We arrived soon after 6 am. Having lived under the communists, the people in the house were used to the arrival of authorities such as the police. They had all their documents, with them, beautifully prepared. There was not one possession that was not packed into a bag. It is likely that we had arrived the day before they were due to leave: such people move on constantly. We found letters from a fake company, probably Romanian or Bulgarian, inviting the "owner" of the children to work for him as a scrap metal dealer. Once he had been here for a year, he would be able to claim benefits for the
children. We took a number of children back to the station, along with their parents or, in some cases, their uncles and aunts.
If you go to Slough railway station first thing in the morning, you will see gangs of kids turning up and waiting for instructions. All these things are happening in this country, and they are visible to those who know where to look. Taken together, they form a picture which some of the more intelligent and interested police officers are identifying as the involvement of kids in human trafficking.
To the escalating problem of children trafficking and benefit fraud, one must add what is happening in the cannabis trade. This problem is not peculiar to Britain, but we seem to be ahead of the game in recognising it. In Britain, we have Vietnamese children tending plants in terraced houses on the outskirts of our large towns. I do not want to mention specific areas of London, but this is happening in all the suburbs, in what look like normal houses. A couple who are part of a gang rent the house, paying cash. To anyone glancing through the front window, the interior looks like an ordinary drawing room, but upstairs there is a cannabis factory. They have ripped out the electrics and the water meters, and they have put in high wattage bulbs, so that the rooms are very hot, and in them, cannabis plants are being tended by young Vietnamese boys, who understand how to do so.
Let us talk about numbers. The first investigation into cannabis factories was undertaken in 2004, so we have known about this problem for about six years, and 850 factories were found. According to recent police intelligence, 2,200 cannabis factories have now been uncovered in Britain, and a sizeable number of Vietnamese boys have been rescued, and other people have been prosecuted. There are up to 300 cannabis factories in London alone. Every time the police raid one, another one pops up, and even the next-door neighbours do not know about it, because to them it merely appears that a nice Vietnamese couple are living quite normally in the adjacent suburban house.
Human trafficking is everywhere. It is not just in the cities. Let us consider the case of a 19-year-old Czech woman who was flown into Bristol airport believing she would work in a gym or a similar environment; she mentioned a four-star hotel in Paignton-I think we have only one of them. She came through immigration control at the airport perfectly legally, as she is from the Czech Republic. Someone collected her from the airport, and she then found herself in a small private brothel on the edge of my constituency in south Devon-as I have said, this is not just an inner-city problem. She was appalled to discover that she had been placed in this situation. That night, five men assaulted her. She tried to escape-she ran out at about 4 o'clock in the morning. It so happened that somewhere in Paignton was open at that time-a nightclub. The traffickers had chased her, but she grabbed hold of the bar and refused to move. Thanks to the responsible nature of the nightclub owner, the police were called.
We must give credit to the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. It is not used to handling trafficking cases, but it took this case on and dealt with it magnificently,
arresting the two Czech women running the brothel. Nobody knew about its existence; it was in the constituency of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), but he did not know about it either.
The girl agreed to give evidence against the traffickers, and she was returned to the Czech Republic. The police had to pay for that; because the Home Office will not cover such costs for an EU national, the police had to find the money out of their own funds. As she had agreed to give evidence, the two women who had been running the brothel agreed to plead guilty and were sentenced. However, although I mean no disrespect to the judge, I must say that he gave a really rather weak sentence. The judiciary, as well as the police, need to be trained to realise that trafficking is part of the scenery in this country and that it needs to be severely punished.
People trafficking is, in essence, about people being forced to do things against their will. Victims are deceived or duped into a situation that is not what it at first appeared to be. It is the criminal world misleading, using or exploiting the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most uneducated people for gain. It is all about pounds and euros. It is a wicked practice that people thought had died a death in the 1800s, when Wilberforce passed his legislation in this place. It has not died a death, however. There is now a new, more virulent, form of it in this country. That is confirmed by Home Office research, which estimates that the total social and economic cost of trafficking was £1 billion in 2003, so we are talking about a sizeable sum of money.
To combat human trafficking in the UK and globally, the British people, Parliament, local government, our other institutions and quangos, and the private as well as the public sector must be made aware of the realities of human trafficking and must be dedicated to stopping this contemporary manifestation of slavery. That is my principal purpose in proposing an anti-slavery day.
I do not want to speak for too long, but neither do I want to lose this opportunity to talk about this subject, as this may be one of my last speeches in this place. I want to give an account of a case I addressed yesterday with a firm of solicitors. It is an utterly horrific story that illustrates the points that I have been making. The name of the girl involved and her whereabouts will be kept secret, but I can say that she exists and she lives in London at a secret address. For the purposes of her story, I shall call her Gabriella. She was 20 when she was found, but she was trafficked from Moldova at 14. She was forced into prostitution at the age of 14, and did not finally escape until she was 20. She has been through so many horrific experiences in so many countries during that time that she cannot remember the exact dates and details of everything that happened.
When Gabriella was 14, she went for a picnic in the forest with her best friend and two older men in their late teens. When they were in the forest eating their picnic, Gabriella was very aware that the young men were using their mobile phones, and she overheard one saying, "We've got the girls here. When will you come and collect them?" When she tried to escape with her friend, she was hit against the side of her face; a piece of her ear is now clearly missing. They were going to rape her and her friend, but one of the men stopped that, saying they needed to remain virgins as they would
make better money. She lost consciousness when they hit her with a Sten gun, and when she woke up she was on the Romanian border. She was then driven by two men to a flat in Romania. She was too scared to speak-she was 14. She stayed overnight there. They were given dark clothes to wear. The two men were with them the whole time. They walked to another country, which she thinks was Hungary. They went across a river in an inflatable dinghy, blindfolded and with hands tied, and during the journey they were told to lie in the middle of the boat.
Gabriella was driven to an apartment; she is not sure where it was. There were five other girls there, one of whom spoke Russian, as does Gabriella. She did not understand why she was being talked to and looked at in the way that she was, but she realised this was a transit point for girls. There were 15 girls in the house, and the other people there were weighing up how much she might be worth. She spent a number of days in that flat, and then was told she would walk to Italy. She is not quite sure whether she was in Slovenia or another country, but they walked through another forest, and were picked up by a car. She was put in a lorry. She then arrived in Rimini, Italy, where she was sold to an Albanian. She was then taken to Milan, where she was sold to another Albanian, and she had to work on the streets of Milan between the ages of 14 and 16. She repeatedly tried to escape but was always apprehended.
Finally, the gang who caught her said, "To teach you a lesson, we're going to take out one of your front teeth with a pair of pliers." When I met her yesterday, I had already read about that, and the first thing I realised was that one of her front teeth was stuck back in place. They then threatened to murder her. They tied a rope up a tree and put the noose around her neck, and said, "If you try to escape again, we'll hang you." The girl that she had left the forest with-her 14-year-old friend-was murdered by the gang. Gabriella was sold to one gang and the girl was sold to another.
People may say, why do the parents not do anything? Gabriella's mother is poor-she comes from a backward agricultural community in Moldova. She went to the police, who laughed at her. We must realise that the police in many countries are corrupt. She was worried about the 10-year-old sister of Gabriella she is bringing up, and the son. There have been threats on the family, including the brother, who has now gone to Russia, and the other girl is living alone with her mother. The mother is desperately worried that that daughter will be threatened and taken away as well.
The story goes on, and it gets worse. Gabriella got pregnant, as happens in these cases. She could not look after the daughter she gave birth to-she does not know who the father is-who had to go back to the mother to be looked after. Gabriella kept trying to get back to Moldova, but whenever she went back there she was re-trafficked, which constantly happens. We talk about this issue in the House and to people in the field, and this case illustrates only too well why it is so important to bring people's attention to the appalling trafficking disease that has hit western countries.
Fortunately, Gabriella has been rescued. I pay tribute to the POPPY project and to her solicitors, who have been having problems. The Minister knows about this because I mentioned it to him earlier. The trouble is that the girl now has refugee status because of her harrowing
experiences, of which I have described only some-I have 20 pages of them. She has been rescued and is living secretly in a flat. She is so terrified that she will not come out of the flat. She is a most delightful person, on the face of it, but she is experiencing terrible psychological trauma. She is on the verge of suicide because she is desperate to see her daughter. She cannot go to Moldova to see her because she thinks she will be killed by these gangs.
The UK Border Agency, for which the Minister is responsible, has assured me that there is no problem at all with getting Gabriella's 6 or 7-year-old daughter into Britain, which is all Gabriella is living for. I got hold of the director of the UKBA last night, who assured me that it entirely agrees with my assessment: the child should be reunited with the mother as soon as possible. However, I was told that it was a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is the problem one constantly gets in this place. The FCO says it is ready to issue a one-way visa for the child to come to Britain. She needs a visa because she is a young child and cannot get a passport. The parents could not sign one, and in any case Gabriella is here.
So now, the FCO is involved, and I hope that the Minister, when he winds up on this very short debate, will say something about this case, which is one of the most horrific I have ever seen. From the age of 14, Gabriella has been bludgeoned by gangs. She has a chance of a new life here. She is an intelligent girl and I hope the Minister may feel that he can help in some way to reunite the family.
That was a little aside. I just wanted to mention this case to the House and why it is so important to have an anti-slavery day, so that it can be constantly remembered that we have modern-day slavery in this country.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. As it is on the hon. Gentleman's own admission that what he has just said was an aside, I hope he will not encourage the Minister to go into that issue in detail, because this is hardly the proper occasion. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman very considerable scope in introducing what is in fact a specific Bill. The House has obviously been stunned, to some extent, by what he has had to say, but we ought now to be reaching the point of examining the prime purpose for which he is seeking to introduce this legislation.
Mr. Steen: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is wonderful how both our minds were working in the same way. I can assure you that, at the very point that you stood up, I was just about to move on. I am most grateful for that guidance, which was entirely appropriate and I entirely accept what you say.
Although our Parliament has enacted good laws in the past 10 years to prosecute traffickers and to assist and protect victims of human trafficking-and, most recently, the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings-we need to increase awareness of the issues surrounding human trafficking on the part of those most likely to come into contact with victims. This is essential for effective enforcement, because the techniques that traffickers use to keep their victims enslaved severely limits their self-respect.
Thanks to this Government-we must give them credit for what they have done-we have the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment
of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, the Policing and Crime Act 2009, and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That is all good legislation to deter traffickers, but it has to be implemented, and the police and judiciary are now important in dealing with this problem. Collectively, these laws were passed to criminalise the trafficking of human beings in the UK, reduce the likelihood of exploitation of others and make it possible to recover profits gained as a result of criminal activity.
The UK signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings on 23 March 2007, ratified it on 17 December 2008 and implemented it recently. We are one of 26 countries that have ratified and implemented the convention. It is the first legally binding regional European treaty on human trafficking. The convention recognises trafficking in human beings as a major human rights issue and seeks to strengthen the legal protection afforded to victims.
On 23 March 2007-the same day that the UK signed the convention-the Government published their first UK action plan on tackling human trafficking. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who was then the Minister with responsibility for such issues, who for three or four years pushed, along with the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, for new legislation and action. His work was untiring and excellent. The aim of the action plan was to highlight current work on human trafficking across all Government agencies, identify gaps in existing work and outline future plans. However, it is not enough to sit back and rest on our laurels. Just as we have a salt awareness week to alert the public to the dangers of a high-sodium diet, an annual human trafficking awareness day would alert the public to the horrors of the modern-day slave trade, which they would not normally think about.
All of us here think in terms of political expediency and what needs to be done. If one mentions this issue to a taxi driver or a builder, he may have an idea of what human trafficking is in the back of his mind. With the problems in Haiti in our minds and on the news, he will have an idea of what human trafficking is. However, we desperately need to be reminded regularly of these issues, and regularly to identify for young people and others the dangers that exist.
The Government could say that there is already an international day to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, an international day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition, and an international day for the abolition of slavery, but I know they will not. All those days are very unspecific and not well established. The important thing is to let men, women and children know that modern-day slavery exists here in Britain and needs to be stamped out. We must reinforce the focus and understanding of the public. Slavery did not disappear when Wilberforce passed his legislation through this House. That is why we need an annual anti-slavery day.
A national anti-slavery day would continue to draw attention to the evils of human trafficking post-Wilberforce and how it is manifesting itself in British society. We would not be the first country to establish a day of awareness of human trafficking and modern-day slavery; the United States has already done this. In June 2007, the US Senate passed a resolution establishing a national
day of human trafficking awareness on 11 January each year. The aim of the day is to raise awareness of and opposition to human trafficking and modern-day slavery, both domestically and across the globe. Various events are organised each year in the US on that day, including public debates, press conferences and a film screening, along with news items and media reports. It strikes me that 11 January is a good day to choose, as it is during the school term, but my Bill suggests that the Secretary of State should determine which date is used-I did not try to fix the date in concrete at this stage.
Similarly, schools in Britain could be encouraged to incorporate this topic into their curriculum to raise awareness among students. That would encourage teachers to receive special training to help their students learn about modern-day slavery in a sensitive and engaging way. Specialist training would also be a priority for social workers and the police, so they could develop expertise in the area and play an instrumental role in raising awareness among local communities. Thus, people across the board would start waking up; just as Holocaust memorial day was held earlier this week, so we would have a day to raise awareness of slavery, modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The efforts made by individuals, business, organisations, educational institutions and governing bodies to promote the observance of an anti-slavery day each year would represent one of the many examples of an ongoing commitment in the UK to raise awareness of human trafficking and to oppose such trafficking actively.
In December 2009-just two months ago-the US Senate approved a resolution to establish a national slavery and trafficking prevention month in January. The month-long observance is intended to enhance the fight against human trafficking. Given that the United States and the United Kingdom were the two main drivers behind the transatlantic slave trade, it would be fitting if they had the same anti-slavery awareness day. It would also be a fitting tribute to this Government's commitment to making Britain a hostile environment for traffickers.
We have been subject to increasing media coverage of serious aspects of human trafficking; most recently, there has been much about Haiti and the risks of children going missing there. I raised the matter at Prime Minister's questions on 27 January. There has also been widespread coverage of the risks taken by well-intentioned individuals who rented a bus to rescue Haitian children and attempted to bring them into the Dominican Republic and establish an orphanage. Films have been made about Roma children and about girls who have been brought from eastern Europe and the far east and forced into prostitution. A couple of weeks back, The Times 2 did a feature on domestic slavery and the problems that domestic workers face when they work in this country. Incidentally, I am sponsoring an exhibition, with the all-party group, that will be held in the hall upstairs on 22 January. It will be opened by the Home Secretary and will be identify the problems caused by human trafficking.
By far the largest number of people trafficked into the UK may well be trafficked for forced labour. The UK Human Trafficking Centre is already making progress to highlight the extent of the problem in the agricultural sector. As the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is also involved in that work, there is a strong case for widening the remit of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to include the hospitality, construction, and care industries-those very important areas are often forgotten.
In the past three years, Britain has moved from behind the pack-the other EU countries-in tackling human trafficking to the head of the pack. Unfortunately, the problem of human trafficking is growing. It is the modern version of slavery, and it is virulent. Declaring a national awareness day would be the best way of recognising that evil for what it is. We could lead with our European partners, and I hope that we can complete the work that William Wilberforce rose in this very building to begin more than 200 years ago, as the majority mistakenly believe the illusion that slavery has all but disappeared.
I am sure that you will be interested to learn, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is holding a conference on this very issue for parliamentarians beginning on 22 February. Parliamentarians from all over Europe who are committed to and interested in this matter, many of whom I have visited in their countries, will be coming to the IPU to discuss and debate how they can work much better together. I believe that I have covered the matter and that the House will understand what I am trying to say. If I cannot say it in 50 minutes, there is not much point in my carrying on speaking for much longer, so I merely say that I commend this first-rate Bill to my colleagues.