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8 July 2008 : Column 388WH—continued

The Minister will be aware of other evidence to the Select Committee, from Chief Constable Maxwell, of the UK Human Trafficking Centre, who said that in some countries further away from Europe there were problems with co-operation and the sharing of information and, in the most serious cases, corruption and infiltration by criminal gangs in the national authorities responsible for dealing with trafficking. I hope that the Minister can impress on his Foreign Office colleagues that a willingness to fight and disrupt trafficking must be impressed on countries as a priority as part of our foreign policy. The Foreign Office and, indeed, other Departments will deal
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with the relevant Governments on the negotiation of treaties, business deals and intelligence sharing, and I hope that the British Government are now making it clear across the globe that the fight against trafficking is a serious priority for them.

We have inevitably heard a lot this morning about the signature and ratification of the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. The Minister is very aware of its history. The Conservatives called on the Government to sign the convention in January last year. They did so a few months later, which we welcomed. At the beginning of this year, since there had been a fairly deafening silence about ratification, we called on the Government to ratify it. The last public statement that we had from them was that it would be ratified by the end of the year. I hope that at the very least the Minister can repeat that assurance this morning and if possible agree that the date can be brought forward.

I am conscious that the Minister made the point that there are difficulties. In a debate in Opposition time on 16 January he told the House that the Government

Obviously, subject to caveats about looking at the details, we would want to support that legislation and get it through as fast as possible. Can the Minister tell us today whether secondary legislation can be used, or whether primary legislation will be required? If primary legislation is needed, how and when will it be passed? For instance, the Department is drafting an enormous new immigration Bill for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech, which we shall not get until December. Clearly it will be extremely lengthy and will include many controversial elements. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance that the particular narrow legislation that is needed for the ratification of the convention will not be wrapped up in a larger and more controversial Bill. Inevitably that will delay ratification.

The Minister will be aware that, quite apart from the very important legislative aspects of the matter, we have proposed a number of practical measures that would make a real difference to this country’s performance in combating trafficking. We have for some time proposed the establishment of an integrated border police force, and I am sure that the Minister welcomed the details of the Stevens report that we issued last week. We said that there should be separate interviews at all airports for women and children travelling alone with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband, to identify potential victims. We suggest that immigration officials should check the date on the return ticket of the adult accompanying minors, to look for discrepancies, and we have said that there should be much better co-ordination between Government Departments than has been happening until now. We also think that each police force and local authority should have a strategy for dealing with suspected victims of trafficking.

There are many issues for the Minister to address in the time remaining, not the least of which is that one of the great things that Pentameter revealed is the sheer scale of the trafficking problem and the slightly half-hearted nature of the response so far. We need a permanent police effort; we should already have ratified the convention; and Ministers must explain why, when many thousands
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of trafficked women live in fear in this country, there are safe places for only about 70. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address those issues.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing another Adjournment debate on this important issue. Other Members have congratulated him, and I join in those congratulations.

I pay tribute to the work done on this matter by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who have contributed significantly to the debate. I also thank the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokesmen for the measured way in which they made their points. It is an extremely important matter to us all. If we continue to try to achieve unity of purpose, we might make more significant progress than we sometimes do. I congratulate the police and all the agencies involved—the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, the UK Border Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency—on their work on Operation Pentameter 2, which involved not just the police, but a wide range of organisations.

I will try to rattle through many of the points raised, although not necessarily in the order that they were raised, and to answer some of the specific questions. The Government will ratify the Council of Europe convention by the end of the year. That will not require any more primary legislation. We accomplished one part of it during the summer in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, and one or two small pieces of secondary legislation are necessary to deal with some of the health aspects. I confirm that we are on track to ratify, that no primary legislation will be needed and that some small points can be dealt with by secondary legislation.

As hon. Members have said, Operation Pentameter 2 identified 176 victims, 13 of whom were children. Some 582 criminals were arrested and 822 premises were visited, of which 157 were massage parlours and 582 residential properties. I will return to the matter of residential properties in a moment. Five victims of forced labour were also rescued, three of whom were children. Although we concentrate, rightly, on trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation and on child trafficking, we must remember that we know even less about trafficking for forced labour than about some other issues. We need to do more on that, and we will.

The hon. Member for Totnes asked me to confirm that trafficking is everywhere. Pentameter 2 involved 582 residential properties, which made it significantly different from Pentameter 1 in terms of where victims were found and where intelligence led the police to conduct their operations. You might say that it was down your street, Mr. Pope. Significant numbers in all areas of the country were involved. It is not just an issue for some parts of some cities; it is significant for every area.

A regional breakdown is available. In the south-west, 65 premises were visited, of which 56 were residential and nine were massage parlours, and 54 suspects were
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arrested. The hon. Gentleman asked about the seizure of criminal assets. Assets were seized across the country, but in his area, the south-west, £158,300 in cash was seized. Again, figures broken down area by area are available.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about victim engagement. Of the 154 adult victims identified, 22 are in support and 31 have been voluntarily returned. I want to deal with this point, because it goes to the heart of the problem and is a public policy challenge recognised by every Member who takes an interest in the issue. It is one thing to send in police to rescue victims; it is quite another to build up those victims’ confidence and trust to the point where they will work with the authorities and police. That is a huge problem.

Many of the people offered support will not take it, and we should try to understand why. That has to do with deception, fear and intimidation in their own country and, particularly with respect to the Chinese, who made up a significant part of the nationalities rescued, it has to do with debt bondage. We must understand those issues if we are to do something about the problem. Of course, we must ensure that welfare services are available, but even when they are, it is sometimes difficult to encourage people to come forward.

Hon. Members said that trafficking should be core police business. That is essential. On convictions, 100 people have been charged so far. There have been 20 convictions, and many other cases are ongoing. Hon. Members may be interested to know the nationalities of the 167 victims. There were 55 from continental EU states, 81 from China and south-east Asia, five from South America, one from the Indian subcontinent and four from non-EU European countries. I point out that 47 Chinese nationals were rescued; it is a growing problem that we will need to deal with. There were 27 from Thailand and 21 from Romania. There were victims of other nationalities as well, but those are the ones that I am looking at.

Hon. Members will realise that I will not be able to answer all their questions; I apologise. I will deal with
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two: the demand review, and child trafficking and safety, which many hon. Members mentioned. Child trafficking is a real problem, not only in rescuing children, but in keeping them safe once they are in the care of the state.

When I was in Amsterdam considering the demand review, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough mentioned, I spoke to the Dutch Government. Hon. Members may know that the Dutch Government provide four 12-bed units. Clearly, many more children than that are trafficked there, as they are in our own country. Each child has individuals responsible for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The area is patrolled; that is perhaps the wrong word, but there are people around outside all the time. The children are not allowed out unaccompanied. Given all that—I take the point made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough—children still go missing. Fewer do so, but children still unscrew windows and do all sorts of things to get away from the authorities.

The hon. Gentleman was also right to talk about more secure accommodation. Clearly, we cannot lock up children who have done nothing and are victims, but we must find a way to ensure that rescued children are kept in a more secure environment. It is a difficult problem, even within the Dutch Government model, which has been referred to.

On demand, we have not yet come to any conclusions, but we are considering what to do. We understand that demand for prostitution results in many people being trafficked into prostitution, so we need to do something about that. Even Holland, which is held up as the liberal alternative, is extremely concerned about the impact that its laws have on trafficking. That is why Holland is shutting some licensed premises and managed areas and even considering making it a criminal offence to purchase sex outside the licensed and regulated sector.

I apologise to hon. Members; huge numbers of other points could be made in the debate. I will talk to hon. Members outside this Chamber, so that we can take the debate forward.

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Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007

12.30 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I wish to draw the Government’s attention to the no doubt unintended consequences of the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007, which came into force in April this year, and put a number of companies in Sunderland out of business. There is no reason to suppose that its impact will be confined to Sunderland, and indeed, if the British Chambers of Commerce is to be believed, the impact on jobs and business is likely to be widespread. The fact that the economy now appears to be in downturn will only make matters worse.

The measure was drawn up by two extremely clever people—Kate Barker and Sir Michael Lyons—at the Treasury’s behest. No disrespect to the Minister, but it is a pity that no Treasury Minister is here to account for the consequences—so often the Treasury is omnipresent, and yet absent. The aim was laudable: to give businesses an incentive to maximise the use of their premises and perhaps to lower rents by forcing on to the market properties otherwise being kept idle. That presumed that there would be takers for properties thus forced on to the market, but Sir Michael, Miss Barker and their masters at the Treasury appear to have overlooked the possibility that in areas such as the one that I represent, where a huge swathe of traditional industry has disappeared, there is little or no market for some of the vast industrial premises currently lying idle.

Those responsible cannot say that they were not warned. In response to the Government’s consultation last autumn, One NorthEast, the regional development agency, described the reforms as a “very blunt instrument” that would

Also in response to the consultation, the North East chamber of commerce disagreed with the premise that commercial properties deliberately left unoccupied represented a significant barrier to growth in the north-east. It spoke of the “serious impact” that the reforms were likely to have if applied across the board. Nevertheless, the Government chose, with minor adjustments, to go ahead, and the consequences are plain for all to see.

Pallion Engineering is a company based in the old Pallion shipyard in Sunderland, and faced an overnight increase in business rate from £55,000 to £277,000. It employs 10 people and rents space to a number of other companies that, between them, employ up to 200 people on a vast site that once employed several thousand. Obviously, an increase in rate demand of the type that I just described will put the company out of business, at a time when it had hopes of attracting subcontracts for the recently commissioned warships. The only impact will be the loss of up to 200 jobs and revenue of up to £55,000 a year, and the odds are that the site will be derelict for many years. Is that what the Government intended?

WH Forster, a print company, offers another example from Sunderland. It employs about 100 people at sites in Sunderland and Gateshead and is faced with an increase in rates from less than £10,000 to £105,000 on premises that it owns in Washington, which it is unable to sell, and which is only about one-third tenanted. It is also trying to sell its existing premises with a view to
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consolidating on to one site. It has been on the market for three years, but so far there have been no takers. The only impact of this penal increase in rates will be to threaten the survival of a business that has been built up over 50 years.

My attention has also been drawn to SST Engineering, which is a small fabrication business set up only last year that employs just seven people, but with the strong prospect of expansion. It is exactly the sort of business that we should be seeking to encourage. Currently, it uses only one of the three bays on the premises that it rents on the Sunderland enterprise park. When it was set up, it was given to understand that it faced a business rate bill of about £16,000 a year, but now it has been told that it is likely to be about three times that amount. The impact will be ruinous.

I first drew this situation to Ministers’ attention in mid-April. Not unnaturally, I wrote to the Treasury, but the response came from the Minister here, who advised that local authorities had discretion to delay the imposition of the new rates for up to six months, to spread the cost over 12 months, instead of 10, and to offer 100 per cent. relief in cases of particular hardship. I went back to my local authority, which said that that was not so, and that the most that it was permitted to offer under the constraints of European law was 10 per cent. relief, which in the cases of the companies to which I just referred would make no practical difference.

I wrote again to the Minister, on 16 May, and in the hope of generating an air of urgency I copied the letter to the Prime Minister’s parliamentary private secretary and to the Minister for the North East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). One month later, I received a reply from the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey). It was apparent from his reply that the Government are in denial. The threefold increase faced by the small engineering company, to which I referred earlier, was described as a

There was a paragraph of nonsense about how unhappy businesses have a right to appeal and a reference to section 49 of Local Government Act 1988, which permits relief in exceptional circumstances and which, I am advised by my local authority, is of no relevance in the cases that I have mentioned. Finally, it was suggested that the bill could be spread over 12 months, instead of 10, to

At that point, it became apparent that I would have to raise the matter publicly if we were to stand any chance of breaking through the wall of complacency that I have so far encountered.

I have since discussed the matter with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), who showed every sign of grasping the seriousness of this situation. Incidentally, I would be surprised if the consequences that I have outlined are confined to Sunderland and the north-east. Only this morning, my attention was drawn to the case of a warehouse business in north London facing insolvency as a result of this legislation. According to the British Property Federation, it will also have an adverse impact on regeneration
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schemes, because no one will build speculatively if they face the added risk of being taxed on an empty building.

The way forward is clear: one way or another, local authorities must be given the discretion to apply common sense and relieve rates on unused and underused property. If disaster is to be averted, that will need to be done quickly, because the bills have already been sent out and the court orders for non-payment are already being applied for. I understand that the Government had the foresight to give themselves a reserve power to permit local authorities to relieve 50 per cent. of the new charge in the event of an economic downturn, which undoubtedly would help were it to be called upon. However, in some of the cases that I have mentioned, it will not be sufficient. The Government will want to consider giving local authorities the discretion to remit the whole charge if there is a strong case for doing so. That is what I hope the Minister will say today. What I am hoping to hear from him is that the Government have finally grasped the nettle and will take action before people start turning up in our surgeries, accusing us of putting them out of work.

12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Mr. Pope, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—for the first time, I believe.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has put across his points. He has always been a persuasive friend, and I have probably followed him into the Lobby many times because of the conversations that we have had. He has probably got me into trouble once or twice as well.

I take on board my hon. Friend’s concerns about the two local engineering companies and the printer company that he mentioned. I apologise for not being a Treasury Minister, but, as he says, I am a Minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government. I am delighted that he has already had some informal conversations with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If he wants to have detailed discussions, I am happy to set up a meeting between my hon. Friend and Ministers in my Department to help to foster the dialogue.

I will outline how we arrived at our current position and the reasons why the Government have taken the decisions they have. Ultimately, those decisions are aimed at stimulating the market and ensuring that every property is utilised. Non-utilisation of buildings costs the taxpayer approximately £1 billion a year. I understand why my hon. Friend has raised the issue, and I am very sympathetic to his concerns.

As my hon. Friend said, the reforms followed on from recommendations of the independent Barker review into land use planning and the Lyons inquiry into local government. The changes to the empty property rates relief came into force from 1 April this year following Royal Assent to the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007, which was scrutinised in great detail during the legislation’s progress through the House.

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