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20 Jan 2010 : Column 101WH—continued

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that it would not be appropriate to comment in any way on the scheme at this stage. To do so could jeopardise and prejudice the Secretary of State's decision on the referred
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application. However, I can assure her that he will carefully consider all the matters raised by the inland port application, including relevant policy issues, and that a conclusion will be reached on the balance of interests. He will also take into account my right hon. Friend's views as expressed in this debate, in correspondence and in the possible future meeting that we have discussed. Having considered all of that, he will then decide whether intervention would be justified.

I understand that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend are keen for the Secretary of State to reach a decision as quickly as possible on whether to call in the application for his own determination. In that respect, this debate has demonstrated that my right hon. Friend is a great advocate for her constituents and, indeed, the constituents of others in and around the area. I shall ensure that officials submit the case to the Secretary of State as soon as possible, and I certainly would expect that to be within three weeks of the Highways Agency's notification of agreement.

I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough. I have taken on board everything that they have said this morning, and will do all that is within my power to ensure that the matter is fast-tracked, so that they can have a decision about whether the application ought to be called in, without commenting on the merits of the application itself-

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. We have to adjourn until 2.30 pm. I thank Members for their co-operation and for the debate.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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UK Human Trafficking Centre

[Mr. Nigel Evansin the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr. Evans, for ensuring that we have a full hour and a half for this important debate. As this may be my last opportunity to speak about human trafficking before I leave Parliament, I thought it appropriate to assess the state of modern-day slavery in the United Kingdom, the effect of the absorption of the UK Human Trafficking Centre into the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and the need for a national human trafficking watchdog.

First, I pay tribute to the officers of the all-party group. I have been greatly supported by the three vice-Chairmen: the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), Baroness Butler-Sloss, and the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who is in the Chamber today, has played an invaluable part in the overall strategy, and I thank him for that. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for their kind comments.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the many Ministers who have paid tribute to my fight against modern-day slavery, including the Solicitor-General; the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell); the Minister for the Cabinet Office; the Under-Secretary of State for Health; the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland; the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has responsibility for public health; the Minister for Children, Young People and Families; the Foreign Secretary; and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). I must not forget the sterling work of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz).

Everyone wants statistics. They give people a sense of bearing, as from a compass, and they feel happier when they have something against which to judge where they are. The problem is that statistics on human trafficking are difficult to come by. By their very nature, they are unreliable and problematic to read. The Home Affairs Committee's report in May 2009 stated that there are an estimated 5,000 victims in the UK, and according to the Ministry of Justice website, Home Office research estimates the total social and economic cost of trafficking in the UK at about £1 billion in 2003.

Statistics from police Operation Pentameter 2 identified 169 victims of human trafficking, 13 of whom were children; 406 suspects were arrested and 67 were charged with trafficking in human beings; 15 people were then convicted of trafficking, some with related offences; 822 premises were visited; 6,400 police intelligence reports were gathered; more than £500,000 in cash was recovered from the criminals who were arrested, and court orders placed restraining orders on criminal assets running into several millions of pounds.

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The Home Office has stated that approximately 360 children are trafficked into and within the UK each year. ECPAT UK-End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-co-ordinates a coalition working for the protection of children's rights, including Anti-Slavery International, Jubilee Campaign, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Save the Children UK, The Children's Society, UNICEF, and World Vision UK. ECPAT, which services our all-party group, and does so very well, estimates that 60 per cent. of children rescued from traffickers later go missing from local authority care.

Between March 2003 and April 2009, the POPPY Project in London, which provides shelter to trafficked women, received 1,233 referrals of women over 18 who were acknowledged to have been trafficked. The Home Affairs Committee's report last year stated that at least 100,000 people are trafficked into and around the EU each year. There are rumours of boys moving from Russia through Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as sex slaves, but there are no numbers. In a high security prison in Bucharest, which I recently visited, one man admitted driving a transit van weekly across the Pyrenees transporting trafficked women from Romania into Spain. He would not give me any numbers, but he did that for several years. There is a combination of anecdotal and statistical evidence, and it is not surprising that Nick Davies recently questioned the scale of human trafficking in the UK in a challenging article in The Guardian. The statistics are spasmodic, unreliable and unproven. Unfortunately, modern-day slavery is not tidy, visible or neatly packaged, and it is not surprising that Mr Davies's article unleashed an outburst from non-governmental organisations, sex workers, former trafficked victims, women's rights workers, officials, MPs, and so on. Everyone weighed in to complain about his views.

By its very nature, modern-day slavery is hidden. Much of it is underground, most of it goes undetected, and much of it is orchestrated by sophisticated criminal gangs whose footwork is much faster than the lumbering steps of the law. The House must not underestimate victims' very real fear of coming forward-and anyway, how do they do so? If they are sex workers, they are prisoners; if they are forced labour, they are working covertly to get rid of debt; if they are domestic slaves, they usually have their passports taken away; if they are child victims, they are usually used as Fagins by their parents or distant relatives to carry out street crime.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), a former Home Office Minister, for pushing forward the agenda, largely single-handedly, including persuading the Prime Minister to sign and ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, and for the creation of action plans involving 11 Departments. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth, in his place and about to give a powerful answer to some of my points. The Home Office has always been the lead Department in such matters, but I am sure that hon. Members will be interested to know that the Scottish Executive, the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Attorney-General's Office, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department
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of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are all involved in trying to tackling this difficult problem.

It is important to acknowledge the Government's financial commitments. The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office awarded £3.7 million to the POPPY Project over two years, and funding for the human trafficking centre has almost doubled from £834,000 in 2007-08 to £1.7 million in £2008-9, and £1.6 million in 2009-10. However, despite those initiatives, the signing of conventions, and the involvement of 11 Departments, the problem remains as opaque as ever. Some people say that it is getting worse. Modern-day slavery will continue while people in undeveloped countries are forced to feed the appetites of populations in developed countries.

We are witnessing a worldwide phenomenon. The largest number of children trafficked into the UK are from China and Vietnam. Many of the women trafficked into sexual slavery fly via the Netherlands from west Africa. An increasing number of victims trafficked into Spain come from south America. The French suffer from human trafficking, but do not like to admit it. Moroccans and Tunisians are viewed as illegal immigrants, rather than as people who are trafficked. As pilfering and violence become epidemic, and as the rule of law collapses in Haiti following the terrible national disaster, child trafficking will quickly emerge as children are left abandoned or orphaned, and predators move in. What is the state of play in this country?

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on this issue, as usual. On his last point, does he really fear that the children who are orphaned in Haiti will end up being trafficked? What can be done about that?

Mr. Steen: I was hoping to ask a question about that in the House this morning, but unfortunately we did not get that far. There is no doubt that during events such as tsunamis and earthquakes, children are separated from their families and parents, and sadly there will be many orphans in Haiti. It is a very poor country-one of the poorest in the world-and I cannot see that traffickers, who are predators, will fail to come forward and take children away, either from children's homes, or by deploying distant relatives who will say that they are going to care for them, but those children will never be heard of again. I wanted to ask the Prime Minister a question this morning about what is being done to alert international aid agencies to that prospect. There is no evidence for it yet, but it is inevitable, and the question is how it can be prevented, and on what scale it will take place. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I was coming on to look at the situation in this country. Until the summer of 2008, it seemed that the Government were keeping up the pressure. However-and this has nothing to do with the Minister-I have a feeling that once the Council of Europe convention was ratified and implemented, that impetus might have been lost. Perhaps we need a new impetus from the Government in the dying embers of this Parliament.

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A good example is the implementation of the national referral mechanism in April 2009. In the first six months ending in September 2009, 347 people were referred as suspected victims of trafficking. There are 180 Government officials who have been specially trained as assessors. Dividing 347 by 180, we are entitled to ask what each of those officials are doing for the rest of the time when they are not looking into their two referrals. Those 180 Government officials are referred to as "competent authorities" and are tasked with the job of deciding whether any of the victims referred to them have been trafficked. I do not understand why we need 180 officials-that number could probably be cut by two thirds. Who trained them? What were they trained for, and are they the right people to do that job?

There is a bigger question about the relevance of recognising someone as a victim of trafficking, and about the authority of the competent authority. Even if an individual is recognised as trafficked, the Ministry of Justice, through the Director of Public Prosecutions, can still pursue criminal cases against them. The pattern is well established, with the Crown Prosecution Service totally ignoring, and treating as irrelevant, the decision of the competent authorities employed by the UK Border Agency and, by implication, denying the existence or legality of the Council of Europe convention.

Let us take the case of V, a Vietnamese boy who was assessed as aged 17 but who was 15 when he arrived in Britain. He was given a positive, conclusive-grounds decision in which the competent authorities identified him as a victim of trafficking. In spite of that, he was given a 45-day reflection period, as required by the Council of Europe convention, but once he had served that 45-day delay, he was sentenced. The fact that he had been subject to a decision by the competent authority, which stated that he had been trafficked, was completely irrelevant. The Crown Prosecution Service charged him with cannabis cultivation, and he was convicted at Huntingdon Crown court in August 2009.

There are many such cases; I have a number of them. I have raised the issue with the Solicitor-General and with the Director of Public Prosecutions. If somebody has been trafficked and described as such by the competent authority set up by the Government, how can they possibly be prosecuted and sentenced? The competent authority's statement that a person has been trafficked becomes an irrelevancy, because it does not have any meaning. The question then is: does it have any meaning for the Solicitor-General or the courts?

Such cases make a joke of the 45-day reflection period. What is the point of recognising individuals as victims under the national referral mechanism if criminal cases are then pursued against those same people? What is the significance of the Government signing the Council of Europe convention, if children and young people found to have been trafficked-whether Roma children or Chinese boys-are left with no emotional, psychological or practical support to help them navigate the administrative and legal nightmare of human trafficking legislation? It goes totally against the words and spirit of the convention. Not only is the national referral mechanism being side-stepped by the law, the principles in the convention of supporting, helping and advising children are being totally ignored.

The Government state that their goal is to make the UK a hostile environment for human traffickers, but they have made it a totally hostile environment for the
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victims. Domestic workers who come to the UK on diplomatic visas to work for diplomats are not able to change employers without losing their immigration status. That makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse because they have no escape route from such a situation.

Kalayaan is a London-based, well-run non-governmental organisation that supports migrant domestic workers. It reports that it refers 6.9 per cent. of the diplomatic domestic workers it encounters to the UK Human Trafficking Centre as victims of trafficking. That is compared with 0.1 per cent. of domestic workers in private households. That dramatic difference is an obvious cause for concern, and I led a delegation to the Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Woolas) on 24 November last year. All the heavyweights on the issue of human trafficking were there, and the Minister buckled under the arguments. He could see no reason why the diplomatic visa should be changed so that those who were imprisoned or abused by officials in foreign embassies or delegations could escape. As it is, they cannot escape. If they do escape, they have no passport and are sent home where they came from. These people come from embassies and they are terrified about their future and the future of their families.

I would like to mention other cases, but some victim support organisations are reluctant to release information. It is hard to raise the problem with credibility when one does not have the details. Of course we want to protect the privacy of victims, but we can do that and share information at the same time. There are increasingly difficult problems in getting even the vaguest information from some of the organisations that are specifically funded by the Government to look after victims of trafficking. Will the Minister consider whether he could provide some guidance to those organisations and suggest that acting like a guard at Fort Knox, preventing anyone from getting in, or meeting, listening to or speaking to any of the victims, is not a good way to encourage an open and transparent society?

I have a case from one such organisation, the POPPY project. It could not give me the name, or details of the courts or the police, which was not very helpful; none the less, I will relate some of the information. This case took place last November, when a referral was made to UK Human Trafficking Centre regarding 21-year-old Chloe-apparently she was 21, although I do not know whether her name was actually Chloe.

Chloe had approached the central London Sapphire unit-a police unit-having been violently raped that night. Although she did not say that she had been trafficked, it became known that her "boyfriend" had links to the sex industry. She described owing a debt of £20,000 to the people who brought her to the UK-it is clearly a case of trafficking-which she had to pay off by working in restaurants. She claimed to be very afraid of those people and appeared highly traumatised.

The police officer at the Sapphire unit picked up on the indicators and tried to access support for Chloe. They put her in emergency accommodation for that night, but were unable to accommodate or support her after that. Chloe suggested that she would be able to stay with a "friend", but it was known that the friend was involved in managing a brothel. When the police officer called the UK Human Trafficking Centre to make the referral, she was informed that as Chloe had
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been out of her exploitative situation for some time, she was not eligible to enter the national referral mechanism-one can see the bureaucracy that has built up.

The concerns are first about the UKHTC, which has been severely criticised in relation to the NRM and the many non-governmental agencies using it. That seems to be one of its weaknesses. The UKHTC, which has three staff-as opposed to the 178 or 177 in the UK Border Agency-should have recognised Chloe as an extremely vulnerable individual with immediate support needs. She had approached the police and was seeking assistance regarding the criminal justice system, support, accommodation and identification. That was last November. The date on which she escaped her exploitative situation should have had no bearing on her potential status as a victim of trafficking, and the rights and support to which she would be entitled.

Chloe clearly described several indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation, which were passed on to the UKHTC. In addition, the Sapphire officer noted several other indicators suggesting that she may also have been sexually exploited. As a potential victim of trafficking, Chloe should, at this stage, have been housed and supported appropriately, and then informed about the NRM. The significant point is that the UKHTC's refusal to refer her to the NRM effectively denied her the opportunity to access any support. As the Minister will know, the UK Border Agency deals with women from outside the EU, but it will also deal with women from inside it. Chloe probably came from an EU country, but because she was denied an NRM referral, she could not get any other support. I have a number of such cases.

What happened in this case reflects a lack of concern for the safety of the individual. The victim should be accommodated in a place of safety, and an NRM referral should then be made, if appropriate. In this case the woman was close to being returned to someone who was known to have connections with the brothel management. I would like to be more specific, and I am sorry that I cannot be, but the problems I face prevent me from saying more. However, I think that the principle is well established.

Having raised the issue of domestic slavery and the problem that one Department did not follow law under the convention even though another Department was involved, I want to come to local authorities. Local authorities referred 57 children to the national referral mechanism last year. What happened to them? I do not know whether the Government or anybody else knows where they have gone, but I do not. Have they been assessed by the competent authorities? Who has been responsible for their welfare? Has section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, which places a duty on the UK Border Agency to safeguard the welfare of children, made any difference? Does the Minister have any information about how section 55 is changing the conduct of the UK Border Agency? Should it change it? Does the Minister have any statistics? They are one thing we probably do not have.

I am deeply troubled that, for some reason, Britain cannot look after its own children, let alone vulnerable children from overseas. In fact, our track record on losing children in care has put us near the top of the league, and it is not the sort of league that a developed country such as Britain should even be in, let alone lead. There is a lot of shame there, which we should acknowledge and do something about.

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