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23 Jun 2009 : Column 211WH—continued

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Tim Loughton: No, my hon. Friend was right earlier when he said that we need a worldwide approach. That is why I said that even if we are good at finding the people who are promoting this stuff and posting it on the internet in this country, a lot of such activity is happening in Alaska, Florida, Russia and assorted Pacific islands that are not properly regulated. That is why I refer to the problem as an octopus. We can never clamp down on it altogether because the internet has become such a global phenomenon that it will not disappear overnight.

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

We must make it as difficult as possible for the perpetrators to access the practical means of placing images, accessing them and profiting from them. There has been some success in that. However, we will be successful only if the UK authorities co-operate with European authorities, which is why I mentioned the EFC, and with authorities overseas, not least in America. To a certain extent, Americans have a constitutional right to post obscene images on the internet, and that causes a serious problem. That is why some states have not proceeded against people as forcefully as they might have.

I will end on the subject of trafficking. I know the problem well because Gatwick airport is in my Worthing constituency and in West Sussex local authority. Some years ago, I led a debate in this Chamber on the problem of girls being trafficked from western Africa, mostly from Nigeria and Sierra Leone. They were coming to Gatwick airport as unaccompanied asylum seekers under dubious and frightening circumstances. They had been taken from their parents, many of whom had been offered money. In some cases, the girls had been threatened with voodoo curses in frightening circumstances.

When the girls turned up at Gatwick airport, they were taken into the care of West Sussex social services and were placed in foster care, which turned out not to be secure enough. Quite often, the pimps would appear in the middle of the night and abduct the girls under the threat that, if they did not comply, a voodoo curse would come down on them or that something terrible would happen to their parents. They would then be trafficked across the channel. Many ended up in northern Italy as prostitutes in places such as Milan. There was a television documentary on the issue. There was a concerted co-ordination of children’s services and immigration authorities to clamp down on the problem. To an extent, it has worked, but I fear that it has merely shifted the problem to other places.

Trafficking is an enormous problem. As my hon. Friend said, it is big business. The United Nations estimates that child trafficking generates $7 billion to $10 billion annually. Human trafficking is estimated to generate upwards of $30 billion annually. It is cited as the second most lucrative crime after the drugs trade. I think that it has leapfrogged the arms trade. Of all trafficking victims, 30 per cent. are below the age of 18. Child trafficking is increasing dramatically with between 1.2 million and 2 million children being trafficked each year. It is estimated that more than 10 million children are sexually exploited each year. That is a huge problem.

I will conclude with the example of the World cup and sporting events, which the Minister may wish to comment on. I am sure that she is or soon will be involved in that area of inquiry. There is good evidence
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that child trafficking for the sex trade increases with international sporting events. In 2008, the sex trade in Switzerland increased enormously; it has been estimated that up to 3,000 women were sold into the sex trade and smuggled into the country. Of course the World cup next year will be in South Africa, where an estimated 30,000 children are enslaved in prostitution, many of them refugees from Zimbabwe. They come across a porous border, where a substantial part of the population of Zimbabwe live as refugees on very little money, finding a crust where they can. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and I were in Mozambique two years ago, where we saw the same thing happening because of the situation in that part of Africa. There were huge numbers of refugees, and children were subjected to horrible exploitation.

South Africa does not have comprehensive legislation to deal with human trafficking, and last year the US Department of State put South Africa on the tier 2 watch list for the fourth consecutive year, because of its failure to meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, with respect to prosecutions and so on. There exists a powerful lobby representing a minority of South Africans pushing for the decriminalisation of prostitution before 2010. That is very worrying, and in the interest of joined-up working and recognising that the trade is international, I am sure that the Minister, working with her colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, will want to liaise with authorities in the sporting world and South Africa, to ensure that the disasters that happened in Switzerland will not be repeated in South Africa on what could, I fear, be a much bigger scale.

There are big challenges ahead. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned private fostering. We shall continue to mention private fostering. I have mentioned it with reference to every measure on which I have led for the Opposition since the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and I still fail to see why the Government do not get it. Private fostering is in too many cases a cover for the exploitation of children who have been trafficked, who end up being abused sexually or in other ways. That has been found in several high-profile cases. I hope that the new Minister will take a fresh look at why private fostering has not been dealt with. A proper registration scheme could be introduced to deal with the situation effectively.

We need to work more closely with the home countries of many of the children, not least in west Africa. We should work with children’s services departments there to make sure that children do not leave in the hope of a better life or in fear of worse things happening to them and that circumstances will be suitable to enable them to stay with their families and be looked after properly. That is why international co-operation between social services and children’s services is crucial.

Barnardo’s and other voluntary agencies do excellent work. Barnardo’s is working on a report on the costs of sexual exploitation. It will expose the high costs to society of that exploitation and the serious consequences for the children and young people who are its victims.

Recently, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), rightly said:

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I think that we would all say “Hear, hear” to that. I hope that the new Minister will be resolute in her intentions and ambitions to work with all the other agencies, countries and Departments that can tackle head on the cancer of the sexual exploitation and trafficking of vulnerable children.

12.9 pm

The Minister for Children (Dawn Primarolo): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. I did not agree with the beginning of his contribution, when he painted a picture of despair generally for children in British society. However, rather than engage with him on that—I am sure that I shall have future opportunities to do so—I want to go to the heart of his contribution and those made by the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). It is clear that the issues transcend the normal political banter and debate that often characterise much of our proceedings.

As the hon. Member for Totnes said, sexual exploitation of children is, regrettably, not new, and its development into a global phenomenon with trafficking is a worrying extension. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, we are becoming much better at identification, although there is still a long way to go in connecting that with prosecution.

Many important points have been made, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole for acknowledging the importance of the new guidance and the presumption requirement in that guidance. Partnership and appropriately trained staff, working together across all the boundaries, are crucial to responding to the challenge.

The hon. Member for Totnes is a tireless campaigner against the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children, and has enormous expertise in and understanding of the matter. As a new Minister in this area, I listened carefully to the passion with which he addressed it. I am sure that he agrees that the Government have tried to make progress by recognising that the first priority must be to keep all children in this country safe.

Safeguarding the needs of exploited children is vital, but that requires us to ensure, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that agencies work together to protect them. He knows that the Government have set out how that should happen in guidance, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, to which he referred, and in supplementary guidance, “Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation”, which was published this month and builds on that work. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, it is intended that the guidance will help local agencies to ensure that they work together on the matters addressed by the hon. Gentleman and to develop local prevention strategies, to identify vulnerable young people who may be at risk of sexual exploitation, to take action to safeguard children who may be sexually exploited and to take action against anyone who is intent on abusing young people.

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The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham touched on the challenging dimension of the internet: communication and grooming and the circulation for profit or otherwise of images. Collecting evidence to ensure prosecution is challenging, and I agree that, whenever possible, we need a global response, but cutting off tentacles whenever we can must be an important part of our strategy. The guidance ensures that local authorities and the police have a statutory duty to work with local safeguarding children’s boards, practitioners and others working with young people. That is precisely the point that the hon. Member for Totnes was making. It is about bringing together that expertise, so that, with the added value, we can take forward the tasks that have been identified. From everything that the Government have undertaken, it is clear that they believe that the exploitation of children should not be regarded as a criminal act by the children or young people. They are the victims of the crime and not the perpetrators.

I listened very carefully to the point that the hon. Gentleman and others made about the age of 10. I have examined the Government’s response on that matter with regard to the importance of maintaining the current law and the necessity of providing, in exceptional circumstances, police intervention to protect the child. I do not have an answer right now, and I do not think that he does either. He outlined his objective, but we need to define how, practically, we can deliver it. I am more than happy to meet him to explore the true challenges in getting that balance right. We do not disagree about the objective, but there are differing expert views on the best way to deliver it.

Mr. Steen: I want to leave the Minister with this thought. The young people who are found running cannabis factories all over Britain—they are often and mostly from Vietnam—are charged with criminal offences even though they are usually children. That is where the problem started, and it has continued that way. We need to examine the work of the Crown Prosecution Service, because as long as it goes on prosecuting children for an offence of which they are victims rather than perpetrators, the problem will not go away. I am very happy to engage in dialogue with the Minister, and I have lots of examples to give to her.

Dawn Primarolo: We would all agree that this challenge will not go away and that it is not a simple problem for which there are simple answers. Since 1997, the Government have been determined to address the very complex challenges of sexual exploitation. We must consider what we do when such challenges come from within a family or are posed by a known family friend or associate. Social workers have to strike a very delicate balance between keeping children with their families, or, as the hon. Gentleman says, taking them into care. What are the protections there? The problem is a global evil. He and other hon. Members are right when they say that we need a much wider response. It is important that we correctly balance the mechanisms in the UK. We must recognise that we still have a long way to go. I will not stand here and say that the problem is all sorted, because, patently, it is not. Complex personal and interpersonal relationships exist within families. Moreover, we must consider why and how a young child comes to be trafficked to the UK and what we should do then.

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Early identification is key to protecting vulnerable children. As the hon. Gentleman and others said, the Department must work closely across Government and with local government and those responsible for delivering the services to develop clear help and support to the front-line staff who can take the work forward. The hon. Gentleman said that the national referral mechanism enables us not only to do that but to collect the important information that is necessary.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned foster carers and the need for diversity. I also heard what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about private foster care, but I shall take that away with me. Local authorities are required to ensure that they have the necessary number of carers, including from minority ethnic groups, to meet the local need.

The hon. Member for Totnes touched on Heathrow and the report in TheGuardian—that was truly worrying, but it is now being investigated—but Hillingdon council, for example, is trying very hard to recruit foster parents from its Chinese community, for precisely the reasons that he mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole spoke about the removal of children from the UK. I am sure that they know already that no child can be removed from the country until they reach the age of 18, when a decision will be taken on their asylum. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the careful consideration of young people’s needs when they reach the age of 18. He also mentioned the question of age determination and the problems of documentation being destroyed and of people trying to get young people into the country. Ultimately, children’s services child protection officers must make the sometimes very difficult decision about a child’s age.

What happens to those young children is crucial. When they enter this country, they must feel that they are in a safe, secure and protected environment. That must be achieved as quickly as possible, for all the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—the pressure to run away from protection, for instance. They will need intensive, one-to-one support and perhaps translation services. We must also work to ensure that they—and their families back in their original homes—are protected. He is right about that. We must strike a difficult balance between not locking them up—that will hardly build up the trust and feelings of safety required to make progress—and protecting them from falling prey to the people who trafficked them.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about guardians ad litem has been made before, but the case remains to be made for why such guardians would make a difference, given that social work and key personnel advisers are already in place to support these young people.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to Gatwick, which, along with Heathrow, is an example of the type of intensive work that we are trying to draw together. Considerable progress has been made over the past 12 months, but much remains to be done. As far as we can tell, from what we have seen over the past 12 months, including the increasing amount of data collected through the referral mechanism, very few young people have disappeared from care. However, we are trying, with all our energies, to find those who have disappeared. I am sure that hon. Members will not pretend for a minute that, for whatever reason, no
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young people will run away from the place of safety that we feel would serve their best interests, but we must ensure that it is a rare occurrence.

The question of trafficked young people must be set in the context of the wider agenda. We must be more prepared to discuss the domestic violence, sexual abuse and exploitation that we see across society. As I told the hon. Member for Totnes, I do not agree with the picture of despair that he paints, but I appreciate people’s reluctance to talk about relationships and appropriate behaviours and how we should deal with the problem.

I had the privilege yesterday of meeting some young men and women from Barnardo’s, who had been brought to the House to discuss with me what it was like for them as children to be part of a family where there was domestic violence and abuse. We also spoke about what we needed to do, as well as working with young children intensively, to ensure better relationships; we said that education should give them a better and frank understanding of what is wrong or inappropriate behaviour. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, great steps have been made by the Government in arranging sexual assault referral centres and the work now being done on the training of personnel.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised the question of the trafficking that can result from large international events and the particular vulnerabilities in South Africa, as we move towards the World cup. He will be aware of this, so I shall not recite it, but we protect those of our citizens who go elsewhere. Trafficking is still an offence here, whether or not it is an offence in the country where it is committed, and we will prosecute on the evidence.

The hon. Gentleman raised another important point, and I want to give him a modicum of reassurance. It is important at all such events—the World cup is a classic example—that Governments speak to one another about our experience and the types of support that we offer, to ensure that young people in particular, but also women in general, are protected. We should not leave unchallenged the clear profit that traffickers seek to make at such events. I shall certainly continue to take that forward.

This has been an important debate, and as the new Minister, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Totnes; it is an extremely quick way of getting a full idea of the breadth of issues on the subject. I absolutely take the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the challenge of working across government on the matter. I say to him and to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that this is not an issue that I shall have to deal with on my own. I will of course be accountable for Government action, but Ministers working together will set the correct standard of debate in this country and help us to achieve the objectives that the hon. Member for Totnes seeks.

Child exploitation and sexual abuse are always unacceptable. We will pursue the issue. We will protect those children. We will prosecute whenever we can. We will step up to the plate and do our duty, seeking a global response to the trafficking of young children and women around the world—and to those who seek to make a profit from them.

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