They say that a talented criminally active child can earn approximately £100,000 a year for the gang. I just do not believe the figure, but I am told that I should accept it.

It is believed that more than 1,000 children were trafficked out just before the accession; 187 children have been identified as criminally active in London and
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across the UK. Their offending spans 32 UK police force areas. Some of the children have had up to 12 convictions since 2007. The adults have committed criminal offences linked to false asylum applications and benefit fraud. Organised criminal gang members are acting as appropriate adults for arrested children across the Metropolitan Police Service. Significant amounts of money are being transferred back to Romania. This is a very important point. It is a big business. One can see places all around London where people can send money abroad. Enormous sums are going from Britain to Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic through those cash shops.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I know that my hon. Friend recently went to see the work of the Border and Immigration Agency. One extraordinary fact is that children under the age of four are being trafficked into this country. There seemed to be no purpose for that, but it was explained that, because they are not fingerprinted when they come in, they can be used repeatedly at Lunar house to obtain benefits for more than one person. Is that another way in which trafficked children are defeating the benefits system?

Mr. Steen: Surprisingly, my hon. Friend knows that what he is saying is correct because he was with me. The visit to Lunar house was quite enlightening and disturbing, as it showed how the system is being exploited by people who are far cleverer than the system. Every time the system changes, they are ahead of the game. I recollect that we heard about young men who pour alcohol on their fingers and set them alight to defraud the immigration service by preventing it from obtaining accurate fingerprints. That is how ghastly the whole business has become.

There is a big problem. The Government need to explore whether criminal exploitation of victims for gain by another is an offence. I do not want to increase the amount of law on the statute book, but I am not sure that that is an offence. Roma children are used for criminal exploitation in begging, pickpocketing and illegally selling The Big Issue, which is one of the things that they do. Their gangmasters get the money, but I believe that the gangmasters cannot be charged with a crime; instead the child is criminalised. Is that the case? Do we need a new law of criminal exploitation of others? There is a view that the current law may be insufficient to deal with that crime.

I wonder whether, if we were more intrusive at the points of entry right across the EU, Madeleine McCann might not have been able to pass through customs without a problem. I am talking not just about this country, but about other EU countries. They are not vigilant enough about children coming through with adults other than their own family, and even then, as we know, many of the passports are forged.

In 2006, crime from eastern Europe was negligible; now the situation is out of control. I warned of that on 24 November 2005 in a debate in the House. I said that


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