Previous Section Index Home Page

11.34 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on introducing his Bill. As he knows, I am one of its supporters. I also congratulate him on his speech. For a moment, I thought he was going after my record for the time taken in setting out one's arguments, but I am pleased to be able to say that he did not break it-he was quite a long way short.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman's all-party group on the work that it is doing and has done. It works in parallel with my Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has taken a particular interest in the issue of trafficking. Only last week, we had an evidence session with the Minister to follow up on our previous reports on the issue. A number of points arose from that, but I shall not go into them today because that would involve straying from the text of the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned William Wilberforce, I should say that he lived in what is now my constituency and founded my local church, so I have a particular constituency interest in seeing how this all progresses.

I have a problem with part of the text of the Bill, specifically the references to "modern-day slavery" and

The hon. Gentleman will know that, like him, I have attended IPU events to discuss trafficking. The phrase "modern-day slavery" is not really accepted by a number of the countries in Africa, which find it an offensive comparison with the old slave trade. Assuming that the
5 Feb 2010 : Column 549
Bill goes into Committee-I hope that it will-I urge him to consider whether he could remove that phrase because it is not needed to make the point about trafficking. If he were to do so, we would be left with a much more consensual Bill, particularly given how many people from Africa live in our country and who might otherwise feel offended.

On the other reference, the hon. Gentleman has explained at length that his Bill deals with the modern problem of trafficking, which, as he said, is a worldwide one. He has mentioned the trafficking of children from Vietnam in order to grow cannabis in factories and the problem of young women who are trafficked from eastern Europe to work in the sex trade. None of those things relates in any way, shape or form to the transatlantic slave trade. Equally, he knows as well as I do that people are trafficked not only into the UK, the US or even Europe, but throughout the world. As he said, trafficking is the second biggest criminal activity after the drugs trade. Thus, not only might people with an African heritage find the comparison in the simple reference to the transatlantic slave trade a little insulting, because they are very sensitive about that issue, but the reference does not get across what the Bill is actually about, which is to highlight the worldwide nature of the problem. The comparison between what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries with what is happening now is not really one we should have in this Bill.

Mr. Steen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment, so may I ask his advice? He is one of the sponsors of the Bill, so he supports it. Given that we wish to expedite its progress, does he agree that the reference could be removed in the other place or on Report? That would avoid our delaying the Bill's progress in this place.

Mr. Dismore: That is a difficult issue, because it is important to ensure that Bills leave this House in as good a shape as possible. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I hope we will have time to put that right here because he is quite well up the batting order. I leave the Minister to discuss further the possibilities in that regard. I think the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Bill is not perfect on those two points.

Mr. Steen: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be unfortunate if that particular point, important though it is, were to impede the Bill's becoming law? This opportunity may not be repeated.

Mr. Dismore: To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That brings me to my second point, because I support the principles behind the Bill and the Bill itself.

I wish to remind the hon. Gentleman of my experience when I introduced my Holocaust Remembrance Day Bill some 11 years ago, on which, in many ways, I suppose his Bill is modelled. I produced the Bill after a visit to Auschwitz. I came back wondering what I could do to sort this out. Given what he has been saying, it would appear that he has had a similar experience in respect of trafficking: he is very exercised about the issue, as I hope we all are, and he thus wants to do something about it and his Bill is a way of achieving that. I moved Second Reading and I raised the matter with the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair. In response to a parliamentary question, he said he thought
5 Feb 2010 : Column 550
it was a good idea and all the doors unlocked. The Home Office, which had previously been a little reticent, suddenly became extremely enthusiastic-I cannot understand why. In the end, we did not need the Bill to establish Holocaust memorial day. I think that everybody in the House accepts, or, at least, I hope they do, that that national commemoration has been a great success-we had the 10th only the other week-not only as a commemoration but in the way it has spread awareness of the issues of the holocaust throughout the country.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he might not need a Bill or an Act to achieve what he wants to achieve. The naming of the day is not important; what is important is the Government's commitment to making the things happen that need to happen to make it a success. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the three other similar day-type commemorations, and I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration replies to the debate we can consider bringing those together in one form of commemoration and education under the Government's auspices with their commitment to making it a success. The hon. Gentleman does not need legislation for that; he needs commitment. Even if the Bill is passed in its present form or in a slightly amended form, it does not necessarily mean that anything will happen other than a little name will appear in everybody's diaries. We have to have commitment to make that happen-commitment from the Government, local government, voluntary bodies, schools and everybody else, and that needs a strong lead from the Government.

Mr. Steen: There is nothing between us; we are agreed on this. But there is a difference. We have a Holocaust memorial day that has focused public attention-let us remember that we sign the book downstairs. This is an opportunity to say, "We don't like the title," "We don't like this," or "We don't like that." We have an advantage-and it is a very small window of advantage-and an opportunity today, I believe, to push for the identification of a day a year to focus on this issue, although of course the Secretary of State would decide the day. If we lose this opportunity, another will not come along for a very long time, if at all. It is a question of which is better on balance: to have something that is not perfect or to have nothing. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, in view of his sponsorship of this Bill, that he would not wish it to founder.

Mr. Dismore: Yes, I am a sponsor of the hon. Gentleman's Bill and I do not particularly want it to founder. However, I have explained that I think the Bill is a tool to make something happen, just as the Holocaust Remembrance Day Bill was a tool to make something happen. In the end, we did not need the legislation, because the Government took it on, with all-party support, and now Holocaust memorial day is well established. I hope that the hon. Gentleman sees this Bill as a tool that can be used to make something happen.

We were a lot more advanced in the debate on Holocaust memorial day: we had signed up all the constituent parts of the argument, identified the day-which was somewhat controversial at the time-and, using the Bill as a tool, we were able to make it happen. I hope the hon. Gentleman will see that his Bill does not necessarily have to become an Act, but can be used as a tool to ensure that things happen in the same way.

5 Feb 2010 : Column 551

Mr. Steen: I have nothing against that, except I will not be here to see it happen. Bearing in mind the time and the fact that his Bill follows mine, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give the Bill a chance to be pushed through, even if it founders somewhere else, and used as a vehicle in the way that he has been thinking. However, if it does not move on today to the other place, it will not be a vehicle, because it will not have any leverage.

Mr. Dismore: I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman has in mind, but I think I have made my point. In fact, I was about to sit down, but I thought that he would like to get his intervention in.

I approve of the concept of an anti-slavery day, but there are problems with the text. If the Bill does not become law or if the Government are not prepared to support it, I hope that the Government will give the concept, at least, their blessing and, at the same time, see what they can do to show the Government's commitment to tackling these issues.

11.43 am

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): I greatly welcome the work of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). He has a long-established reputation and is held in high regard in this House, and in his speech he was able to talk at length about the issues and the work that he has done in this connection. It is worth saying that it commands enormous cross-party support and respect and the hon. Gentleman has done us a real service.

Whether through the Bill or simply because the issue has been raised, I hope that the Government will act. There are two big points to make. First, although the hon. Gentleman did not dwell on it, this country has every reason to be proud of its history on this issue. This House, in particular, has every reason to be proud of its history. All of us who count ourselves as progressives-I think the hon. Gentleman would be one of them-can claim some credit for progressives in this place in the past, who challenged established views and succeeded in the anti-slavery legislation.

Mr. Steen: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the generous things he has said; I am most grateful to him. The fact is that Britain led the world on the anti-slavery legislation. On human trafficking, we were quite slow, compared with other European countries, to realise what was happening. We have caught up. The Government have consistently had good Ministers in the Home Office who were committed to doing something and they have done as much as they can. This is what is needed now and it is an opportunity for Britain to take the lead again in the EU. That is why I am concerned that we should not lose that opportunity.

Matthew Taylor: The hon. Gentleman intervened just as I was about to turn to the present. He made his point very clearly, and he is right. There is a desperate need to awaken people's consciences to what is going on. The Government have made huge strides in this regard, but, as the hon. Gentleman made clear, there is more to be done. Tackling the issue will be done best if people are aware of it, because the problem is often in the house next door or the flat across the road. Making people aware of the issue, and getting them to report it and no
5 Feb 2010 : Column 552
longer turn a blind eye to it, is how we will effectively overcome it. That is all I want to say and that is why I believe that the hon. Gentleman's proposal is a good one.

11.46 am

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): It is, indeed, a pleasure to rise in support of the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I congratulate him not only on his powerful and compelling speech, but on his exemplary use of an all-party group to pursue an important campaign. I wish the Bill well.

I found it unique and slightly surreal that the only objection to the Bill so far has come from one of its sponsors. That is made more surreal by the fact that I might have thought that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was doing what he often does on a Friday morning, and extending the debate in a creative way, but I looked at the Order Paper and discovered that the next Bill for consideration is from the hon. Gentleman. I am not entirely sure what his contribution was designed to achieve.

I want to make it clear that the Opposition support my hon. Friend's Bill. It is an important initiative that is aimed at raising public awareness. As has been said by several hon. Members so far, this is not a problem of inner cities and of big cities. It is now a problem that unexpectedly affects every community-or many communities-in this country. I know that it is a problem in my constituency, which is not the sort of area where one would expect to find this sort of problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, which takes a significant step with no apparent public spending commitment, which is not only admirable but extremely sensible.

Mr. Steen: I assure the House that no public expenditure whatever is intended. It will be up to organisations and institutions in this country to decide how they wish to recognise modern-day slavery. That is what the Bill seeks to do, along the lines of what has been done in the United States, where the whole month of January is dedicated to the issue. I am suggesting only one day, and I suggest that the Secretary of State would name that day. It would give a focus to the issue, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging that it is needed.

Damian Green: My hon. Friend makes his point. It is important to have a day devoted to increasing public knowledge and awareness that slavery and human trafficking are a contemporary problem, not simply something that people read about in history books.

I hope that the House can pass the Bill because, this week of all weeks, it is important for the House to be seen to be doing something useful, relevant, creative and constructive. Conservative Members are wholeheartedly committed to the cessation of the modern slave trade and, along with many of the things that my hon. Friend has already said, we have proposed an integrated and coherent strategy to achieve that. The hon. Member for Hendon made a few remarks about whether modern-day slavery is the appropriate phrase to use, but clearly human trafficking is the modern form of slavery, and it is deeply depressing that it is becoming so prevalent 200 years after William Wilberforce famously succeeded in beginning the abolition of the slave trade in this country.

5 Feb 2010 : Column 553

Human trafficking is a particularly serious problem for this country. The Minister and I spend much of our time arguing about our lax border controls, but clearly Britain is not just a target country for human traffickers; it is also a transit country. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made the point that the international trafficking trade, which the UN estimates affects about 800,000 people a year, is now the second-biggest international crime, after the drugs trade. One fact that my hon. Friend did not mention, which I find equally depressing, is that it is the fastest growing of the big international crimes. Drugs, guns and people are trafficked around the world by some of the world's most unpleasant and organised criminals, and of those three horrors human trafficking is growing the fastest and will, if things carry on as they are, become the biggest international crime.

Mr. Steen: Does my hon. Friend agree that the other items, arms trading and drug trafficking, do not involve human life? This is the one crime that human beings are subject to. They are treated in the most appalling and despicable way-not much different from how they were treated under the old slave trade. This is modern slavery; I am afraid that it has not yet been abolished.

Damian Green: I do not want to try to establish moral distinctions between three particularly unpleasant crimes, but my hon. Friend is right. This is the nearest thing that we have to the old slave trade. Anyone who has grown up during the past 50 years will read the history books with horror, wondering how people could have treated other human beings like that as recently as 200 years ago, but sadly and depressingly we come to the conclusion that they are still doing that now. That is a horrific fact on which we need to reflect.

I am glad that my hon. Friend made the point that human trafficking is not simply to do with sexual exploitation-it is wider than that and includes labour exploitation-because it is important that we do not get sidetracked into a debate about prostitution. Clearly there are hugely important debates to be had about that, and a significant amount of human trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but the trade is more than that. Labour exploitation should be regarded as equally important, particularly as it affects children. I do not want to repeat many of the things that have already been said in the debate, but many of us will find it particularly appalling that a large and apparently growing number of children are trafficked. The physical mistreatment that is often part of the trafficking process seems particularly disgusting. Many of the victims are lured under the false pretence of more favourable work or pay and made financially dependent on arrival.

My hon. Friend mentioned the terrible case of Gabriella, whom he met yesterday. I am sure that Members will have heard similar examples. There is one of a woman in her early 20s, who we shall call Suzanne, from Lithuania, who after the death of her husband was offered a job in London by two Lithuanian men. They said that it would enable her to better provide for her two children. Escorted by one of the men, she flew to London, where she was met by two other Lithuanians who were already living here. They took her to a flat where she was locked up and forced to have sex with up to 10 men a day. Her pimps kept all the money, claiming £10,000 was owed to their boss for bringing her to the UK and for her living
5 Feb 2010 : Column 554
costs. After four months, she became pregnant. I regret to say that that is the routine sort of story that one hears in this field.

As I say, young women are affected, but so too are children. In introducing his Bill, my hon. Friend talked about the problems of children's homes. I draw to the attention of the Minister and the House the problems of the homes in the London borough of Hillingdon. No blame at all attaches to the local authority, because we cannot make those children's homes secure unless we make them prisons, and none of us wants to do that. It has been identified that since 2006, more than 70 Chinese children have gone missing from a home there; obviously, it is close to Heathrow. Only four have been found-two girls returned after a year of exploitation in brothels in the midlands. One was pregnant, while the other had been surgically fitted with a contraceptive device in her arm. We seem to know that the absconding is straightforwardly at the facilitation of organised crime groups.

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): On the problems of Hillingdon, I have met the leadership of the council and its senior officers, and we believe there is more that we can do together. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the cross-party approach that his party is taking on the issue. We clearly need to help Hillingdon, and we intend to do so.

Damian Green: I am grateful to the Minister for those remarks. Of course, the approach is not just cross-party, as he will be well aware. Hillingdon and Kent are the two local authorities most exposed to the problem of unaccompanied children. Indeed, one of the new centres for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is in my constituency-I visited it recently-so wearing almost every hat that I have, I am deeply concerned about the issue. Those local authorities that have to grapple with the matter have serious problems funding and organising all the arrangements for unaccompanied children, and having international criminal gangs trying to exploit and take away those children is clearly an enormous difficulty.

In this country, exploitation of labour is common in agriculture, construction, domestic cleaning, contract cleaning and the care sector. We all know the more tragic examples of what happens as a result of that kind of labour exploitation: there were the Chinese cockle pickers who died in Morecambe bay and the lorryful of Chinese workers who suffocated in Folkestone. We also know that something like 60 per cent. of illegal immigrants arrive in the UK by illegal means, the majority in the backs of lorries. Many of them will have paid huge sums of money to agents-up to £22,000-and many of them are forced into debt bondage, are kept in appalling conditions and are victims of organised criminal gangs.

Next Section Index Home Page