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We know that it is impossible to find foster parents for foreign children who speak no English. We need a national campaign to find foreign language-speaking residents who are willing to foster. At the moment, the best that we can do for trafficked children is to place them in local authority child care homes, but that does not mean very much given that many of them, sadly, experience understaffing, which results in many hundreds of children escaping. Such children are not in care at all, because the homes are like an open hotel-often not a very good hotel-that they can leave whenever they like.
For that reason, I am convinced that it would make sense for every trafficked child to have a guardian ad litem appointed from the moment that they are acknowledged to be a trafficked child. Such a guardian would ensure their safety, as well as ensuring that they are not abused by the legal or administrative systems and that someone keeps an eye on their welfare. Guardians ad litem work well in Britain, their track record is good and their results are impressive. Why not use a tried-and-tested system, rather than trying to invent a new one?
If we really mean what we say and want to implement the Council of Europe convention effectively-with a bias towards victim protection-rather than create a culture of deportation, we need fewer "competent authority" officials, with different training and a different approach. Child care workers would be far preferable to UK Border Agency officials. It is therefore important that we get the national referral mechanism right and then ensure that the guardians ad litem are in place to take over.
Inevitably, a victim's first encounter with the police or border officials will affect his future outlook. Our failure to change the culture of deportation and disbelief in turn explains why our record of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers is less successful than that of countries such as Holland, Italy and Austria, where the public authorities are known to be on the side of the victims, and where victims understand that the authorities are there to help them. It is worth mentioning that the most recent uncovering, by the Austrians, of a multi-country human trafficking ring took place only because all the victims were willing to give evidence. That was an impressive outcome.
By contrast, there have been worrying reports that UK officials are not on the side of victims at all. In one case, the competent authority identified a woman-I will call her P-from India as a trafficking victim as part of Operation Tolerance Pilot, which ran from May to December 2008. The UKHTC then informed the POPPY project that the decision was void because it had not been taken under the new national referral mechanism, and that it wanted to put her through the process again. That was despite the fact that the original decision had been issued by a Government agency. From what I have said, the Minister will understand both the appalling bureaucracy, rules and regulations and officialdom that have built up as a result of our signing the convention against human trafficking and the attitude of UK Border Agency staff.
What is to become of the UKHTC? The 35-strong, south Yorkshire-based staff will be merged into the 4,000-strong, Home Office-run Serious Organised Crime Agency, and its specific tasks will be diluted, if not
washed away. The principle of establishing a multi-agency organisation, which would act as a central repository for all information on human trafficking and offer strategic and operational support and a 24/7 support line for advice, including on the care of victims, deserved a chance. I certainly supported the establishment of the UKHTC in Sheffield three years ago. The idea that the centre would conduct research, develop training, share best practices and develop an improved knowledge and understanding of the way in which criminal enterprises associated with human trafficking operate was perhaps somewhat over-ambitious, but its important task of co-ordinating statutory bodies, such as local authorities, the UK Border Agency and police, reflected sound thinking.
Following the centre's absorption into SOCA, however, any suggestion that it can achieve any of those objectives must be seriously questioned, and the possibility of its being independent has been shattered for ever. It will be neither independent, nor able to deliver the goods; it will be lost in a huge organisation of 4,000 staff. The Government like things bigger and centralised, which is perhaps why the UKHTC is being absorbed into SOCA and why the human trafficking team in the Met will be absorbed by the much larger clubs and vice unit. However, big does not mean better. As Schumacher said, "Small is beautiful", and I know that myself from the Schumacher college in Dartington in my constituency, which is very small and very good.
How successful has the UKHTC been? It is just over three years old. On the plus side, it is a one-stop shop for statutory agencies, local authorities, the police and the UK Border Agency. In that respect, it has proved valuable, but it has been less successful in achieving its other objectives. Nor has it been able to provide real help to the voluntary sector-it has just not had the resources. Some argue that it would be better if the Government spent £1.6 million a year funding non-governmental organisations with a proven track record in dealing with human trafficking.
The time has arrived for the UKHTC to concentrate on what it does best: co-ordinating the statutory services. For the rest, we must make better use of the voluntary sector and establish a national human trafficking watchdog-some European countries would call it a national rapporteur, but we, being English, call it a watchdog. The concept of a national watchdog goes back to the 1997 Hague declaration, which was the first international document to recommend that EU member states establish a national reporting mechanism. In this country, we report to a watchdog, but people in other European countries report to a rapporteur.
The modern-day slavery watchdog would act as a central repository for all information on human trafficking. It would be charged with collecting facts, figures and statistics, monitoring weaknesses, speaking up for NGOs, ensuring the adequacy of victim accommodation, checking that the guardian ad litem system was working properly and the like. It would contribute to a better knowledge and understanding of the root causes of trafficking, the modus operandi of traffickers and their criminal networks, and the different forms of exploitation. Indeed, a more complete picture of the extent of the crime is precisely what we need. That would increase our knowledge and facilitate our work against this phenomenon, and we could more effectively identify victims of trafficking
and provide appropriate support to them. A watchdog would be part of the solution, and it should be based in the Home Office, although independent of it. Its task would be to see that Government agencies deliver on outlawing human trafficking.
The police have recently recovered 15 victims of human trafficking in Northern Ireland, but we have no idea of where they fit in or of the scale of trafficking in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, although local authorities in Scotland recently referred six children to the national referral mechanism.
The UK Human Trafficking Centre will be completely absorbed into SOCA, which is exempt from freedom of information registration because it handles security issues. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) knows that; it is a quite interesting point about SOCA-one cannot get any information out of it. What are the implications of that for reporting to Parliament?
If it is impossible for SOCA to report to Parliament, there is even more reason for us to establish an independent role for a national watchdog. The watchdog would report annually to Parliament and make recommendations on the development of national policies and action plans, without itself being a policy making agency. For example, what could be done to improve the situation regarding the confiscation of traffickers' assets that have been transferred overseas?
My private Member's Bill, the Anti-Slavery Day Bill, is to have its Second Reading on 5 February. I want to introduce a national anti-slavery day to reinforce the focus and the understanding of the general public. Such a day would continue to draw attention to the evils of human trafficking post-Wilberforce, and to how that is displaying itself in British society. An anti-slavery day would cost the taxpayer nothing, but could do a great deal of good. I hope that the Minister will say how he feels about that. I hope that all parties in Parliament will support me on 5 February and help me to get my Bill through the Commons quickly.
In summary, we need a national referral mechanism, to be administered by welfare or social workers rather than immigration officials; a guardian ad litem system for trafficked children, to support them through legal and administrative hurdles; and work permits and identity cards for victims of trafficking while they are resident in the UK, to give them the ability to work in the UK just as they do in Italy. That would encourage them to give evidence against traffickers without fear of being returned to their source country, where there would be at risk of re-trafficking. We need a national network of shelters for women and children, whatever their age, who are victims of trafficking, and a proactive and dedicated police force on human trafficking-the Pentameter initiatives were welcome and should be revived in every police force and carried out every year. We also need a national human trafficking watchdog, working with Government but independent of them; and a change in visa arrangements so that domestic workers brought into the UK to work for foreign embassy officials are free to seek other domestic work and not forced to return home. Finally, we need an annual UK national anti-slavery day, which will make sure that the crime is kept firmly on the agenda and does not get consigned to a dusty drawer.
I hope that, when I leave the House at the general election, the work in which I have been involved will continue, in both the Commons and the Lords. I hope also that I shall be able to give service to the groups from the human trafficking foundation charity I am establishing. It is deeply depressing that in spite of Wilberforce's achievements in outlawing slavery 203 years ago, modern-day slavery is a new canker in our midst, with human beings being degraded while society stands by and does little.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I shall be brief. I want to make three points. First, I echo the concerns of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) about the closure of the Metropolitan police trafficking unit. In my view, that unit has hugely improved the policing of the issue. It is a great pity that it is not to continue, and is to merge with the clubs and vice operation, which, in my experience, has put insufficient focus on the experience of the victims of the vice trade. I do not have any particular beef with the Serious Organised Crime Agency; it is a question of effectiveness and victimisation. If that mistaken decision is to be proceeded with, I urge the Minister to institute a mechanism to ensure that any new arrangement has that victim focus and does not end up in the sort of cosy arrangement that I have seen in the past in vice policing, in which the exploiters and the police come to a deal that stops the neighbourhood nuisance, but not the exploitation. That is a cause of serious anxiety.
Secondly, I want to urge on the Minister the need for a powerful information campaign about the legislation, which he helped to introduce in the House of Commons, making it an offence for any man or woman-any customer-to pay for the sexual services of someone who is forced to provide them. One of the most powerful effects of that legislation is that it could deter customers from such behaviour and so reduce the market for those who have been exploited, thus reducing the profits of traffickers and exploiters and the extent of exploitation. That chilling effect will not occur unless the law moves from being secret-as it largely is at present, frankly-to being publicly and widely known.
In women's lavatories there are frequently stickers on the back of the door-it is not quite the same for loo doors in the gents'-giving the local Rape Crisis telephone number, or something like that. I want every urinal to have, at eye level, something to warn chaps who are thinking of paying for sex that if they do, and do not know with absolute certainty-without any doubt in their mind-that the person who offers herself to them does so of her free will, without having been bullied into it by a pimp or trafficked, they will be committing a criminal offence and will be prosecuted. I believe that if such an approach were taken, there would be a difference to the trade. I am normally rather sceptical about Government publicity drives, but I think that the one in question could reduce crime and exploitation significantly.
Thirdly, I want to mention the recent European Court of Human Rights decision in the case of Ms Rancheva. She had gone to Cyprus from Russia under an artiste's visa. She ended up in debt, and it seems clear to me that a people-trafficking operation was involved. She tried to leave the club that she was in, and a few days later was found dead on the pavement, after falling from a balcony. There was no criminal prosecution in connection with the events leading up to her death, but there was a prosecution under the European convention on human rights. Cyprus was found guilty of failing to protect Ms Rancheva and failing to put in place a proper framework to fight trafficking.
One issue at the heart of that seems to be that Cyprus had allowed a sex industry to flourish in a semi-public place. People who thought that they would be artistes, or performers in public clubs, were actually operating in the sex industry. It appears to me from the judgment-of course I do not know any more than is in the published press release and so on-that the margin between Ms Rancheva selling herself in prostitution and exotic dancing had been diminished, or smoothed out, to such an extent that she was in effect being prostituted. She did not want to be; she wanted to go back to Russia.
The key issue in that case is the existence and public acceptance of gross sex exploitation, at an industrial level, in which people are allowed to participate. The case of Ms Rancheva is a very strong argument for the Government to intervene in a similar activity in the UK, by which I do not mean exotic dancing, although the activity happens in the context of exotic dancing. In almost every local newspaper in the UK there is a page of advertisement for "fresh Thai girls", for example, or "new girls today". That is advertising trafficked women for men's sexual pleasure. I believe that that should be prevented. Various Ministers have sought to reach settlements with the publishers of those newspapers, so that they voluntarily stop publishing the advertisements, but guess what? They carry on, because they are a source of much profit-oh, what a surprise.
I believe that unless the UK Government take action against that type of publication, they risk, following the Rancheva judgment, being in breach of our obligations under the European convention on human rights. I urge the Minister to examine that and, if his legal advisers conclude that I am right, to introduce urgent legislation to prevent such advertising, because if these adverts run in freely available newspapers, of course people think that the work is safe and legitimate, but it is actually not. It is work that has at its heart the most grotesque exploitation.
The appalling thing about how human trafficking for sexual exploitation works is that the degradation that trafficked women experience, and their experience of the sex industry, sometimes mean that, having escaped from it into impoverishment, isolation and loneliness, they re-enter the sex industry, in a so-called voluntary way, because it is the only way they know of generating income to survive. If women do re-enter the industry, they end up with some of the problems described by the hon. Member for Totnes, in relation to their immigration status and so on.
It seems to me that there is a duty on Government to stop providing comfort to those involved in the industrial-scale exploitation of people who, because of their
immigration status and gender, are vulnerable to the most appalling exploitation of their human rights. There are things that we can do, and I urge the Minister to do them.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Evans. I think that this is the first time you have chaired proceedings in Westminster Hall. If I may say so, you are doing it very well, sir.
It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who made, as usual, a number of powerful points on this extremely important issue. I like the phrase "industrial scale" because we have struggled hard to get that point across in the media. We are talking not about one or two people but about thousands of victims, and they are not just in Soho; they are throughout the United Kingdom.
I of course pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing this important debate, but not only for that. I also pay tribute to him for how he has continually brought the issue to the attention of Parliament through his chairmanship of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children. His leaving will be will be a great loss to Parliament but, in a strange way, the campaign against human trafficking will benefit because he will be able to spend much more time campaigning on the issue. I very much look forward to working with him if I am back here after the general election.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). When the Select Committee on Home Affairs conducted the inquiry into human trafficking, we appointed him, even though he was not a member of the Committee, as a very special adviser because of his knowledge. May I raise one point with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) about the merging of the UK Human Trafficking Centre with SOCA? I do not know whether he has seen the Select Committee report, "The Trade in Human Beings: Human Trafficking in the UK". SOCA is quite a new organisation and therefore ill equipped to deal with this new area of policy. Does he agree that that is a very important consideration in not merging the two organisations? Let SOCA do what SOCA is supposed to do, and let us have this independent organisation of which the hon. Member for Totnes spoke.
Mr. Bone: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's intervention. He chairs his Select Committee with great skill, especially by appointing my hon. Friend to it. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I have grave doubts about the merger: I think that a loss of independence and drive will occur. However, that is not what I particularly wanted to address.
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