Last week, I opened the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, which is staffed by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies and aims to co-ordinate our work in tackling the trade in people. The CPS has developed a network of area prosecutors to deal with trafficking offences, and there is also improved training of prosecutors and CPS staff, who have been issued with national guidance to deal with human trafficking.
The whole House will deplore the abuse suffered by innocent victims brought here against their will, but there are also organised criminal gangs charging illegal immigrants for illegal entry into Britain. What does he say to those of my constituents who want to know that illegal immigrants are removed quickly, and that those engaged in this illegal trade face the same tough penalties as those trafficking drugs and other serious organised criminals?
The Government have improved the removal rates of those who arrive here illegally, and through legislation we are tackling sentencing issues. The key thing is to ensure that we can break up those involved in trafficking human beings. Operation Pentameter, which was undertaken between February and May this year, was very successful at breaking up some of the organised rings in this country. In dealing with the development of human trafficking for prostitution purposes, 84 victims were rescued and 230 people arrested. So we must not only deal with the removal of those who are here and with the proper sentencing of those involved; we must also ensure that they are caught in the first place.
A debate at our party conference last month recognised both the seriousness of this issue and the work already done by Government. But we also called on the Government to get the United Kingdom to sign and ratify the Council of Europe convention on trafficking in human beings, which we unanimously support and which is widely supported throughout the country. Is it now the view of Law Officers and the CPS that we should sign and ratify that convention, and will the Solicitor-General undertake that the Government will make that a priority in the weeks ahead?
The straight answer is, not quite at the moment. We support the convention’s aims—indeed, we played a significant part in negotiating it—but we have concerns about a number of particular aspects. The automatic granting of reflection periods and residence permits for trafficking victims give rise to some concerns. We should remember that trafficking victims might include not just those trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, about whom we have heard a lot in the newspapers recently. There are also those who come here—sometimes voluntarily—for economic purposes who are trafficked, in the sense that traffickers bring them in. A consultation was completed in April on how we might implement the proposals, and we are looking at the results. There are still some details to work out before we can make an announcement.
Is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that we are still getting this issue right in terms of sentencing policy and the priority given by law enforcement agencies to trafficking? We know that trafficking—certainly the trafficking of women—is very often accompanied by extreme violence and sexual violence. Frankly, the sentences of the courts do not always reflect just how serious the traffickers’ underlying activities are. Can we now see a real determination to ensure that the police and the courts treat trafficking with the seriousness that society expects?
I very much hope that we will. I am particularly pleased that the recent reference of a serious trafficking case to the Court of Appeal resulted in the sentence being substantially increased, to 23 years. The Court of Appeal has thereby sent out a clear message that those caught engaging in human trafficking need to be sentenced appropriately, which means serious custodial sentences. We have recently seen a number of those, following that reference to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney-General.
The establishment of the United Kingdom human trafficking centre in Sheffield, and of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, means that we can focus more closely on dealing with this problem. This is a growing problem as a result of the global economy, and there is still a lot of work to do to address it. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that that work is being done.