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People Trafficking

Volume 468: debated on Monday 26 November 2007

A comprehensive UK action plan on tackling human trafficking was published in March this year and sets out a range of measures designed to prevent human trafficking, protect and assist victims and investigate and prosecute the traffickers. The nationwide police operation Pentameter 2 was launched in October and focuses on the rescue of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation while bringing to justice those involved in this serious criminal activity.

This is an issue which, as the Minister implied, affects every constituency. Just this week my local newspapers, MK News and the Milton Keynes Citizen, described

“Thai ladies and new Japanese and Chinese girls weekly”.

It is difficult to see how any of those could be legally working in this country. Can the Minister reassure me that the Pentameter 2 operation will be following up adverts like that and checking whether there is evidence that vulnerable women are being trafficked and forced into prostitution?

Pentameter 2 will indeed listen to any intelligence that comes forward about women or others who may be trafficked, including using such adverts to assist its work. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that those adverts are a concern. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I and others met the Newspaper Society, the Advertising Association and others to discuss the very issue that she raised—adverts in newspapers and magazines—to see what more can be done about it.

Will the Minister confirm that if the women who were discovered during a police raid, in which I was involved, on a sauna parlour in Hackney 10 days ago had been trafficked, they will be issued with a temporary residence permit, as he is obliged to do under the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which will come into force on 1 February next? Is he aware that if he issues them with that permit, they are much more likely to come forward to give evidence against their traffickers?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why, as he knows, we are looking to ratify the Council of Europe convention as soon as we can. To do that, we need to have in place all the various measures to ensure that we can legally meet the requirements of the convention. One of those requirements is that we have in place the various measures that he points out. He knows that when we ratify the convention, we will have to introduce temporary residence permits, periods of reflection and so on. We will do that as soon as we can. In the meantime, may I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as he knows from the work that we do together on the issue, we will ensure that support is available for any victims of trafficking who are found through Pentameter 2-type operations or others?

The Minister kindly gave me a parliamentary reply showing that 16 men were convicted for trafficking last year and just 11 had been so far this year. Given that, according to Home Office estimates, 25,000 sex slaves currently work in the massage parlours and brothels of Britain, those conviction figures are derisory.

Does the Minister agree that it may be time to look at the demand side? Frankly, too many dirty old, middle-aged and young men think that by putting down a few pounds they can abuse women, often under the age of 18, who are trafficked into our country and appear in adverts such as the ones in the local papers of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). This is not a sniggering or laughing matter, but a desperately evil aspect of modern slavery. The demand side needs to be tackled; the men should be named and shamed. If necessary, the law should be changed so that they are put in front of the courts.

I do not think that anybody who listened to the remarks that my right hon. Friend has just made so powerfully and passionately would disagree with any of them. The whole House finds how such women are trafficked and used repugnant. The issue for us is what we do about it. My right hon. Friend points out that we need to consider the demand side, and the Government will consider what more we can do on that side of the equation. There have been 67 prosecutions since we passed the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which allows us to prosecute people who traffic women for sexual exploitation. We want that figure to rise and we are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that that happens.

I say not only to my right hon. Friend but to the whole House that the issue is a real priority for the Government. We are considering what more can be done about it and will act as quickly as possible to take the matter forward.

The Minister will be aware that the Joint Committee on Human Rights identified the very real need to treat the victims of sex trafficking as victims. He will be aware that on page 57 of the UK action plan, he accepted that although previously there had been prosecutions of victims for immigration offences, the Government no longer considered that it was in the public interest to do so. If that is the case, will he explain why proceedings are still hanging over two women—victims of trafficking—who are being assisted by the Poppy project? Will he have a word with the Attorney-General’s office so that it is absolutely clear that the Government’s policy is to treat victims as victims and not as criminals?

It is absolutely the Government’s position that victims of trafficking should be treated as victims, and we are trying to establish processes to make sure that that happens. As the hon. Gentleman will know, to ratify the Council of Europe convention one of the things that we have to do is to put in place measures and processes that allow us to identify victims and refer them to the appropriate support. We are in the process of doing that. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we do not wish to treat such people as immigration offenders. If he has concerns about any particular cases, perhaps he will write to me about them.

In my constituency, there is a so-called massage parlour that my constituents tell me is simply a brothel; I am sure that there are similar establishments in many hon. Members’ constituencies. There is no doubt that in that brothel young women are being exploited, possibly after having been trafficked from abroad. However, after months of being told, the police are still finding it difficult to close the place down. Is my hon. Friend absolutely sure that nothing more could be done to provide more powers and resources to the police to ensure that such places are closed down and that the women are rescued from their appalling circumstances?

We know that there is more to be done on this issue. We do not want brothels continuing to operate in the way that my hon. Friend has mentioned. All I can say is that the Government are considering a whole range of measures, including on demand and on what more can be done about the establishments that my hon. Friend has just mentioned.

The Minister will know that his answer is disappointing on the specific point of ratifying the European convention against human trafficking. On 17 October, the Minister for Borders and Immigration said in a written answer to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane):

“some amendments to primary/secondary legislation will be required”—[Official Report, 17 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 1108W.]

The Minister has just agreed with that, so why has the legislation not been produced? Why are police officers like Chief Superintendent Paul Phillipson, the district commander in Peterborough, complaining that if they devote resources to clearing up the sex trade involving women trafficked from overseas, they get no credit from the Government because the Minister’s Department does not make clearing up this type of crime one of the targets that it has to meet? Will he admit that this looks like another case of tough talk followed by a complete lack of effective action?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. He should not underestimate the commitment of this Government—and of this Parliament, it seems to me—to ratify the Council of Europe convention. As many of his hon. Friends recognise, in order to make progress in this area in implementing the various processes that are necessary to ensure that we can ratify the treaty, we do not have to wait for ratification. We are taking this forward in terms of prevention, enforcement and all those matters, not waiting for the ratification process. At a time when people question the integrity and honesty of politicians, I do not want to recommend to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, or to the Prime Minister or to Parliament, that we should ratify the Council of Europe convention before I can honestly say that every single part of the necessary process is in place. As for whether we should get on with it, we are getting on with it.