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6 Feb 2008 : Column 247WH—continued

10.22 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Cook. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on not only his speech today but the fact that he has driven the consideration of human trafficking in this House. Two years ago, human trafficking was not an issue, but now it is right at the top of the agenda. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), is here today, because I know about his personal commitment to dealing with human trafficking and the way in which he has battled behind closed doors in government. Everybody should be thankful for the Minister’s work.

I agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Rotherham has said. I will go on to discuss the sexual exploitation of children, but first, however, I must take him up on the confusion between the European Union and Europe. Europe is a lot bigger than the European Union, and there are many ways to give aid to Bulgaria and Romania—for example, some of the £10 billion a year that we give to the European Union could be diverted to do good things in those two countries. The European Union is doing quite a good job, but most of the money goes to French and Italian farmers. Of course, if we were out of the European Union, we would be better off, which would mean that we could direct that £10 billion to where we want it to go.

I want to address the issue of children being trafficked into this country for forced prostitution. A couple of years ago, when I was first notified of that problem by an anonymous letter posted through the door of my constituency surgery, I did not believe that child trafficking was happening. Since then, I have spoken to so many police officers and to so many people who have been trafficked that there can be no doubt that thousands of children are being trafficked into this country each year to act as prostitutes. Those children are, as they have been described already, sex slaves.

It was remiss not to mention at the beginning of my speech the drive to raise the awareness of trafficking, which has been helped enormously by certain parts of the media, which are following this debate very closely, and I mention Channel 4 in particular for its efforts in that field. I also pay tribute to the charities that work in the field, particularly ECPAT, which stands for end child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. As there is only a short time available to me today, I recommend the booklet “Rights Here, Rights Now” by Jana Schilner and Chris Beddoe. It lays out in great detail the problem of child
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trafficking, and I know that the Government are taking seriously the authors’ suggestions on how the situation might be improved.

I know that this is an historical event, but two years ago the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children met a 17-year-old black girl, who was strikingly attractive, in the Palace of Westminster. Two years previously, she had been trafficked into this country at the age of 14 or 15. She came from Kenya on a direct flight, and she went through border control with a white, middle-aged man on a Kenyan passport that did not have her name or picture on it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has mentioned, we recently went to Gatwick to see the Border and Immigration Agency in action, and it promised us that that could not happen today, which is very encouraging. That young Kenyan was taken to Liverpool. After two days of forced prostitution, she escaped, came down to London, found someone who spoke her own language, was taken to the authorities and, luckily, was looked after by one of the leading charities in this country. Her story is the rare exception to the rule.

We have had some success in releasing such children from that terrible bondage. If an adult is freed from such a situation, they will be looked after pretty well. They will probably go to the Poppy project, which has secure housing where they will be well looked after while they get over that horrible experience, after which they can testify against the gang that brought them in. However, if a child is freed from such bondage, it is bad luck. If someone is 18, they will be looked after, but if they are 16 or 15, as the young Kenyan lady probably was, they will normally go to a local authority home in the area where they have been discovered, which is the area where they have been trafficked to or sold on to. By the way, it is extraordinary that people can be taken to a coffee shop in Gatwick and sold—literally sold—for £5,000 to somebody else before being taken to Liverpool, for example.

If someone is in the hands of the authorities, they should be looked after. However, such children are put with all the other children who are under local authority care in a home that everyone knows the location of. There are no locks on the doors, and they are back in the hands of the traffickers within a couple of hours, which is a complete failure of the system. When one talks to social services about that failure, they say, “Well, we can’t lock them up, because that is against their human rights.” So, it is against their human rights to stop them being retrafficked—even in local authority-speak, that is madness.

In this country—I know that the Minister has been examining this issue, but I press him to consider it further—we need to follow the Dutch example. In Holland, they have four large safe houses, which are secure and not available to the traffickers. In my view, if we lock people up for their own protection, it will benefit their human rights and stop that horrible trade. However, that point applies only if we discover the poor victims in this country.

The best solution is to stop the traffickers at the border. We have heard about the problem involving Kenya, which has been sorted out. Given the situation in the European Union, however, the Border and Immigration Agency does not have the powers to prevent people from coming in, which is a point that its representatives stressed to the all-party group when we
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visited Gatwick airport last week. The agency does not have the necessary powers, other than the power to check that the document that a person is travelling on appears to be sound. It cannot stop people and say, “Well, why are you coming into this country? Where are you going to go?” However, when I used to take young, teenage girls to America as part of my business’s training programme, the American authorities would always take them off and interview them separately for up to half an hour to make sure that what I was saying was genuine, which is the sort of thing that we need to do in this country to tackle the problem.

10.30 am

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Liberal Democrat Members are grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate.

There are two types of enforced child criminality. One involves the rare but incredibly shocking cases of children who are used by their parents or relatives to commit crimes. Such cases have been reported in the press recently. Clearly, they need to be dealt with completely differently from those of the thousands of children and young people who are trafficked into this country as part of what has rightly been termed modern-day slavery.

On the first issue, there are laws to deal with the despicable practice of parents exploiting their children and forcing them to commit crimes. Child protection procedures exist to ensure that children can be taken into care where such wilful neglect and abuse take place, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments and assurances on that.

More pressing, perhaps, is the horrendous issue of massive child trafficking and the criminal activities that children are forced into. That is the issue at the heart of this debate, and I hope to press the Government on what they are doing to place the interests of trafficked children—the victims—first.

The Liberal Democrats have long pressed the Government to ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, because we believe that we must stop the barbaric practice of child trafficking. As the hon. Member for Totnes so eloquently said, such action is fundamental to preventing enforced child criminality. The Home Secretary has announced that the Government will ratify the convention next January, but it will have therefore taken three and a half years to implement a framework that we urgently need to address trafficking.

We must also act to secure the legal status of trafficked children. Children who are rescued from the clutches of enforced criminality should not face legal battles about their status while their future is secured, whether they are looked after in this country while they wait to give evidence or returned to their home country.

Prevention and detection on entry are vital, but if they are the main focus of our approach, we might neglect another important focus—identifying the victims who are already in this country and working out what care and support they should receive after they have been rescued.

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My constituency receives a considerable number of people seeking asylum, and I am in regular contact with the Home Office, making direct representations on behalf of constituents who are trapped at the mercy of the Border and Immigration Agency. Incompetence and delay mean that such people’s lives are held in suspension as they wait for decisions, but those decisions are not being made—and that is just what happens in ordinary asylum cases. Regardless of the special training that is available, I shudder to think how this bureaucratic leviathan will deal with child victims of trafficking. Will it deal sensitively and appropriately with them? What is important is the victim-centred approach at the heart of the convention, which must drive our response to enforced criminality among trafficked children.

The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre co-ordinates the Government’s law enforcement response to this serious issue, and the Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly support many of its objectives. Indeed, there is little doubt that we will need a multi-agency approach if we are to break the back of the trade in people. Such an approach must bring together the energies of the various organisations—not only state organisations—that can have an impact on the issue. However, I have found little evidence of a similar or equivalent co-ordinated effort to bring together non-law enforcement agencies that focus on victims’ needs; indeed, that appears to be the missing link in the current strategy.

Law enforcement is the key part of our approach. In no way do I want to play down the necessity for appropriate law enforcement, but trafficked children are at the very edges of society and often far removed from the reach of the state. If the Government want to effect a positive change in a certain sector of society to tackle an issue, they normally have in place well established public servants, such as teachers, district nurses and social workers, to deliver that change. However, child victims of trafficking go out of their way to avoid contact with the agents of the state, whom they perceive as the enemy. A teenage prostitute is unlikely to go out of her way to reveal the full extent of her plight to a police officer, and such people will often disappear straight back to the trafficker, as has been said. They will have lived with the constant threat of violence and the repeated message that revealing details of their situation will lead to more violence, to retribution for them or their families and to certain repatriation.

If we are to reach victims, we must do more to spread the net wider and enlist the help and expertise of third-party organisations, such as non-governmental organisations, victim support groups and community-specific groups. They are the experts on the front line, and they are best placed to reach out to and engage with the victims of trafficking in a way that Government agencies simply cannot. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that and an assurance that everything is being done to engage with the wider community to deal with child trafficking.

I was shocked to hear that one study, which has been mentioned, has shown that 183 out of 330 trafficked children went missing from local authority care. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Totnes explaining why that had happened, but I am concerned to know what efforts the Government are making to find out from local authorities what went wrong.

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Mr. Steen: They cannot do anything.

Lynne Featherstone: The hon. Gentleman may say that, but that must be a defeatist attitude. Why did authorities find it so difficult to respond to the needs of such victims? When the hon. Gentleman pressed the Minister on the issue previously, the Government cited confidentiality as a reason why no further investigations were undertaken. Surely, however, nothing should prevent the Government from approaching local authorities and questioning them more generally about the problems of effectively helping the young victims of trafficking.

The borough of Haringey has been mentioned, and I was a councillor there for eight years. I was there at the time of Victoria Climbié’s murder, and I am all too familiar with the series of mistakes, omissions and failings on the part of the local authority. There were about 17 such mistakes, and if someone had intervened just once, that terrible, tragic outcome would have been prevented. If we are to avoid such tragedies, it is vital that we learn from local authorities’ failings, and I hope that the Government are willing to learn from the experience of local authorities, which deal with the issue at the coal face How can victim support models be developed without close engagement with local authorities, thus enabling us to learn from front-line services?

I have only two minutes left, so I turn now to the crucial issue of funding, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes. Projects that are funded specifically to help victims are few and far between, and funding is often guaranteed only for a short period where it does exist. That shows a lack of commitment to the important and ongoing work that such projects do, and I urge the Government to take a longer, strategic view of funding, not a piecemeal approach. In their marathon deliberations on the implementation of the convention, I hope that officials will get around to securing medium to long-term funding structures for such specialised organisations, because the problem cannot be solved with short-term funding that lasts only a couple of years. To build up the expertise and allow best practice to spread, projects of that kind must be given better financial security.

We can have as many action plans, cross-Government official project boards and ministerial groups as we like, but with each day of delay in implementing the key aspects of the convention, children continue to suffer. If the Government can move swiftly to get the Lisbon treaty into domestic law, they can shift a bit on the convention.

10.40 am

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing the debate and for the measured and detailed way in which he set out the problems of child trafficking and the exploitation of children for crime. I pay tribute to him also for his continued work as chairman of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, and his tireless efforts to ensure that the matter is brought to the fore, not only by way of consideration in the House, but by an emphasis on the interests of people who are trafficked and on bringing about change in the current insidious situation.

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My hon. Friend painted a bleak, disturbing and distressing picture of the life outcomes of the children involved, and the concept of a family being mortgaged in such circumstances is a disturbing one. The fact that children face a life of enslavement at a time in their lives when they should expect to be nurtured, protected and supported is one of the worst, most disturbing and distressing aspects of any system imaginable.

My hon. Friend drew attention to various figures on the extent of the problem. There have been press reports of more than 1,000 Romanian children being trafficked—he mentioned an even higher figure—but clearly the issue is significant and serious, and it is right and proper that we should have the opportunity to debate it this morning. I hope that the Minister will give a favourable response to what has been a balanced and measured debate.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for his indication of support for cross-border co-operation, such as work with the Romanian Government and our European partners. He may try to pigeonhole my party in a particular aspect of working with Europe, but I strongly believe that we need to work with our European partners. The problem is international, and we shall not solve it in isolation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) rightly highlighted the sexual exploitation of children. It is horrendous to hear stories of 12-year-olds being trafficked into a life of sexual exploitation and enslavement. Those stories give us a perspective on the real nature of such crimes. It was also right to highlight in that context the excellent Poppy project and the fact that the support and services it provides are not available to people under 18. That issue needs to be addressed and the correct support must be given to people who end up in such horrendous situations of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) correctly highlighted the threat of violence against people who are trafficked—another aspect of trafficking that is related to enslavement—and the issue of funding security.

I want to press the Minister on basic child protection and the disappearance from care of children who end up back in the hands of those who trafficked them. The UN report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough referred picked that up and highlighted the number of children who end up in care and then disappear to goodness only knows where. We heard in the debate how those children can reappear in a short time with different identities in different situations.

Research published by UNICEF shows that, in an 18-month period, 330 children were believed to have been trafficked into the UK and that 183 of them went missing from the care of social services. The Minister has been pressed on that point before. During the debate on people trafficking on 16 January, he said:

He added:

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I suggest to the Minister that we are looking for more than guidance if we are to make a real difference and to put child protection to the fore. A horrendous situation exists in which children come into the protection of the state, but the state cannot deliver on its obligations to them; they should be protected.

A question arises with respect to what checks are done in relation to family members. In certain circumstances, children, having been arrested, are handed back to family members, but there is some evidence to suggest that those family members are not relatives but part of the criminal gangs. I should be interested to hear what checks are carried out to ensure that children are not being handed back to the criminal gangs that want to continue to exploit them.

Operations such as Operation Pentameter and the current Operation Pentameter 2 deal with the sex trade, but does their scope need to be broadened to take account of children who are being trafficked not just for sex but for other exploitation?

In the context of recent events, it is right to focus, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes did, on the Roma community and the significant issues that arise in that connection, but other children are being trafficked and exploited. Another example concerns the Vietnamese community and the cannabis factories that are being raided at the moment, and there are findings of children being exploited, misused and abused.

I think that it is agreed that the most effective mechanism to deal with the issue is to find ways of sending children back. I was quite disturbed when my hon. Friend commented on the three children awaiting deportation for three months because people are waiting for Ministers to sign the matter off. I urge the Minister to look into that, because such a hold up is disgraceful.

I understand that the Home Office has set up a working group to find out how children can be sent back to Romania within the constraints of the European treaty, but as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Rotherham, there should be no such constraints. I should be interested to hear what the working group is doing and what problems have apparently been identified that might prevent such action. Clearly, there is a need for greater debate, and more discussions and connections with the Romanian authorities. We do not want those children, once sent back to their country of origin, to return to what my hon. Friend described as the mortgaged state of enslavement and to end up back here shortly afterwards. What arrangements are being made to ensure that, if they are returned, the children will not simply be re-trafficked?

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