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6 Feb 2008 : Column 253WH—continued

Conservative Members have highlighted the need for swift adoption and ratification of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. Again, I urge the Minister to press ahead with that and to identify the necessary mechanisms, whether under secondary or primary legislation. He has our assurance that we want that delivered as quickly as possible. We also need to deliver on other practical measures to ensure that proper checks are made at borders, that we have a robust and effective border police force and that interviews of minors travelling with relatives are undertaken.
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These very serious issues deserve real focus and attention, on which I hope for more than just words. I want action taken to protect the children most in need.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this important debate and welcome all hon. Members present. We exchange our views and opinions on this important matter regularly, which is extremely important. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) and other members of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children for the work that they do. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who challenges me regularly on these matters. As hon. Members have rightly pointed out, we have made considerable progress on the matter, whatever the challenges that remain. This debate has often shown Parliament at its best in driving forward together to find solutions to a common problem that we all find horrendous. We must continue with that cross-party effort. Furthermore, I thank hon. Members for their comments about me and can reassure everyone that I shall drive the matter forward.

I intend to answer quickly a number of the points raised today and then come on to some concrete actions at the end of my remarks.

Mr. Steen: Can we come and see the Minister again?

Mr. Coaker: Of course. I am always willing to see people. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to ring my office and arrange that, it is absolutely fine.

If hon. Members do not mind, in running through some of the points that were made, I shall be brief, given the time available. I stress the point made by others that the problem is with criminality rather than particular groups of people. For example, we are not stigmatising all Romanians. As the hon. Member for Totnes pointed out, the crimes committed by such children are concentrated in certain areas, and police have taken robust and effective action, in partnership with others. Our intelligence suggests—the exact number is difficult to know—that there are about 180 such children involved in criminal activity in the UK.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre is building a database to record all victims of trafficking—I think that he asked about that—which should help us to identify such children. The UKHTC will also co-ordinate research on trafficking, and a UK threat assessment is being carried out by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which will cover threats from criminal gangs that force children to undertake criminal activity. Some of the information that he provided came from that threat assessment. However, it is work in progress and more needs to be done.

Roma families can claim benefits, but the fact that they are Roma is not relevant. They have no automatic entitlement to welfare benefits and in many cases would not be entitled. To answer another point, we do not record claims for benefits on the basis of nationality.
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Many Members mentioned the role of local authorities. We discuss such matters at great length with local authorities, particularly Slough borough council, which I commend for the work that it has done. We give more than £140 million to local authorities to deal with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and victims of trafficking are dealt with out of that budget.

The question of what to do with trafficked children who come under the care of the state raises fundamentally difficult issues. I shall put a scenario to hon. Members: if a year ago, or even six months ago, anybody had suggested that, as a solution to the problem of children going missing from care, those children should be locked up or put in a secure environment, the response would have been fundamentally different from those being given today. People are now so alarmed about the difficulty that the state has in securing the safety of those children that they are considering alternatives that they might not have considered just a few months ago. We are actively considering how to keep children safe in that environment.

We also think that instead of creating secure environments, maybe we should try to make environments more secure. I thank Chris Beddoe from ECPAT for that point. Although it might sound like we are playing with words, it takes the emphasis off jailing children who have done nothing wrong, which is a caricature that risks being painted, if we are not careful.

We published a document last week, one aspect of which dealt with the trafficking of children. We said that we would consider the establishment of specialist local authorities to deal with the care and support of children who are victims of trafficking. We thought that instead of having a multiplicity of local authorities across the country, we could have specialist local authorities. The numbers have not been determined, but we are considering perhaps 40 across the country. However, we are certainly looking to develop that work.

We have published new guidance on child trafficking. The hon. Member for Totnes asked about legal advice that I might have received on exploitation legislation. Generally, where an adult encourages or pressurises a child into committing a criminal offence, he may commit an offence of aiding and abetting. Furthermore, aiding and abetting includes procuring an offence by endeavour—to cause or seek to cause the person to commit an offence—which could include a person being forced, threatened or coerced into committing a crime. There might be ways, therefore, in which we can move forward on that.

We are talking to European colleagues about the integration of the Roma community, which is an important point, and we are considering the repatriation of children. Furthermore, we are trying to work with authorities
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overseas and looking at assessments of reception facilities in Romania and elsewhere. We have carried out major checks of, and made improvements to, the process by which children cross borders, whether from outside or within the EU. As we know, Paladin teams have been established at five locations and we are always looking to see what more we can do on that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham raised the problem of honour killings and forced marriages, which are hugely important issues. As he knows, the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office have established the forced marriage unit. Clearly we need to do more on that and we will. Sexual exploitation is another important issue, the demand for which we need to tackle. He will know that we are looking into that as well.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough rightly mentioned the good work of various non-governmental organisations. On the issue of stopping children at the border, all children and adults who are not nationals of the European economic area are routinely interviewed separately, unless they are closely related. On the EEA channel, where there is a suspicion of trafficking, separate interviews are conducted. Since 2006, leaflets have been available for both EEA and non-EEA nationals explaining that officers might seek to establish the relationship between children and the adult accompanying them. However, he is right to point out that we must continue to be aware of that problem.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) will know that we are looking to ratify the Council of Europe convention as quickly as possible. I am also pleased to highlight the review of the reservation in the UN convention on the rights of the child. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) mentioned cannabis farms, which is an extremely important point. I also point out the issue of internal trafficking, which was highlighted recently by Operation Glover in South Yorkshire, where young children were being trafficked.

It is important in such debates that I say what I intend to do next. As a result of this debate, I shall meet again with the police to discuss criminal activity and with the Minister for Borders and Immigration to discuss individual cases and other points that were made. I am visiting Albania, Romania and Bulgaria in the near future and will speak to their ambassadors. Furthermore, the ministerial group will discuss this matter as an agenda item at its next meeting; it will be discussed both in the inter-ministerial group and in the meeting with stakeholders. I am also going to Vienna next week when I shall again raise the issue. I hope that those practical points will help to move the debate forward and I look forward to meeting with the hon. Member for Totnes in due course.

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Dorset Fire and Rescue Service

11 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): This subject is important for my constituents and for the county. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) cannot be present, because he is down in Dorset, but I am pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) here to support me in today’s debate. That shows, as I am sure that the Minister knows—[Interruption.]

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. May I ask hon. and right hon. Members to vacate the Chamber, please, while they continue their personal conversations?

Mr. Syms: The attendance of my hon. Friends shows, as the Minister knows, the strength of feeling among many hon. Members from all parties about the funding settlement. The three-year comprehensive spending review has been announced, and the increases for Dorset fire authority amount to only 1, 0.5 and 1 per cent. over the three years, which compares with the average for fire and rescue authorities of 2.4, 1.4 and 1.4 per cent. There is also a wide variety of grants over the three-year period of between 2 and 18 per cent., so money is going somewhere, but it is certainly not going to Dorset.

The settlement means cuts for Dorset however one looks at it, which is one reason why my colleagues and I went to see the Minister. We were courteously received on 7 December 2007, when we put our case for more funding. Following that, the Minister asked us for more information, which was sent to him, but I understand that the authority has not had an answer yet to one or two points, so I hope that the Minister will address the points that the authority made at that meeting. On Thursday 24 January, the Government confirmed that there would be no change to the grant, so it looks like Dorset is locked in for three tough years. The authority had assumed for its planning purposes 2 per cent. growth over that period, but because it will not receive that funding, the shortfalls will be £278,000 in 2008-09, £437,000 in 2009-10 and £547,000 in 2010-11 compared with its projections.

Dorset is a large and beautiful rural county, but we also have a large urban population, which is centred on the towns of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch. Outside Bristol, Dorset comprises the largest conurbation in the south-west, which presents great challenges to the fire and rescue service. Dorset has a number of special features. It is a premier holiday destination, and the major influx of summer visitors increases the population to about 900,000, which increases demands on the fire and rescue service.

Dorset has the second highest percentage of retired people in the country, with 27 per cent. of the Dorset population being of pensionable age, which also presents challenges. The area also has a great deal of house building and housing growth, which inevitably puts larger demands on the fire and rescue service. Elderly
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people are the least likely to experience a fire, but when they do, it is the most likely category of fire to end in tragedy. There have been several incidents in recent years, and the county is doing much to ensure that smoke alarms and other preventive work is carried out, but the elderly population are a major challenge.

We also have high housing costs. All my colleagues are aware of how high housing costs are in the area, and those costs lead to houses in multiple occupation, which add to the pressure. There are many HMOs in urban areas in particular, and the risk of fire in them is high.

In Dorset, there are many commuters and a great deal of holiday traffic, which provides a major boost to the population, and there is also a high number of thatched properties. When I drive through the beautiful villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, I see many beautiful thatched cottages, but if they catch fire, it is important to get a fire engine there as quickly as possible. The situation creates special challenges. In an earlier life, I was on the fire authority in Wiltshire, and the fire brigade used to show us a video of the big fires from the previous three months, in which thatched cottages always seemed to feature.

We have all enjoyed visiting Dorset, because it is a major centre for political conferences, but there is also major heathland, which must be looked after and where there are sometimes fires. We have Winfrith nuclear research centre, Bournemouth international airport, Wytch Farm BP refinery, and large petroleum depots, including the Ministry of Defence petroleum storage facility at West Moors, which is the largest canned fuel storage depot in the UK. Dorset will also be the second-largest venue for the Olympics, because of the yachting, which will present special challenges to the authority.

Dorset fire authority is not a large authority. It comprises about 800 people only, including firefighters and support staff. There are only 41 front-line fire engines, 34 of which are retained and seven of which are full time. The Minister knows that the efficiency of counties such as Dorset is based on the retained volunteers who allow firefighting to take place at a competitive rate, so with only seven full-time appliances, there is limited scope for the authority to make major savings.

The service, notwithstanding its poor funding, is a good performer, as the comprehensive spending assessment 2005 noted.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): On that point, I have tried to raise the issue of performance with the Minister. I have written to him seeking a meeting, but he has not replied to me yet. Dorset’s cost per head means that it is the cheapest fire and rescue service in the country, so does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts are now going too far? With an 85 per cent. retained—voluntary—service, up to six of the 26 fire stations may be forced to shut because of the cuts that we must now endure.

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend has made a good point. In 2007-08, in real terms, Dorset fire and rescue service received only £15.04 revenue support grant funding per head of population, compared with the average of just under £19. Of the 24 combined fire authorities, Dorset’s grant is the third lowest. Expenditure per head of population is measured by the BVPI 150—I do not
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know what that means, but it sounds very impressive—at £30.50, which is the second-lowest figure out of the 48 English fire and rescue services. Dorset’s service provides good value for money.

The Audit Commission has noted that Dorset fire and rescue service has comparatively low budgets and costs per head of population and that it achieves good overall performance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East has pointed out, it is not a top-heavy service in terms of officers, it has very few full-time stations, and it must cover many hundreds of miles and a major urban area, all of which present major challenges.

Dorset fire and rescue service’s budgets are all zero-based, and the authority is extremely good at ensuring that it gets value for money. I know many members of the authority, and they are proud of what they manage to do, but the settlement will cause major difficulties. The authority has managed to keep council tax increases within 5 per cent., but the settlement provides challenges, and if the Minister is not going to surprise us with additional resources for this year, next year and the year after, there is the other issue of whether the authority will be capped. The authority has taken soundings from among the public, who put the issue of fire safety and cover high up the agenda, and may be willing to pay a bit extra to keep some of the fire stations online and all full-time stations working.

The settlement means that the authority faces a real challenge. The Government are pushing forward a great deal of the fire agenda, much of which requires investment. The fire safety initiatives, which we all welcome, will provide difficulties, and we have already mentioned the problem of crews and how savings can be made. Some 80 per cent. of the service’s budget goes on salaries, and the only way in which one can cut the figures that we have discussed is by cutting manpower, some of which would have to be at the sharp end.

There are seven whole-time fire engines to provide cover largely in Bournemouth and Poole, but also in Weymouth, and many of us fear that the authority will have to look hard at whether to keep them. In the meeting with the Minister, concerns were expressed by other hon. Members who cannot be here today about fire stations in their constituencies. Of course, that has a lot to do with the national framework.

The brigade does other things that are welcome. It works with children who have got themselves into difficulty by focusing them and getting them into fire stations to do particular tasks, which has been greatly welcomed. It also does something else that is to be much commended. There is an organisation called Streetwise in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West, which warns children about the dangers of roads and various other things in order to make things safer for them. The fire brigade funds 14,000 children through the organisation’s safety centre, which is a national asset that many people appreciate. It does what we all ought to do—it prevents accidents involving children.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con) rose—

Mr. Syms: I know that my hon. Friend is president of the organisation, and I am happy to take his intervention.

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Sir John Butterfill: I am not its president, but I am a trustee. Streetwise is a unique concept funded by three local authorities—Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset county council—the fire service and the police, together with charitable donations, which I try to help whip up with some recent success. We have built in a large warehouse a miniature village street with shops, houses and even a railway station, for which we managed to get the rail people to give us an engine.

All the local schoolchildren in Dorset go there at a certain age and are taught the dangers that exist in the home, on the street, on the heathland, in railway areas and elsewhere. In particular, they are taught fire and general safety. It is an enormously successful operation and the Government are very much in favour of it and want it to be rolled out all over the country, and we have been helping other authorities to do that. The fire service will not be able to continue its funding for that important organisation, which is to be visited tomorrow by the Princess Royal.

Mr. Syms: I thank my hon. Friend for that brief and comprehensive explanation of that asset in his constituency, which is an asset for all of us in Dorset. All local Members of Parliament are regularly invited to visit and see what progress is being made. The matter will have to be considered by those who are running Dorset fire and rescue, because money is tight. It is an initiative that is certainly worthy of my hon. Friend’s comments.

I have mentioned the Olympics. There will have to be some investment in advance. I know that the fire service has approached the Olympic delivery organisations for funds, including the police authority and the county council. It is not getting much joy at the moment, but investment needs to be made.

Mr. Ellwood: The chief fire officer, Darran Gunter, who has been helpful in providing us with information, has made it clear that when the Olympics come around, he will have responsibility from a safety perspective for all the ocean-going yachts and the activities that take place on the water outside Weymouth. The Dorset fire and rescue service does not own one boat, yet the Government are cutting the budget. How on earth is it supposed to carry out its task?

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend has raised an important matter. A water-borne firefighting capacity will need to be developed to deliver the 2012 Olympics in Dorset.

I hope that I have clearly set out the fact that we have an efficient brigade that is run predominantly with retained firemen and that is not highly funded, but that still delivers good performance. It faces real budget challenges in the next three years, which means that worthwhile initiatives may have to be reviewed. We may lose a whole-time fire station in order to make economies. All of us in a large and beautiful rural county are concerned about the future of our fire service. I know that the Minister courteously received us at his Department and has listened carefully to the debate, and I hope that he will dwell on the case that my hon. Friends and I have made.

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