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Trafficking of Women

Volume 455: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

1. What assessment he has made of the link between domestic violence and trafficking of women; and if he will make a statement. (114675)

The Government are committed to tackling all forms of gender-based violence through our national action plans, including those for domestic violence, sexual violence and trafficking. I fully support the multiple aims of the European convention on human trafficking and we participated actively in the negotiations for it. I believe that the signing of the convention and the protection framework it imposes for victims of trafficking remain a primary goal for the Government.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very helpful reply. Is he aware that in the Ukraine, in the first ever parliamentary session on domestic violence, which I was privileged to address, it was estimated that more than 50 per cent. of people who are trafficked have suffered from domestic violence? Will the Home Secretary work with his European colleagues to ensure that we prevent these serial abuses of women? I encourage him to sign the European convention and to work hard to ensure that this valuable piece of European legislation comes into force as quickly as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has taken a keen interest in these matters. As regards domestic violence in this country, she will know that we have already taken a number of steps. For instance, every local authority has a local strategy to deal with domestic violence and there are domestic violence co-ordinators to meet the general strategic line that the Government have set out on this matter.

I also agree with my hon. Friend on the question of the European convention and I have made it plain that I fully support the multiple aims of the European convention on human trafficking. As I said, we participated actively in the negotiations for it. Obviously and as my hon. Friend would expect, I have wanted to make sure in my considerations that the convention is absolutely compatible with our enforcement of managed immigration into this country. However, I repeat that I believe that the signing of the convention and the protection framework that it imposes for dealing with victims of trafficking remains a primary goal for the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend will not have too long at all to wait—[Laughter]—until we have completed our assessment of its compatibility with managing immigration, which people of this country, despite the laughs of Conservative Members, take very seriously. When we are assured of that, we will go ahead and sign the convention.

It is not only a question of dealing with trafficked women, but with trafficked children. Is the Home Secretary aware that it was announced yesterday that 48 young children in five local authorities—some as young as 10—had disappeared from local authority social services care and had never been found? What is his view on that matter, bearing in mind the fact that the Government have no central data at all on where trafficked children are? They will not provide the information and nobody knows where they are, what they are doing or where they are going.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that trafficked children, as well as trafficked women, are involved. Indeed, I was checking the figures this morning, as the hon. Gentleman will know that we are not waiting until we have signed the convention before taking action. For instance, Operation Pentameter—a three-month national enforcement operation—identified 84 potential victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, 12 of whom were minors or children. Through about 343 operations, we have been able to disrupt the problem, but it remains a very serious matter to me.

On systems of data collection, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a subject close to my heart. I have asked my Cabinet colleagues for an overall review of all data collection relating to criminality. The volume and mobility of criminality and the easy transportation that is possible nowadays mean that we are living in a different age. As illustrated by some of the problems that we face, the old systems have not always been able to cope. Now that that is obvious to me in one particular direction, I want to extend consideration of data collection right across the board. I hope that that will meet the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that, where the victims of trafficking are brought to his attention and where they have co-operated with the police, we will not be as eager as we have been in the past to remove them from the UK? Can we have assurances that women who have come forward or been discovered by the authorities will be given exceptional leave to remain?

I have discussed the matter with my ministerial colleagues. The issue is getting the balance right between ensuring, on the one hand, that that which is intended for good purpose, including the protection of those who have been the victims of this terrible trade, is achieved, and on the other, that we do not allow the abuse of the system that is meant to protect them by those who would use it for illegal entry. It is precisely ensuring that correct balance that has caused such prolonged deliberation on my part, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will not adopt a prima facie position that everyone must be removed. We have to look at a balance between managing immigration and humanitarian considerations, and therefore judge matters on a case-by-case basis.

Having looked at the issue of trafficked women in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, we are encouraged by what the Home Secretary has said about the Government’s intention. However, it is a question of leadership. We are not alone in failing to sign the convention and I am convinced that if this country signed, many other countries would follow suit.

In terms of the convention itself, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I hope that he accepts the point that I have made: both sides of the House want to see us take a compassionate and protective step in relation to the victims, but they want us to ensure that, when we do so, we do it in a way that is commensurate with our obligation to the people of this country to manage immigration.

As regards the data collection point and exchange of information and our co-operation with our European colleagues at various levels, I take that very seriously. This morning, I had a helpful discussion with Commissioner Franco Frattini in order to impress on him the need to carry forward more quickly stronger modifications and standardisation of the exchange of information, so that we can tackle not just this problem but a number of other problems that have arisen recently.

In a way, ensuring that women who have been the victims of trafficking know what to expect if they shop the men who have trafficked them is more important than European systems. What can they expect, and how can we help them to know that the state is there to protect them?

That is part of our commitment, not only now, but when signing the convention. My hon. Friend, who has experience of dealing with some of these issues in a ministerial post, will know that. She will also know that the Government have provided something like £2.4 million over the two-year period to continue providing the 25 crisis beds and to extend the service to include the 10 step-down resettlement places to help women live independently, as well as the first ever outreach service for victims of trafficking in the United Kingdom. The POPPY project provides secure accommodation and a range of other protective services for women. I would not like to think that the indication that we are considering before signing—which I hope that we can do—means that we have not been taking practical measures to protect women up till now. I believe that we have, but a lot more needs to be done.

I sense that the Home Secretary is on the brink of announcing that he will sign up to the European convention. We have been urging him to do that and, when he does so, it will be right to welcome the fact. He also knows that we proposed signing the convention as part of a package of measures needed to stamp out the evil trade in human beings. May I return him to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) about his reaction to the report from the charity ECPAT? It revealed the truly deplorable fact that, of 80 children who had been victims of trafficking and had been taken into care, 48 have gone missing and have never been found. He talked about effective action. Does he recognise that signing the convention is an important step forward, but that unless the Government take effective action to guarantee the safety at least of those victims who have been taken into care, this will be a terrible waste of an opportunity to do some good?

First, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that in terms of our compassionate approach and our constructive and benign attitude towards this convention, I do not think that there is any difference between the two sides? The difference is that we are the Government, and we therefore have to try to make sure that we do not, by doing one thing, create problems in another area. He and his hon. Friends will be the first to point out if such problems occur—quite correctly.

Secondly, I take the points that the hon. Gentleman makes very seriously. We will try to make sure that they are addressed in an improving fashion over the period; improvement, as I know only too well, comes slowly, but it comes in substance eventually.