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5 Feb 2010 : Column 536

Anti-Slavery Day Bill

Second Reading

10.43 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to raise a matter that I am sure will have the support of the whole House. I am grateful to see so many hon. Friends and hon. Members here today who have been enormously supportive of my campaign to draw attention to the extent of human trafficking in this country.

As I have a little time, I shall make a little speech. I hope that it will be helpful to the House to reflect that William Wilberforce headed the parliamentary campaign in this House against the British slave trade for 26 years before the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807. His later campaign resulted in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which-it was thought-abolished slavery in most of the British empire. Today, however, more than twice as many people are in bondage around the world than were taken in chains during the entire 350 years of the African slave trade. Despite the abolition of slavery, modern forms of trading in human beings continue, whether for sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic slavery or organised crime.

It is impossible to gauge the numbers involved in human trafficking, because the crime takes place unseen and undetected. It is often not identified, or, in other cases, mis-identified. However, a conservative estimate puts the number of trafficked victims in the world at any one time at 800,000. That is the figure from the United Nations. We also know that human trafficking affects every region of the world, and that it generates tens of billions of dollars in profits for criminals each year. It is now apparently the second largest and second most lucrative criminal activity after drugs. It has jumped up the list, year after year.

In the United Kingdom, many thousands of individuals are bought and sold as commodities and forced into modern-day slavery. This is commonly known as human trafficking. A little later in my speech, I propose to tell the House of the devastating experience that I had yesterday, when I met a girl who had been trafficked into the UK and treated unbelievably badly. The experience is red hot in my memory, and I shall share it with the House in a moment. The Home Affairs Select Committee's report last year suggested that at least 100,000 people were trafficked into the EU each year. That figure is from the European Commission.

Today, in the UK, the majority of indentified victims are women and girls. They come from poor, unstable countries where there are few opportunities for education or employment. Eastern Europe continues to be a fruitful source of women trafficked into this country. In fact, if we look at the map of Europe, we can see that the former communist countries of eastern Europe are the source countries of women and children coming into the more prosperous western countries. Denmark, Holland, Britain, France, Spain and Italy are the countries that receive these women from the source countries-Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova, among others.

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The evidence of convicted traffickers suggests that the worst offenders in the trafficking business are Albanians, Romanians, Russians and those in the Balkans; they are in the lead in people trafficking. We might not get the numbers immediately, but they are considerable. We are talking about tens of thousands of traffickers who are part of this criminal network.

Trafficked children are highly vulnerable in their home country, as we have seen in Haiti recently, and they might already have been exploited and abused before they are targeted by traffickers. Victims can be deceived by false promises of opportunity or coerced into working in slave-like conditions. In some of the really poor eastern European countries, there is absolutely no work, no opportunity and no hope for many of the young people living there. I know this from my experience in Chernavoda in Romania, where the girls and boys leave school at 14 or 15, and there is nothing for them to do. The boys tend to become pimps, and the girls tend to be trafficked or become prostitutes. That is not a way of life that we would accept, but in towns and counties such as those-which have no opportunities, even though they are in the EU-the girls and boys have terrible lives at a very young age.

Some of the women I have met have been sold by their parents. I met a girl of 21 in Rome who had been sold by her parents to her uncle for £5,000 in Albania. She was on the streets in Rome at 16. I have met her, I know her and I know her problems. I have spoken to her through interpreters over many days. This is not an academic problem; it is very real. The street value for a 15-year-old girl, as long as she is a virgin, it is between £8,000 and £12,000-that is the money exchanged to buy somebody. The price of a woman goes down dramatically with age; when she reaches 30, she is worth only £500. These people are treated like second-hand cars; they are traded in the same way.

At a conservative estimate, there are at least 5,000 trafficked victims into the UK each year, and the Home Office states that approximately 360 children are trafficked into and within the UK each year. There are wild remarks about the figures really being as high as 25,000. There could be that number-we do not really know-but I suspect that the Home Office conservative estimate is probably more like it.

Women victims are forced to work-many against their will-in brothels, saunas, massage parlours and private houses; children, other than those who are sexually exploited, are, like Fagin's children, on the streets. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am fortunate enough to be involved in the parliamentary police scheme, which has allowed me to concentrate on seeing human trafficking first hand in London with the Met. In fact, I think that I am the oldest policeman on the street; I have been working in the off-the-street Marble Arch area and met a number of trafficked children.

Over the last two years, I have been on police raids and seen children at 6 o'clock in the morning who are just being prepared for their work during the day. Of 1,017 children, most are known to the police, many of them are under 10, so prosecutions cannot be launched. Some have been identified as shoplifters and pick-pockets-those are their tricks of the trade-but the biggest category is automated teller machine theft. I am told by the police superintendent in charge of the
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Operation Roma-no, I mean Operation Golf, although it is concerned with Roma children-that a really clever child can earn traffickers up to £80,000 a year.

Forced labour on farms and the land is another category. This is just becoming a visible issue, thanks to the work of the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which the Home Office supports. It is also finding that large numbers of men involved in work similar to that of the Chinese cockle pickers are living in the most appalling dormitory-like conditions. They are paid virtually nothing, having been duped into believing that if they gave £3,000 or £5,000 to the traffickers, they would secure a very good job in Britain. Construction workers and those involved in the hospitality and care industries are other groups that are currently exempt from the Gangmaster Licensing Authority controls.

The number of women in domestic slavery continues to grow. Many hundreds are identified each year as suffering abuse. This is particularly true of those employed by foreign nationals in the consular service of their own country in the UK. The worst cases of abuse apply to those who are effectively held prisoner in their employer's home, receive no pay and are expected to be available seven days a week. What is particularly significant here is that all these domestic slaves have their passports removed. Many of them do not speak English. The idea of their escaping, which to us would be normal, is impossible for them even to contemplate. They are working in the homes of consular diplomats in Britain and are treated as slaves. As I say, their passports are removed-an issue I discussed with the Minister in connection with the all-party trafficking of women and children group; I would like to thank him for his sympathetic and understanding approach to this problem.

As an aside, anyone coming here as a domestic worker-one of the 18,500 people granted domestic visas every year-is able to move to another employer if the present employer treats them badly, but anyone working with a visa for the diplomatic or consular service cannot move. All they can do is go back home, which is difficult for people from third-world or poor countries or from some of the middle east countries because the problem is that if they go back, they then get marked as people who have fallen out with their consular service. Many girls in these circumstances are trapped in the kitchens of the consular service, living there seven days a week and having to sleep in the kitchen as well. The conditions are very bad.

Human traffickers use many physical and psychological techniques to control their victims, including the use of violence or threats of violence against the victim or the victim's family, leading to isolation from the public, isolation from the victim's family and the community. There is a language and cultural barrier; there is shame and control of the victim's possessions; and there are confiscations of passports, as I mentioned, and other identification documents. There are constant threats of arrest, deportation or imprisonment if the victim attempts to reach out for assistance or to leave.

Not all policemen are trained or are aware of the trafficking phenomenon. In this country, thanks to the rising profile of this issue, that understanding is getting better. This is one of the reasons why I believe we need a national anti-slavery day to make people more aware. In many countries of the world, particularly in eastern Europe, there is tremendous corruption among the
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police and the border guards. Money is passing between gangs and the police and border guards, which makes it difficult for these trafficked people to get a sympathetic or responsible response from the authorities when they turn to them for help.

The POPPY project in London is a shelter project given considerable funding by the Home Office, to which I pay tribute for its foresight in this matter. It offers practical help towards that project. I have been greatly assisted by the Minister and his predecessors, as well as by non-governmental agencies that receive Government support. It is to their credit that much of the work of the all-party group has made such progress. Between March 2003 and April 2009, the POPPY project received 1,233 trafficked women-a large number-over the age of 18. The POPPY project does not take in any girl under 18; that is for the local authorities to deal with through their care home services. The POPPY project is a very professional and extremely skilled organisation. Although I have occasionally had one or two problems with it, I none the less recognise the invaluable help it gives to trafficked victims.

Not only has it dealt with 1,233 referrals of trafficked women over 18, but it has also dealt with 200 to 300 victims of trafficking for domestic slavery. The non-governmental organisation known as Kalayaan, to which I also pay tribute, is run by some dedicated younger people. Domestic slaves have been able to seek its help in coping with the terrible problems they have gaining justice and recognition of how they are treated. I pay tribute again to Kalayaan and other NGOs for tackling domestic slavery and raising awareness of it.

POPPY has long-term Government funding for 54 safe accommodation beds for victims of sexual exploitation or domestic slavery. It is important to note that those beds are full. When I tried to get a girl trafficked for domestic slavery-this was a bad case-into POPPY, I was told that it was full. I would not have it; it managed to find an additional space. However, this is the only official body in London; none is officially established in other towns. If we established similar centres in other major cities, I am sure that they, too, would be full. There is a much bigger problem in this country than I would like to admit. It is going underground, so we will find it only if we provide shelters for these very unfortunate people. There is shortage of shelter in a country that has proved to become a magnet for traffickers.

ECPAT UK-End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children-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 UK, and World Vision UK. According to ECPAT-which, incidentally, does very good work for the all-party group-about 60 per cent. of suspected child victims in local authority care go missing and are not subsequently found. Unlike POPPY, which caters for those over 18, local authority care homes cater for the under-18s. They have no security, because if bars were installed, those in charge would be accused of running a prison. Children go into the homes and then disappear. In May 2009, The Guardian disclosed that a report by the UK Borders Agency had revealed that
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since March 2006 at least 77 trafficked children had gone missing from a home operated by the London borough of Hillingdon-presumably the Heathrow outlet.

I spent some time at Gatwick with the all-party group. I pay tribute to Lady Butler-Sloss, one of the vice-chairmen of the group, who accompanied me to Gatwick to study what was happening there. We found that the children who arrived at the airport from China, Vietnam and other countries were quite well trained. Many arrived without a passport. How had they got on to the plane at the other end? Either they had chewed the passport during the journey so that by the time they arrived at Gatwick there was no passport left, or they had put it down the loo. Alternatively, they had travelled via another country, and ended up not at Gatwick but at Bristol or Manchester.

These children then claim asylum. They cannot do much else. Once they have used the word "asylum"-if they do not speak another language-they are shunted into a children's home such as the one in Hillingdon, near Heathrow. They have a mobile phone, or they have been told where they will be going. The traffickers are very much ahead of the game, whereas we are really quite pedestrian.

Once the children have arrived at the home, they disappear within hours. Manchester's director of social work, who co-ordinates social workers, says that the pattern is well established. The social workers are in difficulties. They cannot apprehend the children, and, once they have gone missing, there is no track of them. No one knows who they are. They may come from China or Vietnam, and we know that the Vietnamese will end up managing cannabis factories, but there are many children in this country whose identity and whereabouts are unknown to us. They could have been murdered, and we would not even know.

Between 1 April and 31 December 2009, 527 potential victims of human trafficking were referred through what is known as the national referral mechanism, a new mechanism established under the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings which provides a way of identifying trafficked people. That is done by the UK Border Agency and the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre. At least 145 of those referred between April and December were children. Since 1 April, accommodation and support has been provided for 68 people identified as victims of trafficking. Between 1 May 2004 and 22 October 2009, 118 people were convicted of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and seven were convicted of labour trafficking.

I do not think that those figures are good enough. What is the problem? The problem is that first the police must find victims, and then the victims must be prepared to give evidence against their traffickers, who have been brutal to them. The victims, however, fear that if they do give evidence, their families back home will be threatened. I shall describe a case history in a moment, because we have a little time-although I know we have not too much time, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The traffickers do, in fact, threaten not only the mothers of the girls involved but, much more significant, their sisters and brothers.

Because the victims do not want to give evidence, the police cannot really prosecute. They certainly cannot prosecute for human trafficking. It is to the credit of the
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Director of Public Prosecutions that he seems to be moving into the right gear. It has taken him some time, but I hope that he is now moving out of the first gear and into the second and third, because we need to speed things up. The traffickers need to be arrested, not just for trafficking but for all the other offences that they may be committing. We are very slow in this regard. Far more traffickers have been apprehended in Romania. Italy is particularly good, and Austria even better. If we are to make this country an unfriendly and unhelpful place for traffickers, as the Prime Minister has said repeatedly that he wishes to do, we must be much sharper about apprehending them and ensuring that judges give them really awful sentences, which they often do not do at present.

I recently visited a high-security prison in Bucharest. There were many hundreds of traffickers behind bars, both men and women. It is not only men who are traffickers. There is usually a man and his assistant, who is a woman. They are a unit-an item. The woman goes to prison so that the man can continue his work as a pimp or an organiser of trafficked people. I met a number of women in that prison who were doing time for the men with whom they were living.

Many eastern European countries, having thrown off the yoke of communism, went in quite the opposite direction. The free market and criminal gangs moved in quickly to seize new opportunities, and the police and the border agencies have become tied up with criminal mafiosa activity. Last August, an article in The Times reported the rise of systematic trafficking of children in the United Kingdom by foreign criminals to defraud the British benefit system. I was involved in identifying that activity when I accompanied the police on raids in east and north London. I wish they would not start so early in the morning!

During an operation in August, the police found evidence of one suspected crime involving more than £100,000, including a backdated cheque for £24,000 paid to a family by the Benefits Agency. In another case involving trafficked children, a gang is believed to have forged documents for the purpose of at least 500 claims worth £4.5 million. In all, some £300 million is thought to be involved in benefit frauds.

Let me explain how the system works. These people are European Union nationals. A couple will bring in perhaps three or four children claiming that they are theirs, sometimes with forged passports. Ultimately, eight to 11 children may be found living in the same house. A house that I visited during a police raid in east London conveyed no sense that it had been lived in other than by the nine or 10 children-in one instance, there were 12-sleeping on the floors with rugs, upstairs and downstairs. It was quite a Dickensian picture. They were ready to leave at a moment's notice, because they were aware that the police were circling.

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