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8 July 2008 : Column 369WH—continued

Two years ago, the media were in full cry. A week did not pass without lurid pictures of grotty rooms inhabited by loosely clad women. The horror stories abounded. More recently, the police raid in Slough resulted in
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middle-page spreads in the tabloids depicting Roma children, many under 10, pickpocketing, stealing from ATMs and shoplifting. The media captured vividly the discovery of so-called cannabis factories on the edge of northern towns and cities with Vietnamese boys tending the plants for rich and influential bosses.

We must not be too surprised that the result of Pentameter 2 was 167 victims discovered, 528 criminals arrested, 822 premises visited, 6,400 police intelligence reports gathered and £500,000 recovered. Of the victims, 13 were children. That is hardly surprising, but what is surprising is that, apart from the BBC, which ran the news item all day, the media did not give it much media attention. It is as though they have grown bored with the subject, the public are anaesthetised to horror stories that no longer shock, and the media are moving on to something else.

Furthermore, MPs do not see many votes in the fight against trafficking. Constituents are not too concerned about exploitation, provided that it is not in their street. In Devon, most people tell me that it simply does not happen there, but they are wrong. Pentameter 2 found evidence of trafficking in many west country areas, and quite a lot in Plymouth. The fact is that it is all over Britain, and perhaps the Minister will confirm that if he has half a chance and sufficient time.

There is some confusion about nomenclature. The difficulty is the culture of disbelief and the inability of trafficked people to disclose and articulate what they have been through. They are fearful of reprisals. Some of the young people who are trafficked to Britain are carefully schooled so that they can escape quickly from a local authority into whose hands they may be placed. Just yesterday, The Western Mail in Wales, which I read regularly, reported that 35 children were missing without trace from major cities in Wales, raising concern about child trafficking there.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has done a considerable amount of work on the matter, and I apologise for the fact that I cannot stay for the whole of the debate. Has he seen the briefing prepared by ECPAT UK—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—which highlights local authorities’ lack of concern, and their inability and unwillingness to accept the protocols, particularly the Council of Europe’s convention covering children, and to give victims the benefit of doubt on, for example, age? That report seems to show that local authorities have some way to go in working as part of the multi-agency approach that Pentameter is supposed to provide.

Mr. Steen: Interventions from the hon. Gentleman are always worth listening to. He has an immense amount of experience. I visited the United Nations conference in Vienna with him, which was an education for me and, I think, a mild education for him. His point was well made.

I am sure that when the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings is ratified—I hope that the Minister will say something about that—local authorities will get into gear and become more sympathetic and sensitive to the problem, but I reckon that the problem is lack of resources. Until they receive more resources, they have enough on their hands without this problem.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs said only a short time ago that he and his Committee were shocked to learn that 400 children had gone missing from local authorities in this country? Is he aware that the despicable crime of human trafficking is closely linked with prostitution and the running of brothels? Does he believe that the police, and particularly the courts, should take a tougher line with those who run brothels?

Mr. Steen: I do not know whether to refer to my hon. Friend or the hon. Member. Perhaps I should refer to him as something in-between. I thank him for his intervention.

The subject is complicated and the word “missing” in the phrase, “children going missing from local authority care” is slightly confusing. When children go missing, they are often in transit in local authority so-called care. Having been found as victims of trafficking, they are placed in a so-called place of care, but it is not secure, and there is a problem with how secure it should be. If it is too secure, the children are in a prison.

Brothels are where many trafficked women are found. The problem, as I am sure the Minister will say, is to obtain sufficient evidence that the women are prepared to make available to enable the police to nail the traffickers. They are terrified of reprisals, they do not speak the language and many of them are in a strange country. There are great complications in nailing traffickers, who are much more nimble than we are. I am grateful for that intervention.

The Western Mail reported 35 children missing without trace in major cities in Wales. The Government clearly have a problem with identifying victims of human trafficking. The Crown Prosecution Service should remember that they have a duty to explore all the facts when dealing with young people involved in, for example, cannabis cultivation and other organised crime before they seek a prison sentence.

Let us remember what trafficking is. It is the exploitation of someone by making them do something that they would not want to do if they were fully aware, compromising them, duping them and coercing them. The problem is how to distinguish between genuine victims of trafficking and illegal migrants. That recognition is critical because it determines how the Government treat people. Illegal migrants are usually given short shrift and a one-way ticket back to where they came from.

The Government have a poor track record on producing meaningful statistics. The problem is that they do not really have any statistics and those that they do have are totally misleading. We were told that the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield would change all that, so perhaps the Minister could tell us whether it has. Will the Minister tell us when we will have some reliable statistics that bring together the information from the various police and UK Border Agency operations?

One can understand that victims of trafficking are a problem for the Government because there is always some doubt about whether people have been genuinely trafficked or whether they knew what they were getting into and are illegal migrants searching for a better way of life. Even with genuine victims, the Government are often reluctant to identify them early enough and decide what to do with them, where they should go, how to fund them and how to help them.

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Media coverage of Pentameter 2 suggested that an increasing number of British young women are trafficked from one part of the UK to another. Sadly, the sexual exploitation of British young people is nothing new. Operation Glover—a police operation—focused on the internal trafficking of British children, and that is what the media picked up on when reporting on Pentameter 2. Somehow the press completely missed the fact that 13 children from Romania, Nigeria, Brazil, China, Estonia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Congo and Cameroon were found by Pentameter 2. Two of the children were returned without a welfare assessment and were virtually deported on the spot. In addition, two children went missing within hours of being placed in care. One child was issued with an asylum registration card that contained the details of a false passport given to her by a trafficker even though the police and the UK Human Trafficking Centre both knew that it was fraudulent. UK Border Agency staff who issued the card maintain that they were unable to do anything else even though they knew that the details had been provided to her by traffickers and were totally false. It is clear that the protection response to children cannot be hailed as successful—in that case it was deplorable.

Out of the 167 victims discovered by Pentameter 2, how many were provided with legal representation consistent with the Government’s obligation under article 12 of the Council of Europe convention on action against human trafficking? Out of the 13 children found, how many were provided with guardians consistent with the Government’s obligation under article 10 of the convention? How many of the victims are now in a safe refuge to which traffickers do not have access and how many have agreed to give evidence against their traffickers?

Pentameter 2 has achieved 528 arrests, which is a remarkable number, yet we lack specifics. Where did those arrested come from and how many were UK based? Will the Minister put on the official record from which countries they hailed? How many of those 528 have been charged with trafficking offences? It is interesting to note that the figure of 528 that was reported under Pentameter 2 was adjusted in the revised action plan that was announced on the same day, which states that the actual number of traffickers found was not 528 but only 99. Are those 528 individuals separate or have fewer people been charged with multiple crimes?

Have there been any successful prosecutions under Pentameter 2, because on 3 July The Guardian reported that there had been 24 successful prosecutions as a result of the operation? In other words, is this massive police crackdown putting traffickers behind bars and if so, how many? Alternatively, are traffickers more nimble with their footwork than the heavy hand of the constabularies acting together with the bureaucracy of the Crown Prosecution Service and the unco-ordinated activities of the UK Border Agency?

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My hon. Friend lists an impressive array of questions that we look forward to the Minister answering in due course. In addition, may I ask the Minister what sentence someone prosecuted for trafficking will serve, whether they will serve their sentence in full, whether the sentence will be exemplary and whether traffickers are being prosecuted under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002?

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Mr. Steen: I did not think that it would be fair to ask the Minister all these questions today so I tabled them last night so that they would appear on the Order Paper. The Minister has had early warning and has been able to work on the matter since early this morning. Surely, one of the guiding principles should be to deter traffickers by making them increasingly uncomfortable if they continue to ply their trade in this country. Our aim must be to drive them out of this country and, with that in mind, I established the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children. We plan to set up similar cells in other parliaments in all EU countries so that Back-Bench MPs can put pressure on their Governments to shut down the entire trafficking network. That is our goal.

In conjunction with ECPAT UK, which, as the Minister knows, is a coalition that represents Save the Children, UNICEF, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Children’s Society, Anti-Slavery International and the Jubilee Campaign, we have made an application to a substantial human rights charitable trust in this country to provide 20 per cent. of the total funding to the Daphne III project, which is partly funded by the European Commission. I hope that my mild optimism about that will be rewarded because it would result in sufficient funds being made available over the next two years to support the establishment of the new venture and would provide an opportunity for Britain to lead the way in outlawing trafficking, or at least reducing it, on a European level—and my goodness we need that to happen.

With ECPAT’s help and expertise, parliamentarians throughout Europe can make a major contribution to tackling this growing problem. By October, we will hopefully have set up parliamentary groups in Poland, Romania, Germany, Italy and Holland. We will then do so in the rest of Europe. Perhaps the Minister would like to add his support to that initiative, which is currently being considered by the European Commission’s justice, freedom and security directorate. I am sure that a nod from him would produce the necessary result—I hope that it will do, anyway.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has focused on the position in Europe, but does he agree that the findings of Pentameter 2 show that the majority of victims come from China and Thailand? One of the problems is that those victims did not have the same level of coercion, which led to other complications. Although the hon. Gentleman is doing excellent work in Europe, does he agree that the Government should do more in the far east and work with Governments there to try to eliminate the problems in the source countries?

Mr. Steen: What the hon. Gentleman does not understand is that I am not St. George and there are a lot of dragons, but I thank him for his intervention.

By October, we will be setting up these parliamentary groups and we hope that the Minister thinks that they are complementary to the successful initiatives he is taking forward under the action plan. I hope that parliamentary groups in this country and the rest of Europe will be able to work with him and his teams of Ministers. Once we sort out Europe, we will deal with the far east, but at the moment, we are trying to get a ring around Europe, so it becomes more difficult to traffic in and around Europe.

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Over the past two years, our all-party parliamentary group on the trafficking of women and children has tabled more than 150 questions—even though the Minister has been unable to answer a number of them—initiated debates, and generally put pressure on the Government here to raise the profile of what I call new slavery, both in the Commons and the Lords. I believe that the group even helped to get the former Prime Minister to sign the Council of Europe convention—he was somewhat reluctant to do so until a number of questions were asked by hon. Members from all parties. Although we are still waiting for ratification, as the Minister knows, I would like to put on record the immense amount of help I have received from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), Baroness Elizabeth Butler- Sloss, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) and the other officers of the group.

Human beings are particularly vulnerable to trafficking if they are poor and believe that a new life awaits them round the corner that can provide them with the material prosperity they are lacking. It is more difficult to unearth trafficked women if prostitution is driven underground, as it has been in Sweden where prostitution is illegal.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman given way?

Mr. Steen: I will in a moment. Can the Minister confirm whether there are similar plans to make prostitution illegal in Britain because I know that he has been thinking about doing so and has led discussions on it?

Fiona Mactaggart: There is nothing illegal about prostitution in Sweden. The illegality is in the purchase of women and the purchase of sexual services. What the women do is perfectly legal.

Mr. Steen: That has put me in my place. I thank the hon. Lady for telling me that, but it does not alter the need to ask whether the Minister is considering making prostitution or the buying of services illegal in Britain.

It is said that 800,000 people are trafficked each year around the world, and that is likely to continue in one form or another for the foreseeable future. All that we can do is to try to reduce it, to punish the traffickers severely and to help genuine victims so that they can embark on a new life. Incidentally, the so-called reflection period of 28 or even 45 days fails to grasp the essential conditions of trafficking. It takes years of support, psychological help and kindness for trafficked people to recover from what has always been an appalling ordeal. Above all, victims need compassion and understanding. As Vicky Quandamatteo, the director-psychologist at the Il Fiore Rome refuge said, anyone who believes that trafficked women can snap out of it and become useful members of society within 28 or 45 days, without a prolonged period of support and help, needs their head examined.

Although the Government always mention the sterling work of the POPPY project, it is worth pointing out that as a result of Pentameter 2, POPPY accepted 46 referrals. Where are the other 111 women found under Pentameter 2 now residing? How many of those are receiving the support that they need? How many have
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already been forcibly removed from the UK? What plans are there to establish more POPPY projects throughout the country?

Pentameter 2 is over. Chief Constable Dr. Tim Brain is to be complimented on a highly proficient and professional operation, following, as he did, in the footsteps of Graham Maxwell, who was the mastermind of Pentameter 1. We are fortunate to have police officers of their calibre. Will we now have Pentameter 3, or will the Minister ensure that there is a chief superintendent in every police force who has an ongoing responsibility to outlaw human trafficking? Without the Pentameter initiatives, it is unlikely that we would have known of or found the trafficked victims whom we have found. Those victims were not found only in inner cities. Will the Minister remind hon. Members of how many victims were found outside cities? Besides the 163 brothels that were raided, how many victims were found in the 273 private homes that were raided, and where are those people?

In this respect, transparency is crucial. There is too much secrecy. Local communities need to keep a lookout, but they need to know where they are looking. Bringing into the public domain the information that I have described will make the general public more vigilant. They will be alert to the fact that trafficking is a problem that affects many towns and villages throughout the country.

I thank Mr. Speaker for offering to be the first president of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children to mark the 200th year of the abolition of the slave trade, and agreeing to host a major reception at the end of October in the Speaker’s House. I hope that we can announce that we in Britain are spearheading a new initiative against human trafficking. I hope that with the support of the EU and backed by charitable funds, we can make even more progress in ensuring that this new form of slavery becomes a thing of the past.

11.22 am

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I join the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) in praising the Minister. Indeed, I add my praise for the work of the hon. Member for Totnes. However, I am extraordinarily depressed by his speech, because the reason why slavery was abolished was that it was made a crime to purchase slaves, and he has just said that we should not consider in the House or anywhere else the demand side of trafficked and other prostituted women, particularly trafficked children, and make any purchase of sexual favours from trafficked people a crime. He wishes to intervene simply on the supply side, but unless we tackle the demand side, there will be absolutely no reduction.

The hon. Gentleman talks about creating a Europe-wide network of parliamentary groups, and obviously, as a strong pro-European, I wish him well and will support that. He said jocularly that he would sort out Europe first and then the rest of the world, but the main difficulty is that a great part of the trafficking takes place within the borders of the European Union. For example, when the World cup was held in Germany in 2006, the Germans organised the trafficking of 40,000 extra prostitutes into Germany to serve the clients, as they put it, who came to the World cup and, in the midst of
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either jubilation or dismay at their teams’ performances, felt that they should go and buy sex with some girl brought in from Czechoslovakia, Latvia or Lithuania. There is a fundamental divide on how we should tackle the problem. I am firmly of the view that, unless we consider the demand side in some way, we will not deal with the supply.

The hon. Gentleman read out some of the statistics from Pentameter 2, but if we look at the latest available conviction data for England and Wales provided by the Ministry of Justice, we see that there were a total of 15 convictions in 2006.

Mr. Steen: Fifteen?

Mr. MacShane: Yes, 15 people were found guilty of trafficking for sexual exploitation. A grand total of 17 people—14 men and three women—were found guilty of abusing children through prostitution and pornography. Those are absolutely ludicrous conviction rates. Certainly, under Operation Pentameter 2, many massage parlours and brothels were raided and a number of people detained, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly underlined, instead of obeying the injunction of the Bible,

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