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Let us give credit where it is due. The Government have recognised the scandal of child trafficking and taken a number of steps towards the prevention and prosecution of trafficking offences. Moreover, they have provided protection for child victims of trafficking.
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Migrant as well as British children are at risk of being trafficked for sexual exploitation, and that exploitation is often linked with domestic servitude and other forms of exploitative labour. Information about the scope and incidence of child trafficking in the United Kingdom has been produced by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which published a strategic threat assessment in April, identifying 337 cases of children trafficked into or within the United Kingdom over the past year. The children came from a wide range of countries—China was the most frequently mentioned—for a number of purposes, including sexual exploitation, forced labour and domestic servitude.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children also published research this month on child victims of trafficking. It recommended that child protection concerns and the best interests of the child should always trump immigration procedures. I hope that the Minister takes a particular interest in this important point: trafficked children need to be seen not as immigration cases, but as children who have been trafficked here for exploitation.

The NSPCC advocated the need for trained foster carers and 24-hour supported accommodation for child victims of trafficking. I am all for that, but can the Government deliver? A campaign to find foster carers that come from the same country as the trafficked child could be the first step. During the Slough raids on the Roma community in February 2008, the police found a number of young children who had been forced into criminal activity, but they were unable to find foster carers who spoke Romanian or the dialect of Romanian that the Roma children spoke. Could the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which was funded by the Government to the tune of £1.6 million this year, take on the role of locating potential foster carers from minority communities? That is an important job, but it is not being done. If locating foster parents from minority communities who might be willing to foster children from their old home country cannot done by the UKHTC, some of the excellent non-governmental agencies that fortunately abound in this field could be given the task. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point.

Although the ratification and implementation of the Council of Europe convention against trafficking provides improved protection in theory—I am glad the Government signed and ratified the convention, and that they are now implementing it—there are some serious problems with the national referral mechanism, which was set up under the convention to identify victims of human trafficking and to ensure that they are referred to specialist support services. The process of identification is critical, because it results in the granting of temporary admission into the UK and access to a range of support and legal services. Failure correctly to identify a trafficked victim can lead to a denial of basic support, continued exploitation, criminalisation and, ultimately, removal to the country of origin, often without a risk assessment. Can the Minister tell us how many children have been removed from Britain in the past year and returned to their country of origin without ensuring that the necessary support services were in place in those countries, to ensure that the child is not re-trafficked and brought back into Britain? Such a risk assessment before a child is put on a plane is a prerequisite, but is it actually happening?

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Part of the problem with the national referral mechanism is the question of what is the competent authority to identify and legalise individuals who have been trafficked. Who holds the power to identify children who have been trafficked? The answer is that it is a handful of UK Border Agency caseworkers, but how do the Government ensure that victim care is the caseworkers’ priority given that they come from the immigration services? Does the Minister not think that that is the wrong way round? Would it not make much more sense to have as the competent authority professionally trained child protection staff who would recognise the best interests of the child, which is the most important thing?

End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes UK—ECPAT UK—represents a coalition of leading organisations, including Anti-Slavery International, the Jubilee Campaign, NSPCC, Save the Children, the Children’s Society, UNICEF and so on. It has offered specific training for those responsible for identifying victims in the Home Office and, no doubt, people in the Minister’s Department. As yet, it has received no response. The organisation does training all over Britain and it would be ideal if it were invited to train the UKBA caseworkers as to how they should identify trafficked children. When will the Minister, and the Home Office, respond, and will she apply pressure to ensure that the Government respond?

The problem of identification and age determination at ports of entry is another spanner in the works. Trafficked children are often found without legal documents, or with documents that have been falsified by their traffickers to make them appear younger or older than they are. When a child is accompanied by an adult, the information provided by the adult should be verified to determine their relationship with the child. Once they have gone through the frontier, it is too late.

In each region of Croatia, a police officer and a social worker are appointed and trained to identify victims and to assess the credibility of each case. We cannot expect all UKBA staff to be equipped, but why have the Government given them sole responsibility for identification? The Minister may say that it is not her responsibility, but she is here to respond to the debate, and I hope she addresses that point. If she cannot, will she see that the Department responsible deals with the problem?

On 6 May, The Guardian stated that 77 Chinese children had gone missing from Hillingdon children’s services in the past year. Later in the month, the Select Committee on Home Affairs published its report into human trafficking, which described a resurgence of a type of slave trade and criticised the lack of good information on the scale of the problem. It also said that enforcement was patchy, that prosecution rates were low, and that there is little protection for victims. Similarly, ECPAT UK has found that about 60 per cent. of suspected child victims in local authority care go missing and are not subsequently found. The Committee was particularly alarmed by accounts that traffickers may, in effect, be using the care home system for vulnerable children as holding pens for their victims, until they are ready to pick them up.

I saw that very process when I visited Gatwick with some of my colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group on the trafficking of women and children. Children
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who were initially applying for asylum came through the system and were sent in a minibus to one of the local authority children’s homes about eight miles away. That is a receiving centre for children, as is Hillingdon near Heathrow. Oddly enough, most of the children are allowed to hold on to their mobile phones. When it is convenient for the traffickers, the children in the reception centres are picked up.

The children’s homes are not secure, and I am not sure that the balance between making them a prison and keeping them open has been correctly struck. At the moment, they are far too open, and traffickers probably ring the child on the mobile phone saying, “Meet me at the front gate in half an hour,” and off they go. In such circumstances, one cannot be too surprised that 77 Chinese children went missing from Hillingdon children’s services. The problem is the balance between secure and free accommodation. At the moment, people can go missing if they so wish.

Article 10(4) of the Council of Europe convention, which we implemented in April, states:

The necessity of appointing a guardian for a trafficked child stems from the acute vulnerability that such a child faces. They are highly susceptible to the continued attempts by traffickers to re-establish their control. One non-governmental organisation found that children go missing at the very point when they are being assessed for support. A guardian appointed at that stage would provide additional protection, look out for the child’s best interests, guide them through the complex legal and policy processes and provide a crucial link between the various agencies and services for the child.

Will the Minister consider the issue seriously? Why do the Government oppose the appointment of guardians? Why do they say that it is not necessary? That is the one thing that would go further than anything else to guarantee the safety of vulnerable children. The system uses guardians ad litem anyway, so it is not a question of appointing a lot of new people at enormous cost. Guardians ad litem do a tremendously important job in our legal system by protecting children in this country; why can they not be given the job of looking after vulnerable children who are trafficked into Britain or come here seeking asylum? We are not talking about a vast number of children; it may be in the hundreds, but it is not yet in the thousands. It needs to be considered.

Defining the scale of trafficking in the United Kingdom is an ongoing issue. In its report, the Home Affairs Committee said that one of the biggest problems facing attempts to tackle trafficking is the lack of any serious current estimates of the scale of the trade in people. The report, which is excellent, goes on to give a conservative estimate of at least 5,000 trafficking victims in the UK, of which just under 1,000 are children. Some estimates state that there are at least 4,000 trafficked women working in the sex industry alone.

I am afraid that figures all over Europe are much the same. Nobody knows the extent of human trafficking, as by its nature it is under the radar. Nobody has a clue exactly how widespread it is, although the United Nations calls it the third most serious crime after arms dealing and drug dealing and says that more than 800,000
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people a year are trafficked. More people in the world are trafficked in one year than were ever trafficked in the slave trade. The problem is rightly referred to as the new slavery.

The Home Affairs Committee expressed disappointment that the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre had not made more progress in developing estimates of the scale of the problem, which is one of the main tasks for which it was established. Without reasonable estimates, it is impossible to gauge what support services are needed for victims. Currently, the Government provide long-term funding for just 35 places in safe accommodation for victims, through the POPPY project, on which the Government rely. Although the project does good work, it provides beds, if that is the right phrase, only for women over 18. There are no facilities for children under 18 other than local authorities’ provision for children.

I am also concerned about the criminalisation of children. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has criticised the Government for refusing to decriminalise children involved in prostitution and for new provisions in the Policing and Crime Bill that will give the police powers to direct a child as young as 10 to leave an area, without necessarily taking into account the child’s safety or, more importantly, where the child will go. It is all very well to say that they cannot stay in the area, but where are they supposed to go? The Committee finds it

Children involved in prostitution are treated not as child abuse victims but as criminals, despite the Government’s statement clarifying that involving children in prostitution is a form of child abuse. Will the Government remove the power to prosecute children over the age of 10 for prostitution offences? Children involved in prostitution are victims of child sexual abuse and need protection, not prosecution. Although prosecution numbers are low, the illegal nature of the activity adds to the child’s fear of discovery and may act to deter the child further from coming forward to seek help from the authorities.

The problem is Europe-wide, because police throughout Europe tend to be unsympathetic, seeing all prostitutes, whatever their age, as prostitutes and not child victims. Many have been trafficked and trapped into brothels. I have seen on the streets of Rome children under the age of 18, some as young as 12, who have been trafficked from Albania. They need help, not criminalisation.

The issue was discussed recently during the passage of the Policing and Crime Bill. Baroness Miller emphasised that the right approach was crucial so that children are treated as victims and not criminals. On Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill, she said:

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The Home Office has decided to cease funding the work of the Refugee Council children’s panel, whose work concerns age-disputed children. That is odd. All funding to the panel is expected to be terminated in 2010. Why? The UK Border Agency says that the support work provided by the panel is now being done by specialist local authorities. Can the Minister tell us which ones? We have not been able to find any that have taken on such work. The children’s panel provides essential support for age-disputed young people, including access to education. I do not know whether the Minister knows this, but there is non-stop dispute about the age of children coming through ports of entry, because if they are under 18, they are treated in one way, and if they are over 18 they are treated in another.

I am sure that I have given the Minister enough to chew on, but I will give her a little more in the next four or five minutes. In addition to the removal of funding from such an important organisation as the Refugee Council children’s panel, I am puzzled by the removal of funding from the Met. Further cuts have been made within the Met’s human trafficking unit, which is being wound down despite the Prime Minister’s assurances that more funding, not less, would be given. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), asked the Prime Minister:

The Prime Minister replied:

That does not make sense, because the Met tells me that the unit is winding down. The Home Affairs Committee noted the reduction in Government funding for the Met human trafficking unit and recommended that the unit, far from being run down, should be sustained. What is the position with regard to the Met’s police work?

When will we ratify the Council of Europe convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, which the Government signed more than a year ago? That is directly within the Minister’s remit. I can quite understand if she can get out of answering some of the other questions, but she cannot get out of this one. The Government have signed the Council of Europe convention, but have done nothing further.

Where do we go? Where does it all leave us? Hopefully, a little nearer to protecting children from sexual exploitation, especially those who have been trafficked, but one must remain somewhat sceptical. Traffickers are far more nimble than the heavy-handed Government bureaucracy that surrounds our efforts. It is right that the professionals working in the field should be better informed and better trained to spot the telltale signs indicating the possibility of child abuse.

The European Commission wants us to pass even more legislation to protect children, but as existing legislation has not been implemented effectively, there is not much point in producing even more. That is what the EU does constantly: it persuades its 28 member
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states to keep passing more and more laws. The trouble is that those laws are not being implemented. We therefore need to focus on what we can do and what we can do well, perhaps starting with the national referral mechanism. I believe that we now have our hands on the levers, but we must pull them to save increasing numbers of children from the indignity and horror of child abuse, often at the hands of traffickers.

11.30 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. He has considerable experience and knowledge of trafficking and has used it to great effect.

Many significant points have been made and the new Minister has many questions to answer. I welcome her to her new position officially. We have exchanged a few amicable words across the Floor of the House, but have not yet engaged in debate. This debate has highlighted how important it is for the Minister for Children to bring Departments together. We have discussed a number of issues that in the past may have been fobbed off as the responsibility of the Home Office. However, now that we have a Minister for Children, that should not be the case. On that basis, I anticipate that we will receive answers to all our questions.

The hon. Gentleman gave some statistics, which are always a great wake-up call. They were not pessimistic enough to suggest that our society is broken, but did show that it has many worrying and upsetting traits. He rightly drew our attention to this country’s child abuse statistics, which remind us that child protection should be at the top of every citizen’s agenda. We must be aware of what is going on.

In my brief contribution, I will look at the wider issue of exploitation, as well as at trafficking. The issue is important in relation to the new Government publication, “Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation”. I was pleased to work on the parliamentary panel on safeguarding children and young people who run away or go missing from home or care. An enormous number of children—140,000— run away each year. Fortunately, most of them return safely, but about 10,000 encounter harm or danger, which can involve sexual exploitation. Homeless children, regular absentees from education, those who are not receiving a suitable education and those in pupil referral units are vulnerable. A large proportion of runaways are children in care. A wide breadth of issues make children vulnerable.

Mr. Steen: Does the hon. Lady agree that the phrase “children in care” is a misnomer? The one thing that they do not get is care. Although many of the workers involved are dedicated and hard-working, there is a horrible trend that children in care either disappear or are abused while in care.

Annette Brooke: I accept that those are problems in the care system. There is no doubt that as a society we must do a lot better with children in care. Hard decisions must be taken about whether to leave children in abusive situations or put them into care. We must be sure that we are putting them into an improved situation. Much more must be done on that.

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