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Sex Trafficking

Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2006

22. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office on the treatment of people trafficked to the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation. (100535)

In my former role as Solicitor-General, and in my current role as Department for Constitutional Affairs member of the inter-ministerial group on sexual offending, I regularly discuss with my ministerial colleagues at the Home Office the treatment of people trafficked into the UK for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Two hundred years ago, a Bill was about to be introduced to the House of Lords to abolish slavery. Today at Heathrow airport, a person can buy a young woman for between £4,000 and £5,000 to act as their sex slave. There are more than 4,000 such slaves in the country today held against their will, suffering the most appalling violence, intimidation and abuse. Is it not time for the Government to sign the Council of Europe convention on human trafficking to help put to an end this evil trade in human beings?

The question of the directive will be addressed when we produce our action plan on human trafficking. We have been consulting on it and will bring it out in the new year. We have been taking action on human trafficking over a number of years, and the hon. Gentleman describes the problem rightly and clearly. We have to focus on supporting and protecting the victims, but we must tackle the traffickers and prosecute them. We also have to concentrate on the demand side of the sex trade, because women are being brought in for sexual exploitation, often abducted against their will. It is called prostitution but it is actually rape, and we need to look not only at the supply side but also the demand side. We should look at what is being done in other countries to make sure that we do not have the demand that leads to the exploitation of vulnerable women who are trafficked in to be used for sexual purposes by British men.

What progress has my right hon. and learned Friend made on some of the issues that came out of the successful conference in my constituency that she attended to talk about trafficking? In particular, what progress has been made in making sure that agencies liaise so that when women and children in a country are found to have been trafficked they are properly supported and their cases and concerns are properly dealt with?

I thank my hon. Friend for inviting me to that conference in her Northampton constituency. She had involved the Women’s Institute, for which the matter has high priority. One of the WI’s key social objectives is to work with other voluntary organisations, local authorities and agencies on the ground to highlight the problem of the trafficking of young women and children and to stamp it out, so progress is very much under way. I can remember the first time I heard the words “human trafficking”; the phenomenon is relatively recent in terms of its extent as one of the evil undersides of globalisation, but we have recognised the problem and are taking strong action against it.

Is the Minister aware that if a trafficked woman seeks refuge she gets a raw deal in this country? As a nation, we are not responding to the Human Rights Act 1998 and giving those women the protection we should give them. Does she agree?

I agree that protection is patchy. It is not as good as we want in all areas, although I want to mention the Poppy project. In some areas, if a young woman is referred to the Poppy project she will be really well looked after and protected and, in turn, is likely to help the criminal justice and immigration agencies to tackle the source of the problem. We want to make absolutely sure that there is good support for victims across the board, but the other thing we need to do from this country—and are increasingly doing—is send a clear message to perpetrators from other countries who want to get into trafficking that there will be severe sentences for those who are caught.

When I was Solicitor-General I referred to the Court of Appeal a case in which the sentence was 11 years; the Court fully understood the message that needed to be sent and increased the sentence for that offender to 23 years and stripped them of their assets all through Europe. It is right that the House should focus on the issue. We have introduced new criminal offences to tackle trafficking, but we must be vigilant and we must also look at the demand side. Many of us find that difficult to contemplate, but we have to face up to it.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with the recent report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that we should see trafficked women not as criminals and immigration offenders but as the victims of a serious crime, and that we should introduce reflection periods to enable them to come to terms with being a victim of crime? In relation to the Poppy project, which we visited during our inquiry, does she agree that we must ensure that there is long-term, secure funding and an expansion of the scheme, as it provides only 25 beds at any one time?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Poppy project has been very useful, not only in helping the individual women whom it looks after but in working out what more needs to be done, and guiding and helping the Government to develop public policy. The Home Office says that it deals with the immigration status of victims of trafficking on a case-by-case basis. But as my hon. Friend knows, we have been consulting on that, as part of the development of our UK action plan on human trafficking, in which the Joint Committee on Human Rights has played a key part, and further information will be coming forward shortly.

Is it true that immigration officials recently warned Ministers that every week more than 100 unaccompanied children are illegally brought into the UK? Is the right hon. and learned Lady also aware of the various cases documented by the Soroptimists, including one case of a girl who escaped sex slavery and went to her local GP, who referred her to the police, who brought in social services, who referred the girl to the housing authority, who then referred the girl back to social services? That shows a total lack of co-ordination. Surely that tragic case illustrates the need for a national strategy for dealing with trafficking victims.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position; I am sure that he will make a very good contribution in that role. He makes an important point about unaccompanied children. Sometimes when unaccompanied children arrive in this country they are here for perfectly normal and innocent reasons, such as visiting a family member, but sometimes they are not, and unaccompanied children are very vulnerable indeed. Sometimes they are referred to social services and put in foster care, only to fall into the hands of their traffickers again. The problem is incredibly difficult to deal with but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that what really matters is proper co-ordination. If a child is passed from one agency to another, not only is that difficult and traumatic but sometimes the child is picked up again by the traffickers.

The hon. Gentleman is right to bring this matter to the attention of the House. I shall be happy to meet him to further discuss our approach to child trafficking, and I look forward to his making a contribution as we develop policy on it.