Our understanding of the scale of the problem is improving steadily. Particularly helpful in that context has been the introduction of the national referral mechanism, to which the hon. Member for Ashford referred, which was established as part of the ratification of the Council of Europe convention on 1 April 2009. The national referral mechanism is a multi-agency
framework that assists in identifying victims of trafficking and then providing support. It is supported by significant investment to provide front-line officers and responders with the skills to assess whether an individual should be referred into the framework. That work includes training staff to respond to individuals in an appropriate manner. The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned the desirability of improving awareness and training in this area across the various agencies.
A serious point about the policy proposal put forward by the hon. Member for Ashford is that, although we would not want to rule out a police force within an agency on ideological or dogmatic grounds, we must acknowledge the practical question of what is the best framework for getting all the agencies to work in partnership on this issue. Is there a danger that a Border Agency police force would lead to other police forces and agencies de-prioritising this issue because they were working on the assumption that the agency police force was responsible?
My response to this proposal is that, whatever arguments we have about the border, it is not the border itself that needs the extra policing; it is the investigation and enforcement. That is why our preferred approach is through the local immigration and crime teams. They could adopt what I describe as the Eliot Ness approach. Members will recall that Al Capone was captured by a tax investigator, not by a man with a machine gun. Similarly, immigration and police powers working together are mutually beneficial because, more often than not, human trafficking involves illegal immigration activity and other crimes. I am sure that this debate will be heightened in the next few weeks. There is a serious, almost tactical, decision to be taken on this, as well as a strategic one.
Training is now mandatory for all UK Border Agency staff below assistant director level, and training modules for the police service have been inserted into mandatory mainstream training courses throughout the police. However, it is not enough simply to focus on human trafficking in the UK. Many victims are foreign nationals from the EU and beyond. The second strand therefore involves addressing the problem at source.
The Home Office works closely with our colleagues in the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is an international organisation. I have recently met officers in Nigeria, for example, and it is possible to see the end-to-end approach working as intelligence comes through from such countries. Those organisations have a number of initiatives to tackle trafficking at source, and the work has four components, of which awareness raising is one. We hear horrendous stories about young people who are understandably naive. Perhaps naive is not the right word, but they lack awareness of what is going on. The hon. Member for Totnes has recounted stories of youngsters believing that they are going to get a decent job and ending up in enslavement. The second component involves capacity building in the source and transit countries to deal with organised immigration crime. The third involves working with Governments and other organisations within the EU and beyond. The fourth involves taking action to address the factors that make poor people vulnerable to trafficking in the first place. The strategy in the Czech Republic is an example of that.
DFID works in 150 countries, and plays a critical role in preventing trafficking at source, through work on combating poverty and social injustice and implementing long-term development programmes. For example, we are currently supporting a project run by the Salvation Army to combat child trafficking in Malawi. There are numerous projects like that in Africa. Similarly, the Crown Prosecution Service has undertaken programmes in a number of jurisdictions to improve the investigation and prosecution of offences. This has focused on the Caribbean, west Africa, China and Afghanistan, while we have also seconded Crown Prosecution Service staff to work in Sierra Leone and Ghana.
Within the European Union, in order to strengthen the international response, we take a joint approach, and we are negotiating a revised framework decision on human trafficking. The UK has played a key role in preparing for the Schengen evaluation of trafficking and supporting the development of ideas proposed by the then Swedish presidency to improve the EU's external work to combat human trafficking. If one wants an example of why we were right not to join Schengen, this is a good one, in my opinion. Growing awareness and implementation of policy relating to the protection of the border and better sharing of data within EU countries is critical to this approach. The Swedish presidency recognised that, and a number of EU countries shifted their attitude, which is testament to the campaigning work going on in this country and elsewhere.
Mr. Steen: I assume from what the Minister is saying that he acknowledges that modern-day slavery crosses frontiers, but believes that there is no point in this country having a ring of steel around our borders if other countries are porous to human trafficking. Does he agree, therefore, that a major task for the European Commission is to stop funding conferences, seminars and research and to start giving money to NGOs and other organisations involved in the real fight against trafficking? For a very long time, the European Commission has spent money on things that are perfectly agreeable, so that there is a circus of attending seminars going on around Europe. People stop off at each country; they see each other; then they move on. Very few organisations, however, are doing the work that needs to be done and those that are trying to do it cannot get funding from the Commission because it favours conferences, seminars and a research approach rather than doing something to tackle the problem.
Mr. Woolas: Let me answer that point very carefully. The answer is yes. I believe that we have seen a pendulum swing in the direction that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and I believe that the evidence to show it is there. The recent appointment of the new British head of Europol provides such evidence. We are now seeing a shift in attitude, particularly from the French and organisations involved in Frontex, towards a much more pragmatic approach.
My personal view is that there has been a failure to recognise the reality of the problem and that too much emphasis has been placed on the assumption that all accession states are at the level of the original member states, which is simply not the case. Secondly, there has been a growing realisation of the economic damage. I
realise that it should not require economic damage to make agencies respond more effectively to this human issue, but the reality of today's world is that it does.
There have been some significant developments in countries in south and eastern Europe. Let me provide a small, but not trivial example-the banning of speed boats in Albania, which took place last year because those boats were being used literally to fast-speed young kidnapped girls across to Italy. The banning of speed boats caused a tremendous hoo-hah in Albania, but the public realised that it was necessary, although people in Italy and Albania had previously not been aware of the extent of the problem. This is a cat-and-mouse game and the criminals involved in it are extremely sophisticated-they could even be heads of organisations. As I have said, there has been a pendulum swing, and I commend that approach.
Let me move swiftly on. All this work is complemented by the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre in developing the Blue Blindfold brand, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Blue Blindfold is the international campaign of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which it uses to endorse specific projects to counter human trafficking and to ensure that those projects are sustainable and not just one-offs. The aim of the campaign is to encourage law enforcement agencies, other professional bodies and the public to develop greater awareness of the issue. The Blue Blindfold brand is increasingly being adopted by international partners, including Crime Stoppers International.
Our campaign, which is linked with the Blue Heart campaign run by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, encourages all sections of society to be aware of the dangers. The US State Department's 2009 "Trafficking in Persons" report described the campaign as one of the "Commendable Initiatives Around the World", and we were grateful for that recognition. We will, of course, continue to use the brand to raise awareness, collaborating not just internationally but, crucially, with local authorities in this country. As we have heard today, the problem is widespread. Many people assume that it is a particularly urban problem, but that is not the case. I am sure that the constituents of the hon. Member for Ashford have been horrified to learn of what goes on. We have seen many examples of exploitation of this kind, the Morecambe bay example being perhaps the most high-profile.
Our commitment to instituting a strong enforcement response against those who seek to trade in humans is clearly critical. That is why we included anti-trafficking legislation in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. The hon. Member for Totnes was kind enough to pay tribute to the Government for introducing legislation in an attempt to end trafficking. The House is often criticised for producing too many Bills, but an evolving problem such as this requires legislation.
Through the efforts of the UKHTC, enforcement bodies such as the police and UKBA, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, we have continued not just to strengthen legislation but to improve enforcement capacity, ensuring that human trafficking becomes core police business. Whatever the outcome of the debate about the border
force, we must not lose sight of the importance of the mainstream police force's prioritisation of the issue. That was the main topic of conversation at the recent West Midlands police federation Christmas event, an informal gathering of police officers from constable to superintendent level which was hosted by the House. I am sure that all Opposition spokesmen and Ministers hear similar views when they talk to forces around the country.
Let me list some of our key achievements. We have increased the number of convictions, including convictions for forced labour. The statistics given by the hon. Member for Ashford are, on the face of it, not as good as we would all like them to be, but our partnership approach means that prosecutions may employ other routes-for example, we can secure convictions through the taxman or through unrelated legislation. Criminal activity does not always take place in a single area. I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman for using those figures. Indeed, I want to see a conviction rate of 100 per cent., but that will take time, and we should not do down the officers who are using more sophisticated approaches. I wish that some tabloid journalists would understand that, rather than merely going for the quick headline.
As I said earlier, we have strengthened the legislation on labour trafficking to make it an offence to use a child or a vulnerable adult for gain. That is important, because of the fear that victims' families will be threatened. I am not saying that it has entirely got rid of the problem, but it allows a villain to be prosecuted without the need to rely entirely on witnesses. I have already mentioned that we are ensuring that combating trafficking is part of core police business, and that is boosted by the introduction of the mandatory training on human trafficking for all new police officers.
A number of significant anti-trafficking operations have been, and are being, carried out. I was in Manchester on Wednesday, looking at the new headquarters of the local immigration crime team. About a dozen operations are taking place this week, as we increase our capacity to tackle not only trafficking itself, but connected activities such as the crime of sham marriage.
I have also already mentioned that we are working with international organisations. We are working to improve the situation in respect of prosecutions, too, through raising awareness in the judiciary. A key argument in the speech of the hon. Member for Totnes was that the judiciary are sometimes not as aware as they might be of the scale of the problem and the extent of the damage that can be done.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency is a key asset in countering the threat from organised criminals involved in trafficking. SOCA participates in the disruption and dislocation of the market for trafficked women for the UK vice trade and trafficking for labour. That disruption is a SOCA priority. We co-ordinate the work of the different agencies through two programme boards, both of which are chaired by senior SOCA officers. The boards focus on organised immigration crime within and outwith the UK, and their activities are aligned with the objectives set out in the UK action plan on human trafficking. To put this in layperson's terms, a job does not get done unless it is somebody's job to do it, and we have made this somebody's job. I am sure Members support that common-sense principle.
Mr. Steen: The Minister's comments are music to the ears of many of us. What the Government are doing is very good news, as is the progress that has been made over the past three or four years. The Minister must be aware, however, that there is a much bigger issue. The police are the key to detecting both the traffickers and the victims. Other police forces in Europe are not as up to date as ours is now, and many of them are riddled with links to the mafia and there is a tremendous amount of corruption. What can we do to establish a sufficient level of sophistication among the police forces of other EU countries and to make them aware of what we are doing here and of our successes?
Mr. Woolas: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as do the Government. I have mentioned the economic damage trafficking does, and it is, perhaps, a sad world if it is the economic damage that causes people to prioritise this issue, but there is a discernible shift in attitude in Europe. There is also, of course, a debate to do with the client countries who wish to join the EU, and the Government's approach to that is to say that we require not just intent, but evidence that those problems are being addressed. Indeed, I recently met the relevant Moldovan Minister. We discussed a range of issues, including this one. All the time, such meetings are taking place and work is being done.
As I have just said, one of the advantages now is that it is somebody's job to address this issue. I think it was Chairman Mao who said that the goat that belongs to everyone starves to death. That is probably the most principled argument against communism-and damn right as well. If a task is nobody's job and everybody's job, it does not get done. The board we have created has the job of leading this work. Attention must be paid to getting across to the enforcement agencies and security services that there are huge advantages in respect of making progress in their work and achieving their goals in addressing trafficking, because, as we all know, crime is linked in with it.
Bringing together and focusing the work of SOCA with the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, to which we second staff, and with domestic law enforcement agencies to deliver this concerted response is the right way forward. The relationship will grow closer and stronger after 1 April, when the UKHTC falls under SOCA's remit. That initiative is to be welcomed.
As I have said, a focus of SOCA is combating the threat abroad. In the last year, this has involved increased engagement on the part of our global network of liaison officers-I love that phrase, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you can imagine what the lads call themselves, and very decent, professional officers they are-in 40 countries around the world. They work closely with our own international directorate in UKBA.
Let us consider one of the advantages of bringing together into a single organisation-UKBA-immigration officials, customs officials and visa officers overseas. I can tell the hon. Member for Totnes, by the way, that it is now the Home Office that oversees issuing visas, not the Foreign Office, and I shall come on to the case of Gabriella in a moment. The staff who process the visa applications are employees of UK Visas, which is part of UKBA. This is a tremendous weapon that we can use, through the greater sharing of intelligence and joined-up working from start to finish.
Let me give one example that has been in the public domain. Our officers have been working in rural areas of Nigeria, following fraudulent attempts to gain visas and connecting that with sponsors of visas in London and elsewhere in the country. Giving intelligence to, in this case, the Metropolitan police at a divisional commander level is disrupting this type of activity. So the international directorate of UKBA is part of the jigsaw puzzle, as well.
I have mentioned raising awareness within the judiciary. The CPS published updated legal guidance on human trafficking in 2009 to reflect the changes arising from the implementation of the Council of Europe convention, which the hon. Member for Totnes campaigned for. To be fair, the hon. Member for Ashford has raised that issue as well. This guidance emphasises the role of the CPS in identifying potential victims who may have committed criminal offences under duress or coercion. The hon. Member for Totnes gave an example of this problem occurring in central London, whereby people are forced to commit crime through threat of violence against themselves and their families back home. An awareness of this issue on the part of CPS authorities is critical in order to provide help.
Of course, there is the question whether the 2012 Olympic games will be used by organised criminals to traffick people. We are very much aware of that, and I am grateful to the Minister for the Olympics for the work that she is doing. I want to reassure hon. Members that there is no indication so far of an increase in human trafficking to the UK linked to the 2012 games. The key agency that is on top of this issue is of course the Met, which has dedicated resources and officers to it.
The Met had an internal review of how it tackles organised immigration crime, including trafficking. It has decided that from 1 April this year-the new financial year-responsibility for tackling this crime will transfer to the clubs and vice unit from the Met trafficking team. In turn, the unit will be supported by the assets of the Specialist Crime Directorate. Again, that reorganisation is focusing exactly on what the hon. Gentleman is rightly campaigning for-implementation. The idea of his anti-slavery day is of course to draw attention to this type of activity. There is, therefore, a sensible strategy in place.
"investigating this key area into one single command will mean better co-ordination, less duplication and more accountability in the service we provide to victims."
Mr. Steen: I think the Minister would like to know that the jury is out on the disbanding of the human trafficking team in the Met, which occurred when the Home Office withdrew its special funding. The jury is out on whether putting this work under one command-this particularly applies in respect of the clubs and vice unit, which is not known for its work on tackling human trafficking-will be a good idea. The all-party group has had a meeting with Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick and we were very impressed by her grasp of the problem, but, as I say, the jury is out. We are working closely with her and we hope that an improvement will take place.