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6 Feb 2008 : Column 240WH—continued

Despite that warning, we went ahead and brought Romania and Bulgaria into the EU. I welcome that,
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but we did not put up safeguards to ensure that the problem that I said might arise did not arise. Do not let us put our finger solely on Romania. There are Roma communities throughout Europe and they are not solely to blame. They are used by criminal networks and their vulnerability and poverty make them perfect targets.

I ask the Minister to take this very seriously. Roma communities have a different culture. They play by different rules, and they have utterly different behaviour from most others. They have a different approach to work. In the village in Romania that I visited, I was told by the Government officials with me that 97 per cent. of the people living there would not be working. We are unlikely to be able to offer solutions on how we can cope with the Roma problems until we understand them better. I have noticed that there is a total lack of social studies from the top universities about those communities and how we can ever integrate them. It strikes me that that is a tremendously important thing that we have overlooked. We are dealing with a different group of people, and we cannot hassle and harass them for their way of life, although it does impinge on our way of life and what they do is quite wrong. We have to understand how they operate and their motivations.

The Romanians whom I know in Romania are quite hostile to the Roma communities. They feel that they let the Romanians and the Bulgarians down. They are known for pilfering and criminality. The Romanians whom I know are very offended by what has been going on in Britain, and they want to put things right. Our aim should be to break the cycle of abuse. The Government should be saying loud and clear that they do not have the resources or knowledge to deal with those hundreds of children. The children with criminal records should be treated as victims of crime and repatriated with the support of reputable children’s organisations in the countries from where they come. We cannot send children back on their own, because they will just be recycled.

I pay tribute to the Romanian authorities, which are facing up to the problems. I shall describe the kind of case that they are having to deal with. One Roma child of 13 had a baby in Spain. The grandfather of that baby, who was about 34 years old, brought the little girl into Britain and was apprehended at Stansted airport. She was transferred to Essex social services. Will the Minister arrange for the Romanian embassy officials to gain access to visit that child—they have had great difficulty in doing so?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Perhaps I shall not lose sight of that point if the hon. Gentleman writes to me about it. I do not want to lose sight of a specific point on an individual case in the generality of the debate, and I would be happy to look at the matter and consider it.

Mr. Steen: I anticipated a helpful intervention, so I have assisted the Minister by tabling three questions—I shall draw the attention of his office to them.

In the past 18 months, the Romanian authorities have established greatly improved social care in Romania—it has come forward in leaps and bounds. They have
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closed the orphanages, they have a register of parents who want to adopt and they have established centres made up of psychologists, teachers and doctors. The latter are thoroughly underutilised, so there are plenty of places for children apprehended in this country if they are sent back to Romania. My information is that the Romanian authorities expect Britain to send the children and the criminal gangs back to Romania, and to be much more vigilant at ports of entry if such people attempt to re-traffic.

Also in the past 18 months, Britain has tried to place 18 children in foster care, but only four ended up in such care. They were placed in foster care away from danger, but they all ran off within 24 hours—one took all the electrical goods in the house—so that is not a particularly good idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) came up with a suggestion on those lines, but I should tell him that it has been tried.

Bob Spink: I agree with my hon. Friend, but he missed the point that I was making. Essex county council and social services would claim that they do not receive sufficient funds from the Government to give proper care, set up safe houses and employ interpreters, nor to give the care that the children need before they are returned to their country, as they should be.

Mr. Steen: My hon. Friend has now made his point twice.

I do not want to describe more individual cases but, apparently, someone in the Home Office has on their desk three other cases in which the removal of children requires ministerial approval—I doubt that it is this Minister. At first, I thought that the decision would take three days; then I thought that it would take three weeks. I have now been told that it will take three months. The Minister should know about the failure of one of his colleagues to sign a deportation order, because the children concerned have appalling criminal records, and it would not be helpful for them to remain in this country.

What if we set up a national campaign to locate the 2,000 Roma trafficked children who are believed to be in the UK? I am worried about what the Home Office will do about them if they are located. How will we handle, say, 2,000 children if they are found by the police through Operation Pentameter, or through a trawl as a result of the Slough operation, particularly if it has taken three months for a Minister to sign only three deportation orders for children?

The media could help, but not by sensationalising the problem, as they have done until now. They could target not so much the unfortunate families who are tied up in the maelstrom of evil and vice, but the serious, organised criminals behind them: the gangs, the operators, those who make their money out of the very poor and who live in expensive new houses built with money made through stolen children. We need to focus on the exploiters. It is not a question of demand, as with women trafficked for sex; it is purely about financial gain, and it uses our society as a pawn.

We should set the matter on some scale. Some 1,000 bags are stolen in Westminster alone each month, but the human trafficking unit in London has—wait for it—only eight officers. Children of all ages are bought
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and sold. A four-year-old child has been caught stealing a wallet. A 12-year-old girl who has 11 different names and dates of birth has received 12 convictions this year, and she was involved in 45 other incidents in which she was not arrested because she is classified as a juvenile—there were 45 incidents when proceedings could not be brought because of that. The police time spent on that is appalling. It is not a new phenomena, but it is a serious human tragedy and it is happening within our own shores.

The EU should be finding funds and using resources to lift Roma communities out of their poverty, to train young people, to help them to get work and to give counselling and advice to those who are trapped in debt bondage. Why is the EU not giving substantial funds to Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, all of which have Roma communities, and trying to lift them out of such poverty? I am very critical of the European Commission, because it has done absolutely nothing about the phenomenon, and it does not seem to have any will to help the countries that are tackling and wrestling with such problems. Gangs will thrive, people will be abused and they will remain the victims of unscrupulous gangs so long as the Roma communities are so poor.

I do not want what I have said to be interpreted as my not appreciating Romanians or Bulgarians or any other people. Romanians are law-abiding and highly regarded, and they are efficient workers—we must not tar them with the same brush as the criminal gangs. I must stress that there are Roma communities in Britain that are most definitely not part of the criminal networks. We want to reach out to them; they have every right to be here and we can welcome them.

Some police officers are beginning to despair. Our front-line officers do not see an end to the problem. If we cannot look after such children and families in Britain, which we cannot, they should be sent back and helped to re-establish themselves. If there is nothing going for them here, we must get them back, so that things get going for them elsewhere. If things get too rough, the Roma communities will go to another EU country—they will pack up, as they did in Slough, and within three hours they will be in another country.

The issue is a serious challenge to the Government and to our people. We are approaching a siege situation. The Government must tackle the issue as a potential major assault by criminal gangs on the United Kingdom.

Several hon. Members rose

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. This is 90-minute debate. I am obliged to call the hon. Members who will make the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the end, so we have 22 minutes purely for comment from the floor. I ask those right hon. and hon. Members who wish to catch my eye to bear in mind that time limit as they make their contributions and accept and respond to interventions.

10.9 am

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is a hero to many of us concerned with this issue. He is the closest we have to a Wilberforce—he is white-haired but he is still incredibly youthful and energetic. He has brought the issue up time and again.

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I politely invite the House not to stigmatise Romas, which the hon. Gentleman certainly did not. In effect, it is Oliver Twist meeting 2008 on the streets of London. Communities that Dickens described 150 years ago are now living in Europe. They were left to their own devices under the hideous communist regimes, now finished. Now they are not able to adapt.

I remember as a young Labour activist—you, Mr. Cook, may recall this—that a similar concern was expressed 40 years ago about Roma communities in the UK, with councils wanting to chase them away. It required a community of liberal spirit to change the mentality—as much, let me say, among Labour councils as Conservative; I make no political point.

I very much agree with the hon. Member for Totnes about the need for greater European intervention. However, were I to stand up in the main Chamber and say, “Let us give the European Commission more money from the British taxpayer to work on the problem,” and if I suggested that money came also from other countries, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would join me in the Lobby, because his party has strong and clear views on Europe.

Mr. Bone rose—

Bob Spink rose—

Mr. MacShane: Do the hon. Gentlemen wish to make interventions? If I were to take interventions—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. My previous comment has nothing to do with that, Mr. MacShane.

Mr. MacShane: I shall compress my comments in order to leave time for others to speak.

I believe that we need a European bureau of investigation. I believe that we need enhanced police powers across Europe, but not based on intergovernmental co-operation. That simply means that, if a police force wanted to make contact with its opposite number in Romania, it would first have to come to Whitehall; requests would then have to be made to the relevant Department or Ministry in Bucharest, then the Ministry of Justice and finally the police unit. By the time that process had been gone through, every bit of information would have been leaked and everyone would know about it. We need increased European integration if we want to tackle the problem. If we do not, by all means let us stay as we are.

There are serious problems with Roma communities all over the United Kingdom. I can report that concerns have been expressed by councillor colleagues in Rotherham. One way to deal with them would be to insist, for example, that all European Union citizens should be on the electoral register before having access to any public services. If they want to put their kids in school, to draw down child benefit—that is allowed—to register with a GP, to have treatment in hospital, or to use any public service, they should be on the electoral register.

I would make that a new British law, combining access to public service with accepting the responsibility of having the vote. It is well known that EU citizens that live here can vote in our local and European parliamentary elections, just as British citizens living in Spain, France and elsewhere in Europe can vote in local and European parliamentary elections in those countries. That would
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be a starting point, but I ask the Minister not respond to it today, because it is not a matter entirely for his Department.

We need more material in the Romanian language. It is not that difficult a language to learn, but as the Government in their wisdom have axed the compulsory teaching of modern languages in secondary schools, Britain is becoming more and more of a monoglot community. That is not helpful, and I shall be pressing the Government to change their policy, but we need more literature to be produced in Romanian. I am sure that the Romanian embassy would help; there are many Romanians, academics and professionals, who could help. We need a helpline in Romanian, so that anyone seeking to escape from those criminal gangs could call for help immediately.

We need much tougher action on deportation. It is a huge myth that the European Union does not allow citizens to be deported from one EU member state to another. I could cite technical articles on the subject, but I shall not for the sake of brevity.

We certainly need to consider money flows; we need bigger controls, and our banks need to be much more vigilant. That will involve some interference in everybody’s right to keep their money secret. We are having a slight debate about MPs’ allowances and the level of secrecy that might be allowed in that respect, but what is sauce for the MP goose might become sauce for the citizen gander. We need more transparency in that respect.

We need more than one Poppy project. We praise it routinely, but Italy has 200 safe houses for those who want to escape from the clutches of criminal gangs; we have only one.

We also need to back swift economic growth. There was a Roma problem in many west European countries, including the UK, 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago—even 20 years ago. It has been eased thanks to economic development. That is what Romania and Bulgaria need more than anything else.

Above all, we need data. I was listening to a debate on the “Today” programme this morning between Professor Timothy Garton Ash—I am a huge admirer of his—and another gentleman, who was resiling from the idea of gathering data. I think that we have far too little data.

As the hon. Member for Totnes knows, I have a particular interest in the abuse of children who are trafficked into the UK as sex slaves. He focused on Roma, but the debate is about enforced criminal activity by children. The plain fact is that we have too many children—girls under the age of 18—who are trafficked into the UK and are made to work as sex slaves. I have a report of a young girl who, at the age of 12, was sold to a criminal gang in Albania, trafficked into England and forced to work as a prostitute. She said:

There are many other examples.

In the other place, their lordships were recently debating the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which we debated two or three weeks ago. The language that they used about controlling the demand side for those sex slaves was truly appalling. Those horrible, dirty old men were talking about the oldest profession and saying that
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there was no problem to be solved; I was ashamed. I hope that as many people as possible read that debate, and realise how unrepresentative their lordships are of the British community.

I believe that more and more people are waking up to the problem, and want action to be taken along the lines acknowledged by the hon. Member for Totnes. The one country that has made a serious effort to gather data is the Netherlands. Dutch statistics show that about half the reported victims of sex slave trafficking are from central and eastern Europe—mainly Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Ukraine—and a fourth of them are from Africa, especially Nigeria. The data show that victims are almost exclusively female, and that about 15 per cent. of them are below the age of 18. I have no reason to believe—my hon. Friend the Minister may want to comment on this—that the broad percentage figures would be different in the UK.

We need to look at the demand side. I am sorry, but as long as every man in the country—and every columnist, including Henry Porter and David Aaronovitch—defend having no controls on the demand side of sex, thinking it is their inalienable human right to go and have as much sex as they want with any woman they like on any terms they like and without being required to ask questions about the age or—dare I use this absurd word?—the provenance of these girls, we will not stop sex slave trafficking.

Finally, I refer to honour-based killings and honour-based violence. It is a growing problem in the British community, and it causes enormous distress to many young English or British citizens under the age of 18. In particular, I commend the new publication from the Centre for Social Cohesion called “Crimes of the Community: Honour-based violence in the UK”. It was written by Mr. James Brandon and Salam Hafez. They report that Saamiya, a 16-year-old girl living in a refuge in northern England, left home when her family threatened to kill her after refusing a forced marriage. She is quoted as saying:

that is, at the refuge—

We must look at the problem of forced marriages. Lord Ahmed and Baroness Uddin produced a report on the subject some years ago and it needs to be revisited. They were quite clear in their condemnation of forced marriages. However, we now need to consider making forced marriage a crime. We must get into the ideology that justifies that behaviour, because it is based on ideological principles; it is no use just talking about it as something “cultural”, as if that excused it. It is a political, driven message that it is all right in certain communities to treat young girls as chattels, to oblige them to marry whoever the menfolk or the parents decide and if they should refuse to marry they are treated as outcasts and orders can be given to kill them. The police are good in dealing with the problem, but we need many more examples to break this evil habit finally, because it is another example of criminal activity involving young children.

I commend the hon. Member for Totnes for a very fine speech and for raising this debate in measured terms. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will seek
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to take the matter forward. I pay tribute to him; his dedication is second to none. He really is on top of the issue. However, let us now have more action, fewer excuses for not tackling the demand side of sex slave prostitution and more data. Let the Conservative party engage fully with Europe and support the giving of more funds and more power to the European Commission, and also support the Government in all their attempts to make the European Union work to tackle this problem.

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