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8 July 2008 : Column 382WH—continued

11.50 am

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I make no apology for focusing on prostitution in this debate. Let me quote Sigma Huda, who is the UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children. She said:

It is critical that, through law enforcement measures such as Operation Pentameter, we prevent trafficking and protect the victims. To that end, I went last month to look at how the Swedish system operates. The reason why women are such a profitable market is that, frankly, unlike drugs, they can be reused and recycled by the exploiters, which is what happens, so that they make a bigger profit for the organised criminal networks than the drugs that such organisations used to trade.

In Sweden, I spoke to criminal prosecutors, police officers and women in the women’s movement. When speaking to the police, I was struck that those who originally felt that the law against the purchase of sexual services would be a problem had become enthusiastic
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advocates of it. One of the reasons was that the law helped in prosecutions. Because what the customers were doing was unlawful, they could be engaged as witnesses in successful prosecutions of the exploiters. That made a real difference in Sweden. There are fewer prosecutions in Sweden because, according to phone-tap evidence, there is less trafficking of women to Sweden. In turn, that is because, quite simply, the profits are lower. People cannot make the inflated profits that they can make in other countries because of the difficulties that they encounter and because the police have such effective tools to interrupt the purchase of sexual services.

Sexual services are still marketed on the internet in Sweden, as they are around the world, but the law means that traffickers must move women from flat to flat, that they cannot use the same premises frequently, and so on, so their profits are reduced. There has been a substantial interruption to their activities. I praise the Minister for the publicity that he has put out recently, which is going in a similar direction—I am referring to the posters that address men and say, “Walk in as a punter, come out as a rapist.” That points out to men that if they pay for sex with a trafficked woman, they are raping her. The risk of that approach, however, is to go down the Finnish route. They have specifically criminalised the purchase of sexual services with trafficked women, but no prosecutions have been brought as a result which, frankly, is a warning that, on its own, such a measure is insufficient, and that there must be a wider law.

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair.]

I want to address protection. The POPPY project, the Medaille Trust and other bodies that provide protection for women are essential. However, it is also essential that policing is undertaken with a welfare consciousness. The police should ensure that they protect the women involved. I must say that they do that more with their mouths than with their actions. It is important for both women and children who are trafficked that we see a better effort on that.

I am probably the only Member in the Chamber who has had a major raid—allegedly—focusing on trafficked children in their constituency. I have not yet been able to assure myself that that raid was part of Operation Pentameter—I do not believe that it was. It was in any case profoundly unsatisfactory. Some hundreds of police officers raided 17 addresses in Slough. They claimed to the media that it was an operation to protect victims of child trafficking, and I think there was a substantial element of that, but it seemed to me that the main aim was to impress the media that something was being done. Nine of the 10 children who were taken into care were returned to the care of their families within 24 hours and the briefing of the media was so inappropriate that photographs in which the children were easily identifiable were published by the newspapers. I took the issue up with the Press Complaints Commission and discovered that, effectively, the media were not reminded of their obligations to protect those children and were not advised that they should hide their identity. There is no mechanism by which each of the children can be given a guardian, which ECPAT rightly argued for. Even if the case is interesting and shows a blurring of lines between exploitation within and without a family, which I suspect
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is what happened to a large extent, we share responsibility for child welfare. If each of those children had been given a right to a publicly appointed guardian, they could have been protected much more effectively than otherwise.

Despite the concerns of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), there is profound evidence that the Swedish approach has reduced the extent of people trafficking into that country. If we take an approach that goes for prevention and protection, and that specifically protects children, we would make more of a difference than we have been able to make so far.

11.58 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. He has raised the issue in other forums and will continue to do so. We have heard a number of different takes on it from right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken, some of which I will mention.

Let me say at the beginning that the Government deserve praise for the action that they have taken and for the direction in which they are going. However slow and hesitant they have been in taking action in the past few years, they have done more than any other Government on the issue. We know that they are planning to take further steps, and we hope that that will happen sooner rather than later.

However, there is more to be done. There have been roughly only 70 convictions for trafficking under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, despite the two Pentameter operations. There are no simple answers, as I am sure the Minister will say when he responds. We need to look carefully at experience in the UK and in other countries, and hon. Members have touched on the conflict over the lessons that we should learn. If we are to tackle trafficking and the downside of prostitution, should we legalise prostitution, as has been done in the Netherlands, New Zealand and some US states? Would that bring prostitution into the open, making it much easier to control the worst aspects and help those involved? Alternatively, do we take the Swedish route and criminalise at least the purchase of sex, although the distinction between purchasing and selling is a little like splitting hairs or counting angels on a pinhead? Which example should we learn from? Passionate arguments are made by people on both sides.

If we look at other countries, we can also learn how to deal with the freed victims of trafficking, although, again, the messages are perhaps conflicting. The Government are criticised for their predilection for deporting victims and treating them as criminals. For example, they prosecuted an under-age Vietnamese boy found cultivating the crop in a cannabis factory who had been trafficked into this country as slave labour. They have also been criticised for deporting women and children who have been trafficked into the sex industry. Alternatively, should we give those people special immigration status? The Government have argued over the past year or two that such a solution would not be simple, because it could create a pull factor that draws people into the country and a loophole that they can use to gain legitimate status. We can learn from what other countries have done in that respect.

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In his opening comments, the hon. Gentleman said that the issue had dominated debate in this country for only about three years and that it was quite a recent phenomenon. Back in 2002, as a new Member of Parliament, however, I went with UNICEF to Thailand and the Republic of Laos to look at the trafficking of children for forced labour in factories and domestic work and for the sex trade. Thailand is significant in that it was one of the top five countries of origin among those who were referred to the POPPY scheme following Operation Pentameter, and we can learn from what the Thai Government and UNICEF did in this case. The children came predominantly from the Republic of Laos, which is a very poor country; indeed, it is very similar, although even worse in terms of poverty, to the eastern European countries that are a source of trafficking, as hon. Members have mentioned. The Thai Government, under pressure from UNICEF, realised that if they simply deported back to Laos everybody they freed from brothels and factories in Thailand, they would soon come back over the border, either willingly or unwillingly.

We looked at cases in which the Thai Government had educated and retrained children who had been freed in police raids for up to a year before taking them back to Laos. The idea was that those children would return to Laos with skills so that they could set up small businesses and have a different lifestyle. However, when we went to the village where one of these girls came from in Laos, which is the poorest country in the world, we saw that her family lived in a breeze-block shanty. There was nothing in the door or the windows, which were just holes in a breeze-block wall. There was one electric light bulb on the end of a long cable, which the family moved from room to room to use. The lesson was that whatever education and retraining these girls were given, many would quickly find their way back across the border because of the attraction of Thailand. Some would then move on to Europe and perhaps England, just as girls who “escape” the absolute poverty of some eastern European countries do. We can therefore learn a lot from the experience of other countries, but we can also learn a lot about how difficult it is to come up with answers. There are no simple answers, and I am sure that the Minister will refer to that, as I said.

Pentameter 2, and Pentameter 1 before it, have shown that successful action can be taken if it is a police priority. Of course, the police have lots of competing priorities. Terrorism has emerged as a major priority, just as knife crime has in the past few weeks and months—there is a constant cycle of such issues. However, something like trafficking is below the radar and below most people’s perception of what is going on, so there needs to be a strong lead from the Government—as Operation Pentameter showed—if the issue is to become a police priority. We have seen in this country and in other countries what a push we need from Governments to tackle this issue. One of the great factors in Sweden’s success—in so far as what they are doing in Sweden is a success—is that they have not only made purchasing sex a crime, but given the police a lot of extra resources and told them that they must make enforcing the law on this issue a top priority. Laws can be passed, but whether they are enforced is another matter.

Sweden also puts a lot of resources into social services and into providing back-up for women who were involved in prostitution to help them take up alternative lifestyles.
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Something similar is being done on a small scale in Ipswich, following the terrible murders of five prostitutes there. The local police and social services have run a major programme to get women off the streets by providing housing and drug rehabilitation and by helping women into jobs and education so that they can take up alternative lifestyles. A whole package of measures is needed.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what the detailed lessons of Operation Pentameter and the visits to countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden are and what package the Government will introduce in this country. We are 10 months—nearly a year—on from the end of the operation, but what lessons have the Government learned? When will they publish their findings? What do they plan to roll out across the UK based on that experience?

What will the Government do about victims who can currently stay four weeks, or 16 weeks if they co-operate with the authorities? In 2006, a Home Office Minister responded to a question by saying that there were no plans to give victims special immigrant status. However, if the Government are to ratify the Council of Europe convention by the end of the year, as they have said they will, they will have to create some form of special immigration status for victims of trafficking who are freed as a result of police action.

The POPPY scheme is very good, but it can take only 25 people at a time. Will the scheme be rolled out across the country? If it is, will it be adequately resourced or will it just be left to existing local police and social services budgets to pay for the implementation of Pentameter and the POPPY system? Will any such scheme be based on the Dutch example of the four safe houses in Amsterdam? Such safe houses have personal guardians, 24-hour on-duty care, chaperones to take children out so that they cannot be picked up by traffickers on the streets and 24-hour CCTV monitoring of the surroundings. In the Netherlands, only 8 per cent. of freed children subsequently go missing, which is much better than the record in this country. A UNICEF report noted that 183 of the 330 child victims of trafficking whom the police found in this country later went missing. Where do these children go? What research are the Government doing through local authorities into where these children go and how we can combat the problem?

What are the lessons for sentencing policy from Pentameter and the surrounding research? Respondents to Government consultations have said that there should be a heavy minimum sentence as well as a maximum sentence and that it should be linked to deportation and a ban on re-entry following completion of the sentence. Is that the way that the Government plan to go? What are the lessons for the provision of legal assistance and immigration advice to the women and children who are caught up in trafficking and whose identities are revealed as a result of operations by police and social services?

What lessons from Pentameter do the Government therefore intend to implement? When will they implement them? Will they implement in full UNICEF’s recommendations from March 2008 and the recommendations in the October 2007 report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights?

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12.8 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Like others, I pay tribute to the consistent work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) to bring this subject to the forefront of debate. I pay tribute to him not least because, as he rightly said, the House now debates this subject regularly, and we can use these debates to push the Government in the direction that all of us, including the Minister, want them to go. There is clearly no division between Members on either side of the Chamber when it comes to condemning the trafficking of women and children, sexual and labour exploitation and the range of criminal activities associated with those vile crimes. We should also pay tribute to the work of those involved in Pentameter 2 and to those police forces outside the framework of Pentameter 2 that conduct successful operations against trafficking.

As I have said, debates such as this are useful in encouraging the Government further in the direction in which I know the Minister wants to travel. We have had an interesting and powerful debate about trafficking in relation to prostitution, which is a significant part of the total debate, but not all of it. Even in the past hour we have heard powerful arguments on both sides. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) pointed out the success of the Swedish approach of criminalising the purchase of sex, but we have also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that the Dutch are quite successful in combating trafficking—more successful than we are—but that they have much more liberal laws on prostitution. Clearly the Government need to gather more evidence before coming down on one side or other of the debate.

A particularly powerful point was made by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) when he talked about the illegitimacy of certain types of behaviour—

Mr. MacShane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Damian Green: I shall continue paying the compliment before I give way. The right hon. Gentleman was exactly right in what he said about the best way of reducing such behaviour, particularly—and this is something for the Government to consider—in the context of newspaper, especially local newspaper, adverts, which still, after so much debate over many years, continue to carry adverts for brothels, more or less openly advertising that they have a constant inflow of new women from abroad, who are therefore very likely to have been trafficked. It is extraordinary that newspapers continue to do that. Any newspaper man in this country would be horrified to discover that his newspaper carried thinly disguised adverts for drug runners or gun runners. Yet they continue with advertising of the kind that I have described, which I am sure we all find vile.

Mr. MacShane: I am grateful for that last point. I hope that the Newspaper Society will read the hon. Gentleman’s words and act on them, because it can take action. I want to put it to him, however, that the rate of trafficking of women and girls into Holland is proportionately higher than the rate of trafficking into the UK, according to the statistics. It is true that more are arrested, but the level of trafficking is higher because the demand is not dealt with, and legalising prostitution never deals with demand. It cannot slow down trafficking.

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Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman may be right. We will see over time whether the success of the Dutch authorities in combating trafficking leads to a reduction in demand. However, there are decent and sensible arguments on both sides of the debate, and I know that the Government are considering them.

Another aspect of the matter that I hope the Minister will deal with in his remarks, and which other hon. Members have brought up, is the extraordinary paucity and inadequacy of the statistics. Many questions have been asked and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made the point that he had helpfully put some questions in writing as long ago as last night, to allow the Minister to consider them. To provide an example of a question that has received an answer, I asked last month what estimate the Home Office had made

The Minister replied:

I do not expect completely accurate figures, because obviously the area is surrounded by criminality, but I find it slightly extraordinary that the Government cannot even give an estimate of that very important subset of trafficked people. That shows the wider problem—that until we have more accurate information, it will be difficult to get more adequate policy in this context.

Another point that others have touched on, which it is important for the Government to consider, is that in the wake of Pentameter, and now Pentameter 2, we have reached the point at which anti-trafficking operations should be a permanent part of policing, and not a series of discrete operations. Detective Chief Superintendent Kinsella of the UK Human Trafficking Centre told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that

The Minister will also be aware of the comments of Chief Superintendent Phillipson of Cambridgeshire police who said publicly a few months ago:

He continued:

Everyone involved in the debate this morning will agree with the chief superintendent and will, I hope, press the Minister to move the issue up the list of police priorities.

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