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House of Lords

Thursday, 2 November 2006.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

People Trafficking

Lord Roberts of Llandudno asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the United Kingdom is currently considering whether to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. The Government are examining how the convention’s approach could best be harmonised with effective immigration controls.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am partially grateful to the Minister for her reply, but can she say how many people are estimated to have been trafficked into the United Kingdom over, say, the past five years? Secondly, this morning I received a note from the Foreign Office saying that 131 treaties had not been ratified by the United Kingdom. Of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe, 25 have ratified the convention on human trafficking. Why has the United Kingdom been unable to do so? Should we not take a very visible lead in all these humanitarian causes?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that we do take a lead in these humanitarian causes. Although a number of countries have signed the convention, very few have ratified it. It is very difficult to say how many people are trafficked, because one has to differentiate between those who may assert that that has happened and those to whom it has happened. I shall certainly write to the noble Lord about cases where convictions have been established, because those are better numbers. I am not sure whether we have a definitive number for that, but I shall use my best endeavours to get the noble Lord the details that he seeks.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, my noble friend will know that the convention is not the only international instrument to control that cruel trade. In 2004, an optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force on protecting children from all forms of sexual exploitation. Is the UK still not in a position to ratify that? How much longer will the Home Office’s review of the articles of that instrument take?

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are not in a position to ratify it now. Your Lordships will know that the United Kingdom has taken its treaty responsibilities very seriously indeed and will sign treaties only when we are absolutely committed to all their terms and to their delivery. I assure my noble friend that this issue is of the utmost importance to us.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, has the trafficking of children increased?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it is not possible to say whether the trafficking of children has increased, but I assure the noble Baroness that, as a result of our attention to this issue, our ability to respond creatively and positively—through our action plan and the actions that we are taking—has certainly increased.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the Home Office has published an estimate of 4,000 people who have been trafficked to the United Kingdom, and the figure was published also in a House of Commons Library note in September 2006. If that many people in the United Kingdom have been victims of trafficking, why are there so few prosecutions under either the Sexual Offences Act 2003 or the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which criminalised trafficking for sexual purposes and other purposes respectively? Is it because the police do not have to look to a key performance indicator that measures their performance on the detection and prosecution of these offences?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not think that it is. One of the difficulties is that sufficient evidence must be found to substantiate someone’s claim that they have been trafficked and to justify a prosecution. One of the things that we have been able to do through the action plan is to help professionals better understand how trafficking occurs and to enable them to take more positive and effective action to prosecute it. The different models of operation that we have been able to run are proving successful.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, will the Minister say which countries are the worst offenders on trafficking and what action the Government are taking to encourage them to suppress it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it would be invidious for me to identify any particular country. However, our foreign policy means that we are engaging with all countries on this matter because all are either purveyors or receivers of trafficked people. It is an issue on which we must all engage. The UK action plan, which we are putting together, will enable us to respond to this terrible scourge in a much more targeted and, we hope, effective way.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, concerns have been expressed about the dangers of an increase in this evil trade when Bulgaria and Romania enter the EU on 1 January. Do the Government share those concerns and, if so, what action is being taken?

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says about those concerns. I reassure the House that we have been working very successfully with our colleagues in Bulgaria and Romania on crime. One of the benefits of that close relationship is that we are better able to interdict this and other crimes across Europe.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Italian Government are much more experienced in this matter than we are, particularly in protecting those victims of trafficking who need a period of reflection when they are arrested? Will she confirm that the Italian Government have contributed to the UK’s action plan and that discussions are being held?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have looked at what other countries have done in this area so that we can learn how to respond better. The UK action plan on human trafficking includes action on many ways in which children are trafficked, not only for sexual exploitation but for exploitation of labour. This is a very broad-ranging plan, and we are considering the best information that we have to ensure that that action really bites on this evil and pernicious crime.

Plastic Bags

11.14 am

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, Ministers from Defra and the Scottish Executive recently met UK retailers to discuss a draft voluntary code of practice on paper and plastic carrier bags. The Government and retailers have committed to work together to encourage the reuse and recycling of bags, and agreed targets for their reduction. It is hoped that as many retailers as possible will sign up to the code, resulting in a significant change in consumer behaviour.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend agree, as one of the most effective and experienced parliamentarians and Ministers in this Government, that in order for a Back-Bencher to influence policy one has to have an impeccable case and to be a bit of a nuisance? We are still using 8 billion plastic bags a year, and despite the efforts of the supermarkets they have not made much of a dent in that figure. I am sure that the noble Lord goes shopping frequently, as many of us do. Does he agree that plastic bags are pushed at one in supermarkets, even if one has one’s own bags? Do the Government agree that, if we cannot make progress voluntarily through this code, we will need a tax on plastic bags?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, my noble friend comes back to this issue a few months after he last raised it. He is absolutely right that making yourself a nuisance is the way to get things done. We hope that the majority of retailers will sign up to the proposed code and that we will have a statement before the end of the year. They have agreed to a target of a 25 per cent reduction by 2008 in the number of plastic bags given away and there is a possible target of a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As my noble friend said, between 8 billion and 10 billion plastic bags are produced a year—134 per person—so a 50 per cent reduction would be very substantial.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, rather than impose more taxes and strictures on the poor old consumer, would it not be better to use the huge possibilities in the media to get over the message that, if we want to protect the environment, we should take our own shopping bags to the supermarket?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. Perhaps everyone should have a shopping bag for Christmas.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us are very grateful for our free plastic bags, because we reuse them as bin liners and for a variety of other purposes, thereby saving ourselves from having to buy any?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Lady is quite right; plastic bags make up 0.3 per cent of domestic waste and between 0.1 per cent and 1 per cent of visible litter. They constitute a very small proportion of total litter, and most sensible people will reuse them for other purposes. To that extent, it is not all negative.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, what discussions has the Minister had with local authorities about the plastic bags that they have to issue so that we can all get rid of the huge quantity of unwanted marketing material that the Post Office forces through our doors?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have not had any such discussions; that is the direct answer to the question. Questions have been raised in this House about junk mail that comes via the Post Office through our doors. You can quite easily stop addressed junk mail and, as we all now know because of that nice postie somewhere who told his own customers, you can stop unaddressed junk mail coming through your door via the Royal Mail. There are two procedures to enable people to do that, and the details are available in answer to a PQ. I regret to say that I cannot remember which noble Lord asked it, but it is printed in either today’s or yesterday’s Hansard.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister agree that just stopping the use of plastic bags is important and that cloth bags or baskets are a better option, as he suggested last time?

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However, the Government chose to implement the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy—which would have answered a lot of these problems, including those of packaging—only as a voluntary strategy although the industry was encouraging them to make it mandatory. Why did they resist that?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, possibly to try to get as much voluntary action as possible. The issue of packaging is almost the same as that of plastic bags. If they are made from fossil materials, they are a problem for the environment. It is possible to make such packaging and bags from non-fossil materials. We can grow the materials to make such products, and that actually helps the environment.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, one has to take away one’s supermarket goods in some form of container and there was a time when people could use the cardboard boxes in which goods were delivered to the supermarket. In his discussions with supermarkets, will the Minister urge them to make those cardboard boxes available? I believe that they have been withdrawn generally because they are said to be a fire risk.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I will see that my colleague who deals with this matter with retailers takes that point on board. They do not use cardboard boxes any more. I have been told that paper bags as an alternative weigh more, cost more to transport and can be more damaging to the environment. There is no easy answer to this.

Lord Elton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that one supermarket chain uses plastic bags that are printed with a message saying that they are biodegradable, how long they will take to biodegrade and for how long it is safe to use them before they begin to do so? Should that not be encouraged?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that may be so, but other supermarkets have told me that people do not read what is on plastic bags, which is why they do not advertise on them. They have done tests on this to show that that is the case. There is also a problem with biodegradable plastic bags; this is not simple. If they are mixed with waste which includes non-biodegradable plastic and people then try to recycle, there is a problem with the recycled product.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are different weights of plastic bags? Obviously, the heavier ones can be reused much more often. An earlier question referred to supermarkets, but it would be enormously helpful if the discussions went right across the retail industry. We need to convert people who sell goods to stop advertising in a way that says, “No, we want to use our own bags. We don’t want to have your reusable ones”. My local butcher was a very good example of that: when I took my own bag, he said clearly, “I cannot possibly let my high-class meat go out in that bag”.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, there is no answer to that.

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Aviation: Carbon Emissions

11.22 am

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we have made it clear that aviation needs to take its share of responsibility for tackling its environmental impacts. Our priority is pressing for the inclusion of aviation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme from 2008 or as soon as possible thereafter. We will also continue to explore and discuss options for the use of other economic instruments.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Of course, we are very glad to know that the Government are addressing this issue. However, recent research from the Tyndall Centre and the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford shows that emissions from aviation as a proportion of carbon and other emissions entering the atmosphere are growing at an alarming rate. Is my noble friend aware that both organisations have put the halting of further growth in airport capacity at the top of their list of necessary measures to address this problem? Is he further aware that the Mayor of London was quoted yesterday in the Guardian as follows:

In the light of all this, is it not time for an urgent and radical review of the Government’s aviation policy?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those comments. The Government certainly take the question of emissions seriously. However, the House will recognise that to be effective we need international action, which is why we are addressing ourselves to the European Union position first, in order that we have some leverage with the international position as a whole. My noble friend is right. She is also right that air travel has expanded in recent years and we seek to meet the legitimate demands of many of our people for travel. We obviously have to strike a balance between the desirability of air travel and the fact that emissions from air travel are increasing. We need to be able to control that factor.

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