I welcome Members to this debate. I can see from the Chair that quite a lot of Members want to participate. It is an issue of considerable importance. The debate was secured by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). Totnes, for those who do not know, is in the great county of Devon.
I thank the Speaker for choosing this subject for debate. He has done Parliament a great service in many ways, and the debate could not be more timely.
The war on terror is portrayed as enemy No. 1 in the west—the enemy cannot be seen, the enemy is within, society is threatened—but another war is going on, a more insidious one that is potentially more corrosive. I refer to the trafficking of human beings, including the trafficking of children for sex, begging, domestic servitude and other forms of child labour. Young children are lured away, usually from desperately poor families, and made dependent on crooks and criminals.
Until recently, child trafficking was seen not as a problem facing this country but as something that happened elsewhere. That changed with the launch last February of Operation Pentameter, which discovered 72 trafficked females in different parts of Britain, 12 of whom were minors. The discovery brought into stark relief the fact that Britain too is a host country into which young children are being trafficked to be bought and sold like meat in a butcher shop. As the deputy chief constable in charge of Operation Pentameter said,
“teenage virgins will fetch as much as £4,000 on the open market, whereas a 39-year-old may only command £500.”
We have no idea just how virulent child trafficking is, but we know that from time to time it raises its ugly head. Last Saturday, The Times reported that a Czech woman had been caught shipping children into Britain, using female couriers who posed as their relatives. Once here, the children were handed over to gangmasters. Despite lurid tabloid exposés and television documentaries chronicling stories of girls and gangs observed by undercover reporters, such criminal activity will inevitably continue unless confronted by stronger forces. Without a permanent Operation Pentameter detailing every police force in Britain to look out for and apprehend those involved in trafficking, and without a stronger remit from the Government for our law enforcement agencies, prosecutions and convictions will be spasmodic and erratic. Without a designated unit in every one of our 53 police forces to combat trafficking and help victims, the scale and extent of this illicit trade will never be known, and it will never be halted.
It is not just the police who need to be focused on trafficking. Could not some of the 9,000 health and safety officials working with every local authority in the country add to their concerns about obesity some other health aspects of our increasingly affluent population? One wonders what information health and safety officials could discover in their localities. Could they not help the police, social workers and the immigration service to root out the problem? It is no good for the Government to say that they are on side and deeply concerned or what a terrible business it all is if the Home Secretary fails to send the police a directive. Should not the Health Secretary also send some guidance to the health and safety officials? What about the probation services, or the thousands of housing officials throughout the country? More people work for the Government and local government than ever before. Surely among them they can discover trafficked persons and criminal gangs and act speedily. How is it that underage girls continue to enter this country? What is happening to our immigration service that it continues to admit children into Britain to be forced into prostitution?
In the United States, children travelling with people other than immediate family members are interviewed separately by the immigration service at points of entry. That is not done in Britain. If it were, we could intercept many potentially trafficked children. Will the Minister explain why it is not done, and whether it will be? It would create an entirely different climate where children accompanied by people other than their mother or father would be taken separately into a room, interviewed by an immigration official and asked the questions that need to be asked.
I used to have a business that related to another business in Florida, and I often took young, attractive female staff over there on business. My hon. Friend is quite right. They would be taken into a separate room and interviewed for half an hour to check that the story was correct. That simple measure would cut down the number of people trafficked into this country.
It is illuminating to hear what my hon. Friend did before he became a Member of Parliament. I thank him for that elucidation of how the Americans do it; it is an important point. I do not understand why we do not do it here. Will the Minister seriously consider it?
Even though we have not yet signed up to the minimum standards of victim protection laid down in the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, we are still obliged to consider children’s best interests, not just from a moral point of view but as an international legal requirement under article 3 of the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child, which was ratified by every country in the world except for the United States and Somalia. Yet when we discover trafficked children at ports of entry, we are still inclined to put them back on the next plane to the country from which they came. The snag in doing so is that such children are usually re-trafficked or their families are placed at risk.
Immigration officials must be instructed not only to discover victims of trafficking but to challenge fake parents or guardians, who inevitably have tickets to return to the country from which they came within 24 hours of arrival. It is another simple thing. When children are accompanied by a parent or guardian, all immigration officers should check the date on the return ticket. If it is within 24 or 48 hours, questions must be asked.
Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that a significant number of children trafficked for the sex trade come from countries in conflict? Abiobesh Davies, brought at age 15 from Sierra Leone and now residing in my constituency, has no family left because they were all killed in the conflict. Now 18 and with a history of prostitution, she is fighting the immigration service’s constant attempts to return her to Sierra Leone, where the only future before her is further prostitution and abuse. Is that not a disgrace?
Yes, it is a disgrace. I shall come to the similar experiences of other African girls whom the all-party group has met. They will merely corroborate what the hon. Lady said. I thank her for that intervention.
All in all, the Government have taken a somewhat unco-ordinated approach. Although I know that the Minister’s heart is in the right place and thank him for his meetings with the all-party group and with me, he should realise that the Government’s efforts and his own, although they are welcome, are no match for sophisticated and well-organised criminal gangs. The Government have a specific Minister for Children and Families. I realised that only recently. She has not answered questions on the issue in the House, and inquiries to her about trafficking of children are sent back with a note saying, “Not known here; please refer to the Home Office.” Perhaps the Minister could explain where she fits into the Government jigsaw.
Recently, five teenage girls volunteered to talk with the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, of which I am the chairman, about their experiences. They came from Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Burundi. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) was present at that meeting. The pattern was similar: most of the girls had been physically abused when they were young children, and some had been raped. All were accompanied by a minder on the plane and through immigration, and all had been told that they were coming to Europe for a better life. Once through immigration those children were handed to another minder in the UK who was part of the international network, which then trafficked the girls onward.
Those seven teenage girls were the fortunate ones in that they got away, but they had no security and feared that they might be sent back at any time. They had no passports, no identity cards and little confidence that they would be safe in Britain if they shopped their traffickers. If Britain signed the European convention on action against trafficking, that would at least ensure that trafficked people knew their safeguards and were protected.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has referred to the convention. Given that the convention was tabled as long ago as May 2005 and that, the last time I looked, no fewer than 24 of the 46 eligible member states had chosen to sign it, does he agree that it really is time that the Government spoke to those signatory states and established how they were able perfectly satisfactorily to overcome concerns about the convention operating as a pull factor? To sign it would guarantee a minimum level of protection and treatment for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on it, and makes the case much better than I can. He is absolutely right. The idea that if we signed the convention, minors would pour into Britain, all seeking asylum, is pure moonshine. There is some other reason why the Government are not inclined to sign it, but I shall come to that in a moment.
Child trafficking is allegedly growing, but there is very little information available and nobody knows exactly whether it is or where it is. We also know that the public are strangely indifferent to the stories of child abuse and violence, as if they have been so anesthetised by the layer upon layer of horror daily served up to them and just cannot stomach any more. The recent Crimestoppers poster was well intentioned in its attempt to raise awareness of sex trafficking, but the information that it displayed lacked a certain credibility. Although raising public awareness is an important part of tackling trafficking in the UK, it is vital that it should be handled in a sensitive and measured way, rather than seeking sensationalism and resorting to shock tactics.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of publicity, but does he feel that insufficient attention is given to publicising the stark facts of what is happening in the United Kingdom?
I am grateful for that intervention because the thing is, we do not know what the facts are. That is the biggest problem. We hear terrible stories but they are probably the tip of the iceberg. The media, well intentioned though I am sure they are, tend to go for the sensational stories and do not give an overall picture. I hope that I will be able to put the issue into a better perspective in my speech, but there are a lot of hon. Members present who can add to the story. I hope that the media might give a more measured picture after they have listened to this debate.
Besides the UK perspective, there is the European one. Britain needs to play a major part, not only by addressing demand factors in this country and making it difficult for trafficked minors to get through immigration and border controls, but by ensuring that all 27 EU countries adopt a similar protocol with their police forces and judiciaries. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania from 1 January 2007 will push the frontiers of the EU eastwards, giving greater access for trafficking from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the former Soviet Union. We must also not forget Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are now in the EU and where there is considerable poverty. People can travel from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by crossing the frontiers, without having to be trafficked.
The first problem that the Government have to tackle with other EU member states is determining to what extent corruption among border controls, the police forces and the judiciary is rife. How are the Government going to tackle bribery, with which many former communist countries’ institutions are riddled? Is the problem that corruption is so widespread that top-level individuals will not be brought to justice? Although Romania has an indomitable police chief and Bulgaria has a new and well-regarded state prosecutor, why have no high-level prosecutions occurred and why have no convictions taken place? Is it that, in former communist countries, corruption is so ingrained and reaches so far into all levels of society that gathering sufficient evidence to mount a successful prosecution is nigh impossible?
It is against that background that we should view the work of Europol and Interpol. How good is the sharing of information between police forces? The Romanian police have established two-way links with the United Kingdom through the Serious Organised Crime Agency on fingerprint mapping, image tracking and DNA database information, as well as fire arms profiling, which is a new technology, but is that happening in the other 25 EU countries? How good is the secret intelligence gathering in south-east European countries?
I should like to share some of my own experiences with the Chamber and pay tribute to the work of ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. ECPAT is a coalition of nine leading UK organisations working for the protection of children’s rights. It services our all-party group on trafficking of women and children, and has enabled me to make secret visits to hostels in the Netherlands and Rome. I should like to thank the chief of the Romanian national police for giving me an inside picture of what is really going on there, and the deputy governor of the high-security prison in Bucharest for arranging for me to talk with three convicted traffickers in private for several hours. I should also like to thank David Savage, a former constituent of mine who switched from his work from Nortel, a high-tech company, to helping HIV/AIDS-infected children in the former Romanian orphanage at Chernavoda, for his continuing work on the issue.
At a safe house on the outskirts of Rome I met a woman who had been trafficked as a child from eastern Europe. I met many such women, from Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. Some were still in their teens. The market for buying children for adoption has been well documented by Baroness Nicholson, who is an officer of our group. She exposed what was happening in the orphanages in Romania in the late 1990s.
Different patterns are emerging in different parts of Europe. One girl had been sold by her brother to a gang because he needed money when their parents died. Another had been forcibly abducted when she was 10. She is now 21. She lost her childhood and spent eight years with pimps, virtually a prisoner and largely providing sex for wealthy Italian men. She was threatened repeatedly that if she tried to escape, her sisters would be raped and her parents killed. With no one to turn to and not able to speak Italian, she could not escape until she was caught stealing and sent to jail. She was released on appeal by telling her full story to a magistrate. She was not just sexually abused, but physically abused. She showed me burn marks on her stomach that had been caused by the traffickers stamping out their cigarettes, warning that there would be more to come if she tried to escape. What I learned is that the real mafia no longer works in just Sicily or New York, but has spread to Bulgaria, Moldova, Croatia and Albania. It is very nasty indeed.
The hostel provides the sympathy and support of an exceptional and inspirational young woman psychologist, who not only runs the hostel, but offers all the victims years of ongoing intensive support and therapy. We do not do that here. In many ways, Italian social legislation that is aimed at the protection of victims of trafficking is more advanced than ours in the UK. At least trafficked people are given respect and the status of a residence permit to help them rebuild their lives.
I spent a day at that hostel and had a full and frank discussion with a lot of the girls, thanks to ECPAT and a girl who had worked there for more than a year. The girls talked to me frankly in Italian and other languages about their experiences, although I am sure that I did not get the whole story.
The Chamber will understand what a trauma child trafficking is to the victim, what a heinous crime it is, and how considerable the financial resources are that enlightened countries such as Italy and the Netherlands are prepared to spend over long periods to try to rehabilitate people who have been through such appalling experiences. We, however, try to get them out of this country on the next plane as quickly as we can. That is not what we should be doing.
Is it likely that cost is making the Government apprehensive about signing up to the European convention on action against trafficking? If that is so, how do they square that with the fact that the trafficking of human beings is a criminal offence under much international legislation? How do they square it with the violation of international law, including human rights law? Trafficking is an offence against the dignity and integrity of human beings, which is laid down in international conventions such as the universal declaration on human rights, the slavery convention and so on.
If there is a reluctance to sign up to the new convention, could we not put in place something better for people trafficked into Britain, who are at risk? If the convention is not strong enough, the Government have every opportunity to put in place something better. Perhaps the Minister can explain why we have not even signed the additional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child, which refers to the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and states that countries should take all measures to protect children from sexual exploitation.
There must be some reason why the Government are so reluctant to protect human rights; after all, this country is proud of its track record on human rights. As things are, some children and young people here are deeply scarred, frightened and dreadfully unhappy. Some are still extremely angry.
In Chernavoda, I met pimps who were not part of organised gangs. I was told that that could be dangerous, but I am glad to say that it turned out not to be. The neighbourhood pimps operate on a locality basis known as “lover boys”. They swear undying love in a feigned relationship with a local teenage girl, then take her on a purported holiday to Italy or Spain—two host countries to which there is a lot of trafficking. There, she is abandoned and handed over to a criminal network.
There are 2.8 million Romanies in Romania, more than 1 million in Bulgaria and millions in Hungary and the Czech Republic. They all share one characteristic: there is little work and few prospects for those who leave school, so their young people and children are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Trafficking patterns have tended to change, certainly for the neighbourhood pimp who is ever-conscious of extremely serious penalties if he is caught trafficking under-18-year-olds into Italy or Spain.
As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), mafia gangs have acted brutally in the field of human trafficking. However, neighbourhood pimps are now striking new deals with their former girlfriends, so that the trafficked person keeps a percentage of their earnings and the balance is shared by way of commission among those who facilitated the business in the first place. The idea that trafficked women are all chained up and given the most terrible time is changing—certainly as far as the neighbourhood pimps are concerned.
I am told that throughout Europe, the pimp business is flourishing. Pimps make a good living thanks to the appetite of the growing number of affluent men in western Europe who are happy to pay relatively modest sums for trafficked children. If the penalties for having sex with trafficked children were quadrupled, as is being discussed in Sweden, that would inevitably be a disincentive to customers and would further affect or reduce demand.
Not only girls are being trafficked for prostitution, labour exploitation such as exploitation in cannabis factories, or forced begging. Male victims are trafficked for sexual purposes, but their number is very difficult to estimate. There is a double shame for the young men who come forward: that of being a prostitute and that of having sex with men despite not being gay themselves. Boys are harder to identify, as they are often judged by law enforcement officials as being the criminals, not the victims. They are reluctant to come forward to the authorities. Far more work needs to be done on the issue; there is a great deal of evidence from both Romania and Moldova of trafficking arrangements that go outside the EU before coming back in with young boys.
If we made trafficking to Britain much more difficult, the gangs would switch to more lucrative and less complicated activities. Traffickers are business men, and want to make money with minimum effort and risk. If we made it more difficult to traffic into this country and all other EU countries, they would probably divert their attention to something else.
I am so glad that my hon. Friend has secured this very important debate. Is he aware that in this country the average earnings of a trafficked prostitute for his or her pimp are roughly £100,000 a year? Each trafficked prostitute makes big business. Does my hon. Friend welcome the measures introduced in border countries such as Austria and Italy? At the point of entry, women are given a leaflet in the relevant languages setting out where they can go for help. Such women are often not sure about where to turn. At present, no such thing exists in our own country.
I am grateful for that intervention. We need a massive publicity campaign, not only here but in every EU country. Every school should educate all their young people about the dangers. There could be poster boards. The issue has to be talked about and discouraged. I believe that in Chernavoda as many as 40 per cent. of teenage girls are in prostitution. I mentioned David Savage, who has done remarkable work there. He set up his own school to try to deal with disadvantaged young people. He was delighted with the first class of 15, but found that 14 of them were going into prostitution or pimping after school.
This major problem is created and caused by continued demand from western countries. I cannot comment on the figure of £100,000 a year, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—it sounds about right—but the figure is far beyond the work of the Home Office, good though that is. The traffic is international and in the European dimension, we have not yet started to address it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her contribution.
Trafficking is not smuggling, which involves people who have consented to be smuggled. Trafficked victims have either never given consent or have given initial consent that has been rendered meaningless by coercive, deceptive or abusive action by traffickers. “Trafficking” suggests that victims are taken to another country, although that is not necessarily so; victims can equally be moved from one town to another. Trafficking involves ongoing exploitation, whereas smuggling does not.
Britain still does not have a clear, coherent approach to helping victims of trafficking. The Joint Committee on Human Rights of the Lords and Commons made a number of excellent recommendations in its October 2006 report, especially about victim care. I am glad to see that its Chairman, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is in the Chamber; he has taken considerable interest in this issue.
No doubt, the Government will respond to the report shortly. As things are, the police do not know what to do, social services say that they do not have the resources, and immigration and border controls admit that trafficking regularly slips through their net. Furthermore, unless trafficked people have a better idea of what they can expect if they come forward, they will continue to hide away—fearful of the police, of extradition, of being re-trafficked and of retribution, especially if they volunteer to give evidence against their traffickers. That is just in Britain; in many eastern European countries, the police not only are corrupt, but abuse the trafficked women. That is another problem.
The British Government may be well-meaning and the Minister sympathetic, but the overall picture is one of muddle and lack of direction. Hundreds of agencies continue to attend seminars, discussion groups and training sessions. Whenever I go to any foreign capital to hear about and discuss trafficking, there are 400 or 500 people there. They are everywhere, with flags, lunches and dinners. It is a sort of social merry-go-round. I have never known so many people to be involved in the issue of trafficking.
Yet there remains one indisputable fact, and it is the most telling: only 25 hostel places have been created for trafficked women, and they are all in London. However, they are regularly empty, and only 16 of the 25 beds—two thirds—were being used this morning. What happened to the other third? There are only 25 places in London, but what about the rest of the country?
Those places are in the Poppy Project, to which the Government give sizeable grants, and I pay tribute to them for that. In answer to every parliamentary question on this issue over the past three months, Ministers have said that the Poppy Project is the answer, but the project is 25 hostel beds in London alone, of which only 16 are currently being used. Furthermore, the arrangement is only short term, unlike the Rome scheme. An average stay is four weeks, but it is three years in the Rome hostel, because that is what the girls need. What happens to the trafficked women after four weeks?
There is one further problem. I wonder whether the Minister knows that the Poppy Project refuses to take minors and has turned away 70 children under the age of 18 this year. What has happened to them? The Minister will know how inadequately resourced local authorities are, and none has specific accommodation for such cases. What will the Minister say about that? Will he find out for me and the House what has happened to each of those 70 children? Will he then write to me and place a copy of that letter in the Library?
Finally, without missionary zeal, the British Government will, by default, be condoning child slavery, and I fear that things could get worse once Romania and Bulgaria join the EU in a few weeks’ time.
Order. Could I make a further plea from the Chair? A lot of people want to speak, and I want to get them all in. Speeches of four minutes would be warmly welcomed, and hon. Members who go much beyond that will see me tapping my pen on the table.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate and on enabling us to have a wide-ranging discussion about a problem that should be recognised as shameful for both the world and the United Kingdom, particularly in this century. We will soon commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of slave trading in the UK, although slavery has not, of course, disappeared. I shall concentrate on one appalling aspect of present-day slavery: the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. I shall look particularly at what is happening in the UK and discuss what we might do about it.
We should be in no doubt that we are talking about an international trade and business, whose value is estimated to be $7 billion per annum. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not know for certain what the numbers are, but it is estimated that in any one year there are about 4,000 trafficked women here in the UK. Operation Pentameter has referred to a 14-year-old Lithuanian girl being sold for £8,000 because she was a virgin, while the Crown Prosecution Service has commented on the outrageous fact that slave auctions take place in the lounges of our airports. The trade in trafficked women and children is taking place before our eyes in such places, and it is beyond comprehension that no action is taken against it.
I was both pleased and disturbed to meet the group of young women who had been trafficked, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. They were brought together through a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children programme, which was organised by ECPAT. All those young African women had been trafficked, and I was struck not only by their numbers, but by the way in which, almost without emotion, they recounted the dreadful stories of what had happened to them. It was as if they somehow no longer had the capacity to feel anything about what had happened to them and about how their lives had been destroyed, although the NSPCC was trying to help them rebuild their lives through its programme. I was particularly concerned to hear that one of the girls had been taken to a flat in Liverpool.
Many countries are involved in the trade, including countries in Africa, the far east and, increasingly, eastern Europe. In some circumstances, force is used; in others, deception, with women and children believing that they are coming to a better life. At a Pentameter meeting in the House, I heard what typically happens. Young women and children in other countries are sold—sometimes without their knowledge—by impoverished and ignorant families. They believe that they are going to a better life and a better job. They then travel, sometimes passing through several countries, not knowing which country they will arrive in. Their passports are taken from them, and they are taken to unknown premises where they are raped repeatedly. They are then told that they must repay their debts and are forced into prostitution. That takes place in several different places, such as explicit brothels or massage parlours, but also in suburban flats and anonymous houses.
What should be done? We need a combination of actions, as suggested in the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We should step up anti-poverty measures in countries of origin, because much of the trade is encouraged by poverty and by people’s desperate circumstances. There should also be stronger international action against organised crime and trafficking, and more consistent and comprehensive assistance to victims.
The Government have made some efforts to deal with the issue. New offences have been created to prosecute trafficking, some of which were brought into effect only two years ago. There is also support for victims through the Poppy Project, which has now been expanded. Operation Pentameter, too, has done excellent work. I also welcome the setting up in Sheffield of the UK trafficking centre, which is an inter-agency organisation bringing together the police, the immigration service, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service and others. The centre deals with traffickers and victims, as well as looking at enforcement, intelligence gathering and the care of victims, but such measures need to be comprehensive and nationwide.
I join the calls for the implementation of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. I do not accept that it would be a pull factor for prostitution; instead, I think that it would address the real and cruel situation in which so many young people find themselves.
Recently, on the international day for the abolition of slavery, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated:
“Contemporary forms of slavery—from bonded labour to human trafficking—are flourishing as a result of discrimination, social exclusion and vulnerability exacerbated by poverty”,
and I would add exploitation by criminal gangs to that list. He also observed:
“The movement against slavery was the first campaign to bring together the international community in the struggle against gross human rights violations.”
We should all recognise that we now need a new, concerted effort to end a scandal that disgraces both the world and our country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this important debate and on his chairmanship of the all-party group, on which I serve as treasurer. I know that he is determined that we should get things done rather than just talk. I welcome the Minister, who I know is very concerned about the issue. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who set out the problem so clearly. It is amazing that a young woman is probably being sold for between £4,000 and £4,500 at Heathrow today.
We are talking principally about slavery, not prostitution. The fact is that women are held against their will and given no choice but to have sex with men. Such things have happened so many times that people are now beginning to realise that they are happening. If one talks to any hard-nosed police officer, he will say that there are sex slaves in every town in this country.
Let me give hon. Members one example, of a woman whom I will call Sarah. She was one of the young women who came to the House and she was saved by the NSPCC. She was 16, I believe; she was from Africa and she was attractive. She came to this country when she was 14, arriving through immigration with a middle-aged white man, with a passport that was not hers and did not even have a picture of her on it, yet she was allowed into this country. She was locked up in a flat and forced to have sex with men continually. Thankfully, she escaped after a few days, came to London and heard someone speaking the language of her home country; that person took her to the authorities and she was then protected. She was an extremely lucky young lady, but there are thousands of others who are not.
You might say, Sir Nicholas, that the problem is a big city problem, which happens in Liverpool, Manchester or London. But the truth is that it is everywhere. I was at my surgery one day in Northamptonshire and a letter dropped through the letter box. It was an anonymous letter from a local prostitute, who said that she was approaching me not because she was losing trade, but because she wanted to tell me about Albanian gangs in Northampton who were ruthlessly exploiting women whom they had trafficked into this country. I went to see the police, and they told me, “Yes, that is happening, and we have taken action.” They had raided a brothel in Northamptonshire and released several young women whom they suspected had been trafficked. However, none of the women was prepared to say so, because they were so scared about what would happen. They thought that they would be returned home and that their families would be persecuted. Very cleverly, Northamptonshire police prosecuted the Albanians on the basis that they were here illegally, and got rid of them in that way. The point is that the problem affects every part of the country.
It might also be thought that the problem is nothing to do with the House of Commons—that it is nowhere nearby. Well, I walked across the bridge to St. Thomas’s hospital and, unannounced, I went to the sexual health clinic. That little room was packed with young women, virtually all of whom were foreign. None could speak English. There were young, eastern European men there. They might be thought to be loving, kind partners, concerned about the young women’s welfare, but I do not think so, because when one of the young women made a bolt for the door to escape, a man, swearing, chased after her. I have no idea whether the young woman got away. Right on our doorstep there are trafficked women who are being forced to be slaves.
I know that time is limited, so I want to end with some questions to the Minister. I think that a number of things can be done, some very easily. One is publicity. Perhaps every brothel in the country could have a notice telling young women that if they are trafficked they will not be persecuted by the police, that they will be looked after and that there is a telephone number they can call. That is simple and would work. The notice could also be put up in ports and railway stations. Northamptonshire police took the initiative when they discovered the problem. What happens if at 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening a beat bobby comes across a young woman who says, “I’ve been trafficked.”? Until the recent initiative there was no procedure, but now every police officer in Northamptonshire knows what to do, where to take the young woman, and how to treat her. It does not cost any money and is a simple procedure.
We talked briefly about immigration control and I think that that is one of the keys. Again, such a measure would not cost a lot of money. However, the most important thing is to have safe houses across the country where young victims can be looked after for a year or two—because it can take that long for a case to come to court. It is no good looking after them for a couple of months and sending them home, because there will then be no chance of continuing the prosecution. The victims will be got at in their home country. I do not quite understand why we are not signing the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but leaving that aside, let us bring in legislation or regulations to provide safe houses. That would help greatly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow him when we are on the same side of the debate. On this occasion his speech is the longer and mine will be the shorter.
As hon. Members will know, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, recently completed a lengthy inquiry and published its report. It is widely accepted that trafficking of human beings is not merely a criminal justice or migration issue, but a significant human rights issue too. There is a positive legal obligation on states to investigate, prosecute and punish traffickers, but in accordance with human rights standards, the effective protection of victims must be the starting point.
The hon. Member for Totnes rightly drew a distinction between trafficking and smuggling. Far too many people confuse the two. The essence of trafficking is that people are coerced, conned or kidnapped, and exploited. Smuggling is a voluntary activity, which is always illegal, and does not involve the exploitation at the end of the process.
The scale of the activity is a big issue. People have spoken about 4,000 women in sex slavery, but those are old numbers from 2003 which I believe to be a significant underestimate. Ten years ago, 85 per cent. of women in brothels were born in the UK, whereas now 85 per cent. are born overseas. We have no idea of the number of children who have been trafficked—not just for sex purposes, but also for labour exploitation. We have no idea, either, of the number coming as adults for labour exploitation. Each of those individuals is a real life story.
It is true that trafficking and exploitation are going on everywhere. Even my local newspaper in Edgware reported under the heading “Sex slave gang jailed” the appalling kidnapping and exploitation of a Lithuanian woman. The focus in the debate and in the country has always been on the sex trade, but I should like to mention one or two other aspects as well. Children may be smuggled for domestic service, often through family and community links. It is often a cultural practice, going back to Africa where the tradition is that people are farmed out to relatives for food and education and to be cared for. They come here and are exploited, often as a result of debt bondage of the family in the source country. We even heard evidence in our Committee of children from Vietnam being brought here to farm cannabis, looking after the plants in the greenhouses.
Domestic workers are also exploited and subjected to violence and abuse. Under the new visa rules, which we want changed, they cannot change their employer, so they are trapped. A third of domestic workers are not allowed out. Some, we heard, sleep in corridors or under the kitchen table. Agriculture is a source of labour exploitation, too. We heard from the TUC of a case in which legal Portuguese workers had to pretend to be illegal Brazilians pretending to be legal Portuguese, so that they would be open to exploitation by the employer. That was bizarre.
Our Committee found that the Government were doing quite well on enforcement, but we were extremely concerned about the lack of a victim-centred approach. We want a rebalancing of the Government’s initiative. There is inconsistency in approaches around the country, primarily because of a lack of training and knowledge. Victims are often seen as criminals themselves or as illegal migrants, rather than as the victims of horrific crime, multiple rape and slavery. They are often taken straight to the removal centre for deportation. The Home Office operates a case-by-case approach, whose discretionary basis gives no guarantee against arbitrary removal. People can often be removed even while they are deciding whether they want to support a prosecution. The fear and trauma that those women have experienced is often underestimated by the authorities. The Poppy Project gave us a very good example, when we went to see it. Not one of its clients had been given asylum on the first decision, although many succeeded on appeal.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I have limited time. The trafficker of the Ukrainian woman we met had been convicted, had served a lengthy prison sentence and been discharged from prison, yet she was still waiting for a decision on her asylum case. That cannot be right.
We identified very poor levels of support for children, which is inevitably organised through local authorities, which do not have the resources, training or knowledge to recognise victims of that serious crime and treat them any differently from other looked-after children.
We need a victim-centred approach. We must research the scale of the problem across the board, and publish the research and the material that gives rise to it. We must have much better training in the identification of victims and potential victims by the police, immigration and local authorities. The point has been well made about warnings at airports, and in particular an eye should be kept out for unaccompanied minors, who are often unaware that they are victims of trafficking.
On that point, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Poppy Project refuses to take under-18s?
I am aware of that. It is not allowed to take them because they are minors and must go to the care of local authorities. That is the problem: the law does not allow it to take them.
We must stop treating the victims as criminals, and we must end the risk of arbitrary removal. We must provide the basic support through NGOs such as the Poppy Project, which estimates that we need double the number of beds that it has. More important is security of funding, instead of the year-on-year funding that leaves organisations unsure of their future position. We need better support and advice for victims—especially legal advice, to help them to prosecute effective applications for residency. We would also like cultural mediators with the experience, language and knowledge of the country of origin to help to bridge the gap between the victim and the authorities. We need to help to reintegrate victims back in the source countries, if that is where they want to go, but then we have to deal with the risk of re-trafficking. Twenty per cent. of Poppy Project clients were re-trafficked, and one had been resold by her family within three days of being returned to the source country.
There is great vulnerability in the countries of origin, and we need much better education of potential victims. We heard of Italy’s good practice in that respect. We must put the victim at the centre of the process, and care of them must be a much higher priority than enforcement. The key to that is the reflection period recommended by the Council of Europe convention. The Joint Committee wanted to go further and recommended a three-month reflection period and residency permission, rather than the number of weeks stated in the convention.
I know that time is limited, and I had planned to say more about the convention. Rather than go through the details, I will simply say this: the Government’s argument is the pull factor. They say that if we treat victims humanely, they will be encouraged to come to this country and make fraudulent claims. I believe that the Minister was embarrassed by the brief that he had been given when he advanced that argument in oral evidence to the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee’s report states:
“Given that trafficking takes place under conditions of coercion or deception such a claim would not of course make sense. It is not credible to suggest that a woman would voluntarily submit to indeterminate sexual slavery of the most brutal kind for the purpose of obtaining UK residency.”
It simply makes no sense whatever for a woman to go through that horrible, traumatic experience to make a fraudulent claim.
I ask the Minister to respond to the Joint Committee’s conclusions that the Government should sign and ratify the convention. Signing is not enough. The UK is one of only a handful of countries that have not signed, but another seven countries are needed to ratify the convention. I would also ask him to respond positively to our recommendations for the better care of victims.
I know that many Members want to speak. I hope that when we have the Government’s response we can, through the good offices of the Liaison Committee, secure a three-hour debate on the issue, as there is much more to be said about it. The Government need to get a grip on looking after victims much more effectively than they have so far.
I am absolutely amazed that I agree exactly with the last point that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate on a very important subject. It is related to a problem that I have been working on for some considerable time, as the Minister knows to his cost—he has experienced some ear-bashing. The issue of paedophiles is related, although we have not touched on it.
I am astonished by my hon. Friend’s timing. There was a report in The Times today about a lonely little funeral on 5 December at a London cemetery. It was for a little boy called Adam who was four, or perhaps five or six—we do not really know. He was called Adam, but nobody knows what his real name was. He was found some five years ago—or at least bits of him were—floating in the Thames. The police think that he had been smuggled here from Nigeria for a Muti ritual murder. He was smuggled in for, in effect, dissection—possibly while alive—and murdered. We do not know how much of that is going on.
There has been close co-operation in this Parliament between the Conservatives and the Government on dealing with paedophiles. The Government had the good sense to set up a small taskforce—in fact, the Minister and I should be at a meeting at this very time, but we cannot attend because of the importance of this debate. The taskforce has introduced many organisations, police representatives and some MPs who are particularly interested in the subject to each other. They have broken down the issues and split into groups to work on them. The taskforce could easily include people trafficking, as it is closely related. The Minister might like to think about that.
My particular interest in this debate is on the side of children. There is growing evidence that paedophiles may be using trafficking as an opportunity. Children are smuggled into this country for sex—very little children, in many cases. Some paedophiles are looking for children who are still in nappies. It is extremely easy to smuggle them through immigration as children, nephews and so on. They are brought in for domestic slavery, for benefit fraud, for Muti ritual killing and for adoption. But are we sure that it is adoption? Are they being brought in nominally for adoption but actually for other purposes?
I do not often support the Government, but they—or at least the law enforcement agencies in this country—are making some progress. There has been close co-operation, surprising as that might be to some of the speakers in this debate, between the police in this country and police forces in some rather unusual countries. A criminal gang working on adoption in Czechoslovakia were caught by a combined effort of the Metropolitan Police and the Czech Republic police. I hope and expect that that sort of thing will continue.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency has been set up and has a special duty to look into such activities. That is a good move, and the Metropolitan Police, virtually off their own bat, are working closely on Operation Paladin Child at Heathrow. There is much co-operation between Customs, the immigration service and the Metropolitan Police, but they are looking at only one airport, and there are many others.
I have already run through my four minutes. Will the Minister think carefully about more research? I take the points that other hon. Members have made, but we really do not know what we are tackling. The little taskforce that he and I should be working on this afternoon has had vast success. Perhaps its interests could be slightly extended, as its work has already been fragmented into specific topics, and I believe that trafficking is a related issue.
We must move forward. There will be co-operation across the House, and the Minister will find, as his predecessor did, that any legislative changes that have been thought through will go through simply, easily and with careful thought to the benefit of this country.
The hon. Gentleman has set a fine example to other hon. Members. I call Lorely Burt and say to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is also rising, that as long as his colleague is fairly brief, he will get in as well.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I shall be brief.
I would like to add my commendation to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing this important debate. He spoke specifically about children. The only thing that I have to add is a chilling statistic that I read the other day: each week, approximately 100 unaccompanied children arrive at the immigration centre in Croydon, and 80 of them disappear without trace. The strong belief is that the vast majority are being taken for trafficking. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), I want to talk about the women’s perspective.
There are few issues that are more suited to international co-operation than dealing with human trafficking. As several hon. Members have said, the UK Government have been called on to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which calls for joint, co-operative action on trafficking. It includes the 90-day reflection period that several Members have mentioned. The Government have said that they are reflecting on the matter and have been gathering evidence of best practice in respect of the convention from other EU member states. However, 33 out of 45 Council of Europe member states have already signed the convention, so I would be interested to know from the Minister what further evidence of best practice the Government need before this country signs up as well.
It seems that the main barrier to the Government’s signing of the treaty is the 90-day reflection period. They fear that a mandatory period would, in the words of Baroness Scotland,
“act as an immigration pull factor, encourage spurious claims, and be used by those who have no right to remain in an effort to frustrate removal.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 July 2005; Vol. 673, c. WA77.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) asked the Prime Minister if he was aware that in Italy, where protection is at least as good as that recommended in the convention, if not better, there is no evidence of a pull factor, that 100 times as many women have been saved as in the UK and that there have been 100 times as many prosecutions. He asked the Prime Minister whether he would
“reflect again for the sake of the victims of trafficking, and allow the UK to sign the convention”.
The Prime Minister replied: “I will reflect again.” The Government have now had since May 2005 to reflect, and the Prime Minster has had a further five months since he made that statement, considerably longer than the 90 days proposed in the convention. Does the notion of illegal floodgates opening have any substance? How many people could we actually be talking about?
It is impossible to tell how big the number of trafficked people really is. I was heartened to learn about the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which is a Government co-ordinated policing initiative based in Sheffield and involves 55 police forces from all over the UK. As other hon. Members have mentioned, Operation Pentameter has rescued 84 trafficked women, 12 of whom were between the ages of 14 and 17.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the one thing that the Government could do immediately to enhance those efforts would be to set up a national helpline? It would not cost much money, could be properly publicised and would give a point of contact for anyone who has information or who needs help.
That is an excellent idea. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that.
I cannot underestimate the importance of giving those poor women a little time to recover so that they can get themselves into a reasonable state to give evidence and to make decisions on their future. A report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, among others, concluded:
“Trafficking often has a profound impact on the health and well-being of women. The forms of abuse and risks that women experience include physical, sexual and psychological abuse, the forced or coerced use of drugs and alcohol, social restrictions and manipulation, economic exploitation and debt bondage, legal insecurity, abusive working and living conditions, and a range of risks associated with being a migrant and/or marginalised”.
In that study on violence and injury during trafficking, 95 per cent. of respondents reported physical or sexual violence, 90 per cent. reported being sexually assaulted, 75 per cent. reported being physically hurt, 36 per cent. reported threats to their family and 77 per cent. reported having no freedom of movement. A report by Amnesty International on its three-year study on trafficked women, “Stolen Smiles”, which was published in 2006, also found that severe health consequences were symptomatic of women who had been trafficked. The report urges specialised health care for the victims of trafficking for a minimum of 90 days after they have been removed from the situation: a “reflection period”. In light of all that, in the name of humanity will the Government conclude their reflection and sign and ratify the European convention?
Will the hon. Gentleman please be brief to let the winding-up speakers have their full time?
I should be less than four minutes, Sir Nicholas.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights who carried out the inquiry, I want to thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for the service that he has done the House in introducing the debate. I thank hon. Members for speaking so briefly so that we could all get in, particularly the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) who will have had much more to say because of the excellent report by the Committee that he chaired. I will not repeat any of the points he made, because I agree with them all and with the way in which he put them.
I want to make two points. The first is about the convention. We should sign the convention so that we implement its provisions, as they will mean that victims can be treated better in terms of their human rights. Much more importantly, we need those protections because that is how we will find more of the victims. The Government’s approach, which is to say that if we find them we will carry out a case-by-case analysis, does not reassure people with the knowledge that they will get a proper period of reflection and the hope of being well treated in the longer term in this country, such as by being retrained, as they are in Italy where that in part produces tens—if not hundreds—of times more referrals. We are not identifying people here.
If the Government are to stick to their view that there is concern about a pull factor—I am interested to hear the Minister’s view—is there any evidence of such a factor from countries that operate the system? In Italy, we could find none and we asked everyone we met on every occasion.
Finally, I want to say a word about men, and it is about time we did. The demand for prostitution feeds the demand for trafficked women. Hundreds of thousands of men in this country use prostitutes; that is the sad fact. We need more data. The Government talk about doing research, and the sooner we can get hold of some decent figures the better. I do not think that we will ever get rid of prostitution, but we need to ensure that men who use trafficked prostitutes are a source of referrals, as they are in Italy. A helpline such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) is used in Italy and there are significant numbers of referrals from men.
We said in our report that
“it is clearly inconsistent for the authorities to suggest that men who use the services of a prostitute who has been trafficked will be prosecuted for rape, especially given the legal obstacles to successful prosecution, and at the same time urge such men to report such activity to the authorities or a helpline. While we understand and recognise the reasons why politicians of all parties have called for prosecution of such men for rape, it does appear that this may have been counter-productive.”
We were led to that conclusion. Clearly, one can understand that those women are not consenting but I do not think—neither do most of the legal authorities that I have spoken to—that it would be possible to convict for rape on that basis. We should use the ability of those men to provide information to rescue the women and at the same time continue the efforts under Operation Pentameter to educate men who use prostitutes that they should not use those women who have been coerced, because it is equivalent to rape and to multiple rape. It is not merely a crime but a moral outrage. I hope the Government will understand—I know that the Minister feels strongly about the matter—and will consider all the representations that they have heard today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his co-operation. If the two Opposition spokesmen could allow the Minister 10 minutes to wind up this important debate, the House would be grateful.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. Human trafficking is an increasingly troubling and despicable trade and it merits such a substantial discussion.
Of course, by the nature of the practice we have only estimates to work from but we know that several thousand people in the UK have been trafficked into the country and we have reason to believe that that number is increasing year on year. All hon. Members will be aware that human trafficking is not simply a case of illegal entry into the country. The aim of human trafficking is to exploit its victims, almost always the weakest and most vulnerable, more often than not in modern-day slavery. Hardly a week goes by without media reports about the horrifying ordeals so many women and children—and men—are subjected to as a result of human trafficking, mostly associated with the sex industry.
Before I outline my objections to current policy, I want to say a few words about where I see common ground between the Liberal Democrats and the Government. It would be unfair to say that the Government and law enforcement agencies had been totally inactive. A number of positive steps have been taken to crack down on such awful crimes, but we contend that not enough is yet being done. The establishment of the UK Human Trafficking Centre to join up a number of agencies is a welcome move and it would be useful if the Minister could update us this afternoon on how the system is working in its admittedly relatively early stages.
Improved outreach services for trafficked women are also to be welcomed and it is only fair to acknowledge the emphasis the Government placed on the issue during their presidency of the EU in 2005: I refer to the EU action plan on human trafficking. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on the issue and that is in relation to the European convention against trafficking in human beings.
Only a couple of months ago, our party conference passed a resolution unanimously calling on the Government to ratify the convention and to consider further measures aimed at improving transnational co-operation on this vital issue. Further to that, we are calling on the Government to put as much pressure as possible on new members of the EU and future members to put in place rigorous anti-trafficking policies. In our view, that should be a fundamental issue for any country that wishes to join the EU. Although there have been a number of successful police operations that have liberated dozens of women from sex slavery over the past few years, we urge the Government to encourage more intelligence-led operations against traffickers and those who profit from their vile trade.
Human trafficking, whether for prostitution, child slavery or the purposes of the black economy, is a trade of international proportions. It is estimated to be worth about $7 billion a year. As the standard note on the subject explains, the trade is similar in financial terms to drug trafficking. The problem therefore requires a Europe-wide response, and I believe that the convention offers an excellent way forward. Our view is backed by Amnesty International and UNICEF, which both say that the convention would be a vital tool in the fight against that abhorrent practice.
Human trafficking is a terrible crime; all too often it takes advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable in society, and it involves victims who have been tricked or violently coerced into leaving their homes. The convention recognises that fact in a way that Government policy does not. It is my view and that of my party that we should protect the rights of those who have been exploited as well as increasing our efforts to bring down the criminal organisations who perpetuate such human misery. It is not good enough for the Government to advocate a lottery for the victims of trafficking when deciding whether someone should benefit from a period of reflection once their status has been discovered. Such consideration should be mandatory.
Although much of the convention involves compassion for the victims, it also offers an effective way to crack the criminal networks that organise human trafficking. If all European Union countries were to be bound by the convention, our intelligence on the gangs that instigate human trafficking would be vastly improved. That would put a major dent in their operations. By working with victims instead of criminalising them, we would have a much greater chance of securing prosecutions.
In addition, I believe that the Government could do more to raise the profile of those crimes, and they should encourage members of the public to report suspected cases of trafficking, along the lines suggested earlier, and of people being used as slaves. It would be reassuring to hear how the Government intend working with employers, trade unions and councils, both to support the victims of trafficking and to monitor employment sectors vulnerable to traffickers.
The Government have dithered and deliberated on the convention for long enough, and members on both sides of the House have pressed them on the issue. I hope that we will receive an assurance this afternoon that the UK will be moving towards ratification; it would send a strong signal to people traffickers that the leadership of the EU is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness.
The Prime Minister said that Britain must use the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery to redouble our efforts against human trafficking. It is a shameful business, and it is a disgrace that Britain has not yet signed up to the European convention. I hope that the Minister will say that we are at last moving towards that vital treaty.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his brevity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) deserves more than the conventional congratulations on securing this debate. He deserves our gratitude for the energy and passion with which he pursues the issue through the all-party group.
Trafficking is partly about the sex trade but not wholly. It is also about providing cheap labour for unscrupulous employers in other fields. That is one reason why Opposition Members believe that control of our borders is vital. Steps to restore confidence in our immigration system and our borders would, among other benefits, discourage that evil trade, which as Members on both sides have said has attracted some of the most unpleasant criminal gangs in the world. At its worst, the trade is literally murderous. The cockle pickers at Morecambe bay and the Chinese people who died in the lorry at Folkestone were two tragedies that remind us of the real cost of the trade even without the horrors of the sex trade or of the paedophile trade mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).
Clearly, however, the sex trade is a big focus. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is right: the trade is not restricted to our big cities. He knows of examples of it happening in Northamptonshire, and I have heard of it happening in prosperous towns in Kent.
The facts are difficult to gain, but the estimates are staggering. It is thought that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked around the world every year. Closer to home, one newspaper has estimated that Britain has 4,000 massage parlours raking in something like £770 million a year. To answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) about how many people are involved, the best guess seems to be that more than 250,000 men are spending at least £6.6 million a year on saunas and other sex-related commercial activities. What strikes me, as it has Members on both sides of the chamber, is how difficult it is to get hold of the facts. That was illustrated most starkly by a Home Office report of a few years ago that included the findings of a report by the university of London, which estimated that in 1998 between 142 and 1,420 women may have been trafficked into the UK. With an uncertainty factor of 10, it is clearly difficult to know the full scale of the problem. However, as others have said, we know that it is modern-day slavery.
We also know that after the drugs trade, it is the second biggest criminal industry in the world, with about the same value as arms dealing. However, it is also the fastest growing. It is closely connected with other illegal activities, and the FBI estimates that it generates about $9.5 billion a year. It is a huge and fast-growing business.
The Government have taken steps to try to combat the industry, and the small initiatives that they have taken are clearly to be welcomed. However, the Minister will be aware that, if anything, the problem in the UK is worsening. Under the Government’s initiatives, some women have been rescued. It was found that they had come from every corner of the world. We have seen girls as young as 15 coming here from other parts of Europe, some of them from countries that are now members of the EU, and being forced into prostitution. The problem needs more attention.
The Minister will have heard a wide range of suggestions this afternoon. I particularly endorse that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing); a helpline would be a relatively easy and extremely effective innovation in the fight against that evil trade. However, more still needs to be done. The greater distribution of information and better education are needed, using specific profiling in order to target those most at risk. Schemes could identify the specific ages and home locations, and the industries, the work forces and the social backgrounds of the most vulnerable women.
We have seen, in other parts of the world, that such programmes can make a difference. In the longer term, it is important for our international aid and development efforts to encourage academic and economic opportunities in developing countries where human trafficking is an endemic problem. There was a particularly successful programme in Nepal, from where the trafficking of girls to India for prostitution is prevalent; the programme had a measurable effect.
We also need to change policing priorities in the UK. The Minister will know that the Opposition have been calling for some time for a specific border control force that combines the powers of immigration officers, customs officers and police officers. We believe that we would gain from enhancing police expertise in that way. We also need greater co-operation between the Government and overseas police forces. It is an international effort and it needs international solutions.
The Minister will have heard much about the Council of Europe’s convention, and he will have heard the many views that have been expressed about it. I would be particularly interested to hear the Government’s reasons for deciding that it is impossible to sign the convention. It will be no surprise to the Minister that Members on both sides of the House are considering the convention closely.
Finally, I ask the Minister to address the issues raised by several of my hon. Friends. It is not only the convention that is important; even if we signed it, it would not provide the whole solution. A wide range of activities, some of which we can and should be taking now, would mitigate the effects of human trafficking. It is a horrible trade and it needs to be fought as effectively as possible. If the Government take steps to do so, they will have the support of everyone from across the House.
I thank all hon. Members for their contribution to the debate. They have raised their points in a constructive if challenging way that will help us to take this issue forward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his contribution and on securing the debate, which is important in deciding how to make progress. I am also pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and other members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights are here.
It is important that we start by accepting that everybody in this room and every single Member of Parliament wants an end to this trade. There is no division, conflict or controversy between anyone about the fact that every single one of us does not want to see a single child, woman or man brought into this country for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation. We need to start from that point of being united in a common goal.
We need to try and find a way forward and I will outline some of the steps that the Government have taken in working with Members of Parliament, the voluntary sector, non-governmental organisations and others. I have a big list of answers to a whole range of questions and, because of the limited time available, it would be helpful for me to write with answers to the various questions of all hon. Members, and, indeed, to others who have not had the opportunity to contribute. I will simply not be able to go through all the points in any meaningful or sensible way that would do justice to the issues that people have raised. If hon. Members are happy with that I will undertake to write to them.
We have had a number of suggestions: a telephone helpline, the need for stricter border controls, raising the profile of the issue, action in source countries, cross-government working, a victim-centred approach, research, and training. All of those points are important in the work we are doing and I will talk about that in a moment. All the suggestions made by hon. Members and my hon. Friends are important and the Government are looking at them to see what sort of help and contribution they can make to tackling the trade at source and when people arrive in this country.
Where are we now? Well, the UK is determined to tackle this terrible crime and in doing so we have been mindful of the needs of victims, but also of the need to have an effective law enforcement strategy to bring the perpetrators of this awful crime to justice. As some hon. Members have mentioned, we have introduced significant and specific legislation dealing with the offence of trafficking. Initial legislation came under section 145 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. That was then replaced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. On 1 May, offences came into force to provide a specific law to deal with trafficking. Those dedicated trafficking offences carry a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment, which is an important contribution to the law enforcement effort. The legislation deals with trafficking into the UK, within the UK and out of the UK.
Alongside that, having outlined the main offence we have introduced for sexual exploitation, we have introduced Acts to deal with non-sexual exploitation. On 1 December 2004 the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Act 2004 came into force and section 4 of that Act introduced a new offence of trafficking people for exploitation. That was the first time that trafficking for non-sexual forms of exploitation, including forced labour and debt bondage, have been made the subject of specific criminal offences. Those offences carry a maximum sentence available to the courts of 14 years imprisonment. The combination of that offence and the offences of trafficking for sexual exploitation means that any trafficking is now a very serious offence and rightly carries serious penalties.
Hon. Members have referred to the success of Operation Pentameter and we wanted to build on that work. Therefore, we decided to establish a UK action plan because we knew that following Pentameter, there was still an awful lot to do. As a result of consultation, the Government are in the process of developing a UK action plan. For the benefit of hon. Members, I will outline the key areas that it will address: first, prevention; secondly, law enforcement and prosecution; thirdly, protection and assistance to adult victims; fourthly, protection and assistance to child victims; and fifthly, labour exploitation. We are trying to deal with all of the various issues that hon. Members have raised through the action plan.
We will carefully consider how activity in support of the plan will be delivered through the inter-ministerial group on human trafficking, and some of my hon. Friends from the Department for Education and Skills are involved with that—although not specifically the Minister for Children. We hope to deal with many of the issues raised in this debate through the action plan and believe that it will be introduced early in the new year around February or March.
What about tackling immigration at the ports of entry? Something could be done on that immediately.
We have tightened up the visa regulations in respect of children and they are now required to have a passport on their visa. There also has to be an identified adult travelling with them and training is given to immigration officials on that. So we have tried to do an awful lot in respect of children coming into the country. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point about children being interviewed separately, if the child is in distress, immigration officers will interview that child separately from an adult to try and determine whether there is a particular problem.
We have also established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which I was delighted to formally open in October. The centre will support the overarching aim of moving the UK to a leading position in relation to the prevention and investigation of trafficking. As we know, child trafficking is a particular issue and the Government, as hon. Members will be aware, are researching the scale and scope of the problem.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) mentioned the international front and we have done a lot internationally through the establishment of the EU action plan. The Home Secretary spoke recently at the G6 and there was an expert seminar to try and replicate Operation Pentameter across Europe. The UN will be holding a special conference on the issue of trafficking some time in the new year.
On the Council of Europe, the Government are still considering their position. Regarding the point that some hon. Members made, irrespective of our decision whether or not we sign the convention, we believe we have made good progress both on law enforcement and victim support. We know that there is a lot more to do in both those areas and we will continue to work with our partners to make progress on those issues. Law enforcement will be spearheaded by the UK Human Trafficking Centre, by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and by the local police who will do everything they possibly can to bring the perpetrators of this vile trade to justice. I applaud the effort they have made.
However, we also want to carry on working alongside local authorities, voluntary organisations and non-governmental organisations in continuing to extend and develop the support that we give to victims of this vile trade. Together, we will be able to improve what we do, support victims and bring those who perpetrate the trade to justice.